Dublin: 13°C Sunday 20 June 2021
Advertisement

'He read it and said: 'Tony you cannot publish this. If you do people will think you're weak''

Tony Griffin’s 2010 autobiography helped break the mould as an Irish sports star discussing his mental health. Now his new book is aimed at teenagers.

FORMER CLARE STAR Tony Griffin once cycled 7,000km across Canada for cancer charities, raising €1 million as a tribute to his late father Jerome. 

Tony2 Tony Griffin.

He regularly commuted back from Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he studied, to line out with Clare. In 2006, he became hurling’s first modern full-time hurler and picked up an All-Star for his performances that season.

His courageous 2010 autobiography Screaming at the Sky depicted how he faced his demons at a time when high-profile athletes speaking about mental health was a far more taboo subject.

It came five years after Dessie Farrell broke new ground in his candid book Tangled Up in Blue that depicted how playing at the top level contributed to the chaos in his private life and led to suicidal thoughts.

Griffin opened up about the breakdown he suffered after the cycle and how he found a way back.

“There’s parts of it where I talk about an unplanned suicide attempt where I just said I can’t take it anymore and wanted to step out in front of a bus in Novia Scotia,” he told The42 this week. 

“I laid it all out bare and said if people think I’m all those things that man said they were going to think, so be it. I stopped trying to prove myself to people at that stage.” 

Griffin and then CEO Farrell were instrumental in developing the GPA’s mental health programmes which remain one of their most important functions.   

It arrived after a conversation the pair had about their battles with depression.

“It can’t be just us, Dessie,” Griffin told his close friend.

The Jim Stynes documentary Every Heart Beats True about the Dubliner’s work with The Reach Foundation in Melbourne inspired Griffin to co-found the Soar Foundation in 2012.

The non-profit organisation seeks to bring out the greatness in teenagers and help them navigate those difficult years.

“It shows him working with teenagers. I remember just seeing the work he did and going, ‘There’s something about that that I need to investigate.’

“I sold my car to fund it and went down to Melbourne with another fella and we just studied what Jim had created which was Reach.” 

So after listening to around 50,000 teenagers across schools in Ireland, Australia and the US talk about their lives over nine years with Soar, he put pen to paper again and wrote The Teenager’s Book of Life. 

*************************

cork-v-clare Tony Griffin celebrates a score for Clare. Source: SPORTSFILE

What motivated you to write a book in the area of mental health for young people?

Tony Griffin: “How far back do you want to go? As a teenager myself, hurling was my outlet. When I wasn’t on a hurling field I felt awkward and unsure of myself and didn’t like who I was. But when I played hurling I felt different.

“I kept saying to myself, ‘If I had this (book) at 16, Jesus my life would have been very different.’ I had a good childhood and a great upbringing. It was quite idyllic. Pucking a ball along a road to my best mate’s house and then staying out as late as I wanted because the two of us would be playing imaginary All-Ireland finals in his garden up to 12 or 13.

“I definitely found those years at times lonely and unsure. Then when I was in my late 20s I had a breakdown and I just look back now and say there were a few things that led to that. My father’s passing, then trying to go perform and play in Croke Park or the Gaelic Grounds and pretend everything was okay.

“Just the weight of that grief and not saying anything to anyone, that’s probably where it stemmed from. Because you just don’t talk to anyone about it you just let it drag on.” 

Looking at this book and your work with Soar, there’s clearly something about teenagers that fascinates you. You’ve mentioned in interviews before that they’re underestimated and are wiser than we give them credit for. They’re used to parents sugarcoating the realities of life, when in fact coming at them with honesty almost disarms them.

TG: “I know how teenagers are usually treated, they’re talked at. They’re not this perfect species but they are spoken to in a way which I think is a hangover from (the idea) that children should be seen and not heard.

“Teenagers have an amazing judgement radar. If they feel you’ve started to look at them and your eyebrows start to squint a little bit and you say ‘what are you saying?’

“They will shut you down and every parent knows this, they’ll give you as much as they think you’re able for. They don’t even know they’re doing it I think but they can register a person’s openness and how much judgement they can handle and they’ll give you as much as they think you can handle.

“I would have seen teenagers speak so much about things like, ‘I know mam and dad fight, they try and hide it. Why don’t they just tell us that their relationship is in a difficult place? We can see it. We’re watching stuff on the internet and Netflix, we know what relationships are like so why pretend we’re babies why insulate us from the reality of life?’

“I met one girl, she’s in the book, she basically nursed her mother then went to school and then she had to sit and be talked to like she was 12. 

“I think what I’m trying to say is there’s a gap between teenagers and adults and there needn’t be because we’re a lot more similar than we realise.

“We’re going through the same things, maybe it’s more heightened when we’re teenagers because our emotional brain is starting to fire. But we’re experiencing life so I wanted to try and bring them both together. 

“Parents that read the book will say to me, ‘Jeez, I never though to talk to Johnny like that, do you think he’d be able for it?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Well I was listening to 50,000 of them talk and the minute you start to listen is when they feel someone is being real with them. So keep talking to them like a child if you want.’

“The other thing on that is sometimes we try and insulate them from pain and we underestimate what they’re actually able for. And they’re able for more than we think and the less we insulate them from pain and realities, the better prepared they’ll be for life. So that’s probably one of the things that stick out most.”

unnamed

Do you think you’d have reacted differently to your father’s death in 2005 had you read this book at 16?

TG: “One of the things I’ve come to realise is we’re all inundated with advice about how to live our lives. Wim Hof says it’s ice water, someone else says it’s stretching in the morning.

“We’ve so much advice about how to live our life that sometimes all we need to know is that it’s going to be alright. And you find your way. Don’t rely on anyone else’s way. It’s yours to find your own.

