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The second coming of Tom Parsons and Paul Conroy

Both men suffered devastating injuries in the summer of 2018 and they make their first competitive starts tomorrow as Mayo meet Galway in the FBD League.

Updated Jan 11th 2020, 9:42 PM

pjimage (3) Galway midfielder Paul Conroy and Mayo's Tom Parsons. Source: Inpho

IT WAS NINE minutes into the second-half of Mayo’s Connacht championship clash against Galway in May 2018 and Tom Parsons lay on the Castlebar turf writhing in agony. 

His midfield partner Aidan O’Shea stood over him, holding Parsons’ hands over his eyes so he wouldn’t look down at his left leg which was unnaturally angled. His face was contorted in shock and pain. He was screaming.

“Tom, don’t look at it,” O’Shea told him as he waved over to Mayo’s medical team on the sideline.

Moments earlier, Parsons had dispossessed Barry McHugh in a tackle and he challenged Eoghan Kerin who gathered the loose ball just ahead of him. Kerin slid to collect possession and his left shoulder collided with Parsons’ standing leg, which buckled underneath him. 

“The pain was something that I just can’t get my head around,” recalled Parsons. “Now I understand what 10 [on the pain scale] is, this was just excruciating.”

He received treatment on the field for over five minutes before being carted off the field. Mayo fans who witnessed the horrific incident wondered if he’d ever lace up his boots again. 

tom-parsons-receives-medical-treatment Tom Parsons receives medical treatment against Galway. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Two months later, it was another midfielder from a Connacht side that went down with a devastating injury.

20 minutes into the opening round Super 8s clash against Kerry at Croke Park, Galway’s Paul Conroy collided with Sean O’Shea as they contested a breaking ball at centrefield.

On the wet surface, O’Shea’s knees slid into Conroy’s shin bone, breaking both his tibia and fibula. He also a sustained a hairline fracture to his right leg.

“When it happened, I looked down and knew straight away that there was a lump sticking out in an area where it shouldn’t have been,” Conroy said.

“I tried to get up and I couldn’t. I knew then something wasn’t right.”

Play was stopped for a lengthy period as Jones’ Road fell into a deeply concerned hush.

The 29-year-old received treatment from the medical team before he was eventually taken off the field via an ambulance truck. 

Tomorrow afternoon, Mayo meet Galway in the FBD League semi-final.

It’s a significant game because Parsons and Conroy will make their first competitive starts for their respective counties since those devastating injuries from the summer of 2018.

A lengthy and painful rehabilitation process is firmly in the rearview mirror for both men.

Better days lie ahead.

***** 

Scans in the University Hospital in Castlebar revealed the extent of Parsons’ injury: a dislocated knee, three ruptured knee ligaments, torn knee ligament, torn calf and torn hamstring. It looked like a career-ender, particularly for a 30-year-old.

Lesser man might have packed it in, content with a career that annexed three Connacht medals and three starts in All-Ireland finals (including a 2016 replay).

But he refused to countenance the idea of not making it back onto the field.

“That idea doesn’t exist to me,” he said a month after the injury. “Whether I play again or not is just an opinion at this stage. No one has ruled it out from a medical point of view, so I have no reason to think that.

“The best approach is to just focus on the steps back. There’s no point in thinking back to the ‘what ifs’, or the ‘coulda shoulda wouldas’, because there’s no purpose in that.”

The road to recovery was long and tortuous. Three heavy surgeries at Santry Sports Clinic followed over a period of three and a half months. He had grafts taken from his hamstring and quad to reconstruct the knee ligaments, plus a cadaver’s ligament – an Achilles from a deceased donor.

Sleeping proved difficult due to the discomfort. Parson’s wife Carol is a physio, which helped his rehabilitation process. Unable to work, he would spend up to five hours per day rehabbing the injury.

The process involved using an ice machine, electrotherapy machine, getting a soft-tissue massage and then spending around 90 minutes on rehab exercises. He’d often do that twice a day. He wore a brace and was in crutches for four or five months.

“Ever since the injury happened, Tom has been working to get back,” says Diarmuid O’Connor.

“He’s unbelievable, doesn’t leave any stone unturned. To be honest, a lot of people would have said he’d never play on a football pitch again for his club, never mind his county.

“There’s a lot of leaders in that dressing room and Tom is one of them. He’s a great leader on and off the pitch, just giving advice wherever he can. 

tom-parsons-warms-up Tom Parsons warms up during the Super 8s tie against Donegal. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“The work that fella has put in behind-the-scenes has been unbelievable. He’s been training well the last few weeks. It’ll be great to see him back on the pitch this weekend.” 

The sporting community rallied around Parsons during the darkest days. 

He received warm ovations when he arrived at Mayo’s qualifier games that summer.

He was sent a “fantastic, motivating, inspiring letter” from former South African rugby star Jean de Villiers, who recovered from a similar injury to play in the World Cup at 34.

Connacht rugby player Eoghan Masterson was another athlete that endured an injury like Parsons’. Masterson paid a handful of visits to the Charlestown man while he was laid up in Santry to offer his advice and counsel.

“I hope that if I can bounce back from this I can repeat that gesture of goodwill to maybe another guy who’s struggling and I’ll be sure to do that,” said Parsons.

