PHILLY MCMAHON VIVIDLY remembers the first time he really opened up to the public and told his story. And the story of his brother John.
Not just the story of John’s addiction and death; the story of his life, their relationship and the different choices the two brothers made along the way.
That was in 2015, and he’s told it countless times since then. Media interviews, events, speeches in clubs, schools, you name it.
“I was being asked to speak at a lot of events and tell my story to a lot of people,” he told reporters as he launched National Fitness Day in Dublin last month.
“I was getting a lot of people coming up to me, asking for help but I just couldn’t help everybody as much as I wanted to. So, I think this is a way of getting my story out to a wider audience and hopefully it will help people.”
This, he speaks of, of course, is his new book The Choice.
He’s aware that everyone, well most people, know the story by now and is conscious not to rattle on about it. There’s only so many times he can tell the same story. It’s all there, in one place and between two covers, for people to turn to whenever they want to.
Writing the book itself though, actually putting pen to paper, was huge.
In the thick of Dublin’s bid for three-in-a-row, he had to keep his new venture to himself. Written with Niall Kelly, the Deputy Editor of The42, the pair had to meet almost secretly, and keep everything between themselves.
They gathered the information they needed and when the time was right, approached the people they needed to approach — his parents, John’s friends and others who shaped his life.
The whole process, he says, has helped him grieve. He hadn’t fully come to terms with John’s death and he’s just realising that now. That whirlwind of emotions that he had been bottling up over the five years or so, were emphatically released time and time again, through these different conversations.
“Because there’s not many Dublin footballers that do books and we were in season, I had to kind of be careful,” he tells The42 when he calls into our Dublin office on a Wednesday afternoon.
“I didn’t want to interrupt any of the other lads throughout the year. I didn’t want anybody going ‘Philly, your focus is on writing a book, not on the championship’. So I couldn’t tell many people. I couldn’t even tell some of my family about the book.
“When we were chatting away with my mam and dad, I certainly didn’t expect the feelings that I got. It was just a whirlwind of emotions, of happiness, sadness, anger, everything. All of the emotions in the one conversation.
“But ultimately, what it came down to, every time we had these conversations was happy memories. That’s very important, it was very important to be aware of that.
“I didn’t realise I was grieving and I didn’t realise that it would help. It was huge. It helped massively.
“John had a couple of friends that passed away, so did I, from drug overdoses. First of all to see some of his friends that came through addiction was very inspiring, and then to hear some of the stories.
“They were stories that I had in my head, I could just picture John doing these things and I was like ‘Yeah, that’s him’. They were very powerful, definitely.
“Some of the things were eye-opening. Certainly, when he took his first hit of heroin. He was 14/15, we didn’t realise that, you know.”
A deep and philosophical character, McMahon’s book isn’t split into chapters but instead three bigger sections — the first half, half-time and the second half.
He uses a lot of analogies. He’s said it before, and he’ll say it over and over again: “If my life is a match, then how well did I play in that match?” The half-time talk — which he’s named his charity — has a huge influence on how that match goes.
The half-time section in The Choice is all about John’s death. And that was Philly’s half-time talk.
“We all have them,” he continues. “The thing is in life, everybody has adversity.
“The people that actually go through adversity are the ones that will be able to deal with life, if they’re stronger, they’ll be able to deal with life better.
“Half-time talk is essentially when.. it could be a bereavement, a mental health issue, divorce, it could be you lose your job, something negative, something that creates adversity, but that changes the way you think.
“John was my adversity, John was my half-time talk and I would have liked for somebody to tell me ‘Before something happens here, you should be living a better standard of life’. I was living a good standard of life, I wasn’t living a bad one.
“What could I do more? That was the question. You can always do more, you can always strive for more. If that’s 1% better each day, or going after one thing you didn’t believe that you could achieve, that’s where growth is, isn’t it? That’s where you step outside your comfort zone.”
And why The Choice? In the book, he recounts how the opportunities and choices sport afforded him sent his life in a very different direction to that of John.
It’s a very basic concept, he continues, but one which isn’t called upon often enough.
“The Choice, our thoughts, it’s such a simple thing but so underutalised in life. Ultimately our thoughts and our feelings create our actions. We want to create a positive life, yet we don’t really attract positive things.
“The Choice is about actually saying to yourself ‘If I want to feel positive, and I want to have a positive life, I have to make The Choice to do that’. It’s just a thought. It’s switching your thought, that’s as simple as it is.
“When you feel bad, it’s switching your thought. Certain things and certain triggers will help you do that, and one of them is gratitude. It’s being grateful that you can do things in life, that you have a roof over your head, that you have food, the basics.
“If you’re grateful for that, you’ll live a very happy life. Money, fame, everything else doesn’t really matter to you.”
The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why — Mark Twain.
McMahon is a firm believer in that quote, and it’s something he often brings it up in media interviews. He certainly knows what he’s here to do. To help people.
