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'I'd be struggling to get up the stairs and even putting my school pants on in the morning'

Former Tipperary dual underage player Mark Stokes was initially told hip surgery was his only choice if he wanted to return to the field.

Updated Dec 5th 2018, 5:10 PM

MARK STOKES WAS 18 when he was informed that hip surgery was his only option if he wanted to play GAA again. 

Mark Stokes Former Tipperary minor footballer Mark Stokes. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

A dual underage star for Kilsheelan-Kilcash, Stokes played hurling and football with Tipperary from U14 to U16, and at minor level with the footballers, before his hip started to break down through overuse at the start of 2018.

The youngster was involved in several club, county and school teams, before he was eventually hampered with a hip impingement.

Stokes features alongside a number of other players in the documentary, An Taobhlíne, by Midas Productions, which airs tonight on TG4 at 9.30pm. It examines the growing problem of long-term injuries in the GAA and the mental toll they can have. 

“I was 18 and I remember the game when I realised, I have to do something about this,” Stokes tells The42.

“It was an U21 match in February. I was fairly sore in the warm-up and in the first-half it wasn’t too bad. Then I cooled down in the dressing room at half-time and could barely walk on the field in the second-half. That’s when I realised I’d to stop and do something about it.

If I played a match, the day after I’d be crippled. I’d be struggling to get up the stairs and even putting my school pants on in the morning. It was getting the better of me even off the field so something definitely had to be done about it.

“I went to a physio and she gave me rehab and stuff to do in the local gym. I did that for a month or two and then went back and tried to play and just broke down again after a match or two.

“I went back to the physio again and we tried rehab one last time. I did that for another month or so and tried to play again and it was the same result. 

“That was fairly disheartening so we went and got scans. They advised me that if I wanted to play again, surgery was the only option. We just said, ’If that’s the only way to go then it has to be done.’”

An injured player An injured Tipperary player. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A date was set for the youngster to go under the knife, but fortunately for him, his father suggested a trip to Santry Sports Clinic as a final roll of the dice to avoid surgery. Liam Stokes was well aware that the surgical option did not guarantee a return to full fitness and could lead to further problems down the line. 

A former dual player with the county, Liam won minor and U21 hurling All-Irelands with Tipperary in the 1980s. His career was derailed as he underwent six knee operations, while he had both groins and his thigh also operated on. He’s now in need of two knee replacements.

“A couple of weeks before the surgery my father suggested we go up to Santry (Surgery Clinic) just to tick all our boxes and go through all the options and make sure surgery is the only route,” Mark continues.

We went up there and I was a bit apprehensive because I didn’t want any more false hope after trying rehab twice already for three or four months and it going to pot every time. 

“So I went up there and they told us that they could fix it and that it’s a common enough thing in the GAA and they have fixed a good few. They said if I was willing to try eight or ten weeks of a rehab programme, the difference between that and surgery was: Do I want to be playing when I’m 18 with the surgery or do I want to be still playing when I’m 28 by doing the rehab?

“I decided that rehab was probably the best option. I said if the rehab doesn’t work I’ll be in a better place going into the surgery if I have to get it. Thank God the rehab did work and I ended up in a better place because of it.

“Looking back on it now I was blessed to have someone who’s been through all of that and knew that surgery isn’t the best option, especially at 18 to be having surgery so young. If it wasn’t for him I probably would have got the surgery. I was blessed in that way.”

Well-renowned doctors Eanna Falvey and Patrick Carton, who appears in the documentary, have issued warnings in the past about GAA players who are too quick to go under the knife for a quick-fix hip treatment instead of exploring longer-term rehabilitation methods. 

“We had read an awful lot about Dr Carton and he had been highlighting a lot of things that his average age of player has dropped in the last while,” says producer Mebd Johnstone.

“That means that people are catching it (younger) as well, it’s not normal that they would operate on people under 18 either. 

“The rehab is very intense for everybody. It’s a huge amount of time to put in just to either get your functionality back or to get back playing. It’s hard going and it’s a huge amount of dedication – that was the big thing that struck us and how much people love their sport.”

Dr Eanna Falvey Dr Eanna Falvey from Santry Sports Clinic has warned GAA players about choosing hip surgery over longer-term rehabilitation. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Carton treated 17-year-old De La Salle hurler Evan Drohan, who undergoes his second hip operation inside 12 months during the film. 

The 16-week intensive rehab programme Stokes went down ultimately proved successful and got him back onto the field, but he found training in isolation extremely difficult.

“They said eight to ten weeks but I’d say it went onto about 14 or 16 weeks. There definitely were a lot of times where you think about giving up. It was during summer so I had a lot of time so every day it was about two or three hours work on doing exercises in the gym and straight line running.

There were days where you think, ‘If this doesn’t work like the last rehab, I’ll probably just hang up the boots and give it up.’ You’re obviously fed-up with it after eight months or so of not playing. There definitely were a lot of low points.

“When you look at the documentary I’m the only one who actually gets back playing so that probably was the best decision. I’m back training and playing now so it’s going well so far. It has been a good decision and I was really close to not making it. It was only a week before the surgery that I called it off so I’m fairly glad I did in the end.”

He faces “constant rehab” for the remainder of his playing career, but it’s a price he’s willing to play to get back onto the field.

I know it is a pain in the arse sometimes having to do a load of exercises every day but it is a lot better than having to have surgery at this age.”

He returned to play with Mary I Freshers last month and is aiming to slowly build things in 2019 before he hopes to line out with Tipperary U20s the following season.

“The first few times back you’re really apprehensive and kind of half-afraid to run on it and you’re holding back in fear that you’ll feel that pain again and you’ll get injured. So you’re holding back and still not really confident on it. It is a weird feeling because you want to just go out and sprint around but you’re also afraid to feel that pain again.

“It is just confidence and every day just building on it and doing a bit more training or playing that extra few minutes of a match to realise that the rehab has worked.

“I’m uncertain whether to just leave this year and get everything right and focus on my hip or to try and get involved with the (Tipperary) U20s this year. It’s a tough one but I think maybe this year I might just leave it to get everything perfect and right and not overdo it the first year back and end up in the same position I was.

“I’d definitely love to get back playing for Tipp as soon as I can. I’m still underage for U20 in (2020).”

An Taobhlíne airs on TG4 tonight (Wednesday) at 9.30pm

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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