When Mayo began a marketing campaign to sell their 2019 jersey that September, they asked Parsons to don the strip for a photocall.

“A big part of sport is visualising yourself performing, visualising yourself on the big day,” he said that month.

“This week I was afforded the opportunity to put on the 2019 Mayo jersey. When I was asked to do that, I thought, ‘What better way, what better visualisation cue to have than a picture of me wearing the 2019 Mayo jersey?’”

tom-parsons Parsons returned to the Mayo matchday squad last summer. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

One of the most remarkable comebacks in Irish sport was completed when Parsons made Mayo’s 26-man panel for their crunch Super 8s do-or-die clash against Donegal last August. 

“You don’t put someone on the 26 for sentimental value or anything like that,” said James Horan. “So he’s very close.”

He didn’t feature that afternoon but made his triumphant return to the field a week later in the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin. The game was over as a contest when Parsons replaced Seamus O’Shea after 61 minutes in Croke Park but the Mayo fans rose to their feet to give their man a rapturous ovation.

15 months after the horror injury, Parsons was back.

****

By the time the ball was thrown-in for the second period in Croke Park, Conroy was being treated in the Mater Hospital in Dublin. Surgeons opened up his left knee and inserted a steel rod which was screwed in just above his ankle and at the top of his shin to help the bone set.

Conroy was also feeling pain on his right leg and X-rays subsequently showed the hairline fracture to his right leg. 

Immediately after the game, his Galway team-mates Michael Meehan, Gary O’Donnell and Damien Comer were among those to visit Conroy in hospital. 

A secondary school teacher, he was due to begin a new job at Claregalway College that September but the injury delayed his start. But like Parsons, he espoused positive mind frame almost immediately.

“The initial couple of days, it’s more mentally challenging more than anything,” Conroy said a couple of weeks after the injury.

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“You just have to accept that you are not going to be playing any more this year. I accepted that fairly early and I’m just keen to get on with what I can do and control now.

“I can control my mindset and keep a positive mind. I’ll get over it, I will work on it and I’ll be back next year.”

Ireland and Everton defender Seamus Coleman reached out to Conroy in late July, offering advice on the mental side of the injury.

The Irish captain suffered a similar injury to Conroy and returned to club training six months after going down against Wales. “A lot of people were saying to him that he might not ever be the same again, or as be as good as he was,” said Conroy. “But he used that as motivation to come back.”

damien-comer-checks-on-the-injured-paul-conroy Damien Comer checks on the injured Conroy after his injury against Kerry. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

By the following May, Conroy made a successful return to competitive action with his club St James’, scoring 1-5 in the Galway SFC opener against Leitir Móir.

“He was taking it step by step and wasn’t back at full tilt when it started,” St James’ manager Terry O’Regan tells The42.

“He played a lot of the earlier games with us in the full-forward line. Whereas his mobility might have been restricted slightly he was still scoring. In his first game back against Leitir Mór he was superb and very, very accurate.

“He took it slow and proper. He just looked after himself and broke himself back in as best he could. As it progressed had more and more of an impact.”

At 29, many believed it would spell the end of Conroy’s inter-county career.

“People talking were saying that he played so long and wouldn’t have the hunger for it but that’s so far from the truth,” continues O’Regan.

“It’s his life, it’s his way of life since he was underage with us right through to inter-county for so long. He just immediately saw it as a setback and set about recovery and recuperation. That’s the way he was thinking. It just shows his attitude really is impeccable.

“He’s like the consummate professional really. If a young fella broke his leg you’d expect the enthusiasm and that but Paul has shown the same determination and enthusiasm and application and professional attitude that he has all his career really. He showed as much hunger to get back from this as any earlier injuries.

emmet-ocangaile-and-paul-conroy Conroy shrugs off Paul Mannion during the Division 1 final against Dublin in 2018. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“But he was very lucky in that he’s had very, very few injuries really over his career and he’s had a very long career. A lot of people felt that to get such a bad break at that stage that it would really impact on him more.

“He just applied himself to rehab and recovery immediately and right throughout the whole thing he was just focused and he has that ability which is admirable really.”

Conroy battled back to take his place among the Galway substitutes for their round 3 qualifier tie against Mayo last July. 

It was a huge source of pride for his home club to see the midfielder back as part of the matchday squad, even if he didn’t make it onto the field.

“Absolutely,” says O’Regan. “He probably felt in his own head that it was a huge step back, he was maybe thinking long-term that it would be the following year really before he would make any impact.

“It shows the respect that they had for him as well to have him there, the presence on the bench and in the squad. It showed how important a player he is to the county squad that they wanted him there. Maybe not for playing at that time but for his whole presence and the influence he had on the others was a huge boost for them.

“He’s back, he’s back to full form this year and really he’s got his hunger back and seems to be very, very happy with himself.” 

At a time when players are walking away from the inter-county game in their droves and the average age of county squads continues to plummet, Parson and Conroy are two senior statesmen happy to buck the trend. 

Despite sustaining horrific injuries that forced them to miss work and threatened to end their careers, the pair refused to accept the dying of the light and fought their way back onto the field.

Back to where they belong.

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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