“I’ve done it since I was 17, I opened a gym. I started helping people, and I started enjoying that. I did it for money, because it was a company, and I suppose I didn’t realise at that time, what I was doing.
“But when I started speaking in 2015 about John and addiction, I seen the reaction it had and response people had, that certain people wanted to get that question out there in the public.
“I still get people that are quite famous texting me saying they’ve got family members [suffering from addiction] that nobody ever hears about.
“So I think it’s changing the stigma in society and making sure that we can break down that barrier that others can actually say ‘Ok, if I talk I’m going to help others as well’.
“I think when you get to the stage where you have a platform of sport that can help others, it’s very powerful. Especially with the luck. I’m very lucky that I’m with a Dublin team that have won what we’ve won.
“It’s very important for me to look back on my career and say ‘I done more than play football’, that I actually helped a lot of people. That’s what I want to have, that’s what I want people to talk about when essentially I’m gone, is that I helped people. That’s all I want to be remembered for, if I’m honest.”
Speaking of sport, and using the platform of sport to help others, McMahon uses it to its full advantage. That Dublin jersey, he’s earned it, and he’ll use it to help others.
On and off the pitch, he admits, he’s very different. People that know him say he has a bit of an alter ego. When he crosses the line, he’s an aggressive, tenacious player but away from the field, he’s a ‘bit more positive and nice,’ he smiles.
Playing the way he plays though and helping Dublin to further success, his profile gets bigger and he can reach out to more and more people.
“A lot of people outside of Dublin would probably see this book and say ‘Oh this is Philly McMahon, a Dublin player, I don’t want to buy it’. But it’s not really about that.
“This book is about helping people, no matter what colour jersey you have. That’s the main message that I want to get out there, that it’s a book for helping people, it’s not a book about sport.
“There’s a bit of sport in it, I am a sporting person. It’s important that people realise that. There’s loads of stuff in it, it’s not just about addiction. It could help some kid to go back and repeat their Leaving Cert.
“For me, there’s so much positives in it. Even to the people that I see reading it, friends, seeing their faces when they’re reading it, that’s a positive. Family members, it’s huge. Little mentions like that have a massive positive effect.
“Essentially, if I don’t have my footballing career, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do this.”
Away from his hectic footballing career with Dublin and Ballymun Kickhams and writing books, McMahon runs his aforementioned charity and two businesses — his gym BeDo7 Fitness and healthy food provider FitFood Ireland.
It’s all go, but he’s well capable of balancing everything. When it’s put to him, the first thing he mentions is his support networks, his family, his girlfriend, his team-mates and management, his staff. They all make it possible.
But then again, his own attitude and motivation make him stand out from the crowd too.
“Look, you only get one shot at life. The only thing is about time, you can’t buy extra time. You have to deal with what you have now. It’s only when you have somebody around you that’s very ill that you realise how much more you can get out of yourself.
“My Dad’s very ill at the minute and since that, I’ve won an All-Ireland, I’m in a club championship final with Ballymun, I’ve launched my book, I’m about to launch my charity, there’s other projects that I can’t say just yet that are happening with my businesses, because they haven’t been announced.
“Although people think ‘Jesus, how do you get the time to do it, Philly?’ I’d question the other people and say ‘Just imagine the stuff that you could do with the time that you have’.
A little over three months ago, his father Phil was diagnosed with cancer of the stomach. There have been bad days, some worse than others, but there have also been good ones.
He was in Croke Park on the third Sunday of September to watch his son win his fifth All-Ireland title and see the Dublin players get their hands on Sam Maguire for the third consecutive year.
McMahon has said since that it was probably ‘a bit more special’ than the previous four Celtic Crosses he’s pocketed for that very reason. And because ‘who knows?’
He finds himself with another shot at glory on Monday, this time with his club Ballymun. They face St Vincent’s in the Dublin senior championship final, a challenge he’s relishing.
“A Vincent’s-Ballymun game is no different to looking at a Dublin-Mayo game,” he smiles during the video interview before our conversation.
Everything always comes back to the club. And how special would it be to win the county title with his father watching on again?
His eyes glaze over slightly, but he gathers himself. The philosophical Philly comes to the fore again. Football is just a game at the end of the day.
“Look, it’s amazing that we’re in the final, don’t get me wrong. But I think we understand that sport is only a small part of life.
“There’s no pressure on the lads to be going into this game to win for anybody that’s ill or sick, though it would be massive motivation and it would be amazing to see us winning the cup with my dad there, but it’s only a small part of life.
“It’s great to be able to play football with your mates and at the end of the day, that’s all. We’re going into play a very good St Vincent’s team. We’ve really nothing to lose. They’re the favourites, they’re the team that have bet us over the last couple of years.
“We’ve nothing to lose, we’re just going to go out and enjoy it.”
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