“I think what it would have done is reassured me. I had two teenagers read it as I was writing it and they kept coming back and saying, ‘It feels like you’re just writing exactly to me. It’s for me. It’s just letting me take a deep breath and say you know what it’s going to be alright. It’s actually going to be okay.’

“I didn’t want to give too many tips even though there’s loads of tools in the book. I just wanted to present something and say, ‘Think about this and be open to it.’ But yeah, it would have helped me a lot.”

It’s almost 12 years since you wrote Screaming at the Sky, which came out at a time when it wasn’t common for sportspeople to openly talk about their mental health. How do you reflect on the book now, because it did break the mould a little bit in terms of athletes in Ireland openly talking about this sort of stuff?

TG: “I’m very proud of it to be honest. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, it was very hard because it was 2009. TJ Flynn is a great writer. He wrote Princes of Pigskin about Kerry footballers. He’s obsessed with Bob Dylan, so like anyone that’s obsessed with Dylan is usually an artist. 

“We were on a flight to Texas and he was breaking up his girlfriend at the time, he was going out with her for 10 years and he hit the drink hard. He said, ‘I’d love a pub because I know I’m going to spiral when I go home.’ I said, ‘Will you read diaries of mine? I think there’s a book in it about my father.’

“He read them and said, ‘Tony this isn’t about your father, this is about trying to perform at this level but being so human.’ 

“So we sat down and started putting it together. I remember a family friend, I just asked him if he’d read a piece of it. He read it and said, ‘Tony you cannot publish this. If you publish this people will think you’re weak. I’m cautioning you, this is not good for you.’ 

“You don’t do that kind of thing was basically what he said. And I remember thinking to myself if I listen to him it’s going against everything I believe this book is meant to do. So we just ploughed on.

“TJ and I kept saying to each other that if we feel like we’re being heroic about who I am we’re failing. When it came out I took a deep gulp and said, ‘Oh my God, how is this going to go?’  

“People would say to me, ‘It’s the first sports book I’ve read where I couldn’t put it down.’ The only books I read like that was Rough Ride by Paul Kimmage and Tony Cascarino’s book where he talks about staying up watching midget porn after coming in from training with Marseille. I just felt it was so honest.

“So reflecting on it now, it’s out of print. (Penguin) Random House have given me the rights to republish it back. So hopefully I’ll do that in the next while because people come to me and ask where can they get it. I’d say you physically can’t get it unless you find someone who has one.” 

Lance Armstrong wrote the forward for your book, you’ve been to his home, taught him about hurling and raised over $250,000 for Livestrong after you cycled across Canada. This all happened before the doping scandal. He’s clearly a fascinating character, how did you meet and what did you make of him?

TG:“How I met him is I was at a party in Canada on New Years Eve. I had planned a cycle. I’d just won the All-Star and decided I was going to cycle across Canada the next year. It was still a new thing, I wasn’t telling many people. I’d specifically not gone home at Christmas because I knew they’d talk me out of it.

“At this party I got talking to this guy called Bruce Mansour. He was a character. He asked me, ‘Who are you giving the money to?’ I said I’d like to give it to Livestrong but I didn’t really know how to get to talk to anyone in there. 

“He said, ‘This is crazy. Last week I had a cigar with someone in a cigar lounge and he knows Lance. I’ll be back to you.’ I thought I’d never hear from him again.

“He rings me up the following week, ‘Hey buddy, I got that Lance inbetweener guy. He’ll meet you.’ So we went to a cigar bar in Halifax. I’d never even smoked a cigar. I was sitting in these big leather chairs and the guy is an oil and gas tradesmen.

“He said, ‘Yeah I know the head of the foundation and we’ll get you to meet Lance.’ So I thought it was never going to happen. But the morning we launched the cycle Lance sent a video from their team bus. We were able to play it.

“The he kind of got interested in it. I couldn’t get any bikes from Trek, I was trying to get them to sponsor it. He heard about it and said, ‘Come down to Texas.’ So I flew down to Texas, spent a day with him cycling around.  

us-anti-doping-agency-to-strip-lance-armstrong-of-7-tour-titles Lance Armstrong. Source: ABACA/PA Images

“He reminded me of a few people I’d played with, who will win at all costs. That day there were gigantic security guards on a bike, his agent Bart Knaggs. At one stage he turned around to him and said, ‘Bart, Trek won’t talk to Tony. Tell them I want them to give him whatever he wants.’ Sure enough the following Tuesday I get an email from Trek: ‘We’re in. What do you need?’ So he was able to do that kind of stuff. 

“We got back to the house and he said to the TV guys, ‘I want to bring Tony inside.’ There was a bit of everyone looking at each other because he usually never does that. So we just kind of got on. I knew what I was dealing with, I knew after five minutes.

Be part
of the team

Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership.

Become a Member

“Of course I’d followed the Tour, I went over and saw it, I knew about the culture. I just said to myself, ‘If doping is as widespread as they say well then he’s going to be the best at it.’ And that transpired to be the case. 

“But he brought me into the house and showed me so much. He couldn’t do enough for me. Then during the cycle I got a few texts from him and we stayed in touch. I went back down again because we raised a quarter of a million dollars for Livestrong. We met them again and I spent a bit of time in Texas with him.

“Then routinely people would write to me and ask me for Lance to write to their loved ones. One man in particular, he was dying in Nova Scotia. He had two young boys and his wife wrote to me and said, ‘It’s just a matter of can we get him to hang on longer so he has more time with the boys. Could you get Lance to do something?’

“And Lance wrote a beautiful letter to her and just encouraged him to hold on as long as he could. So it’s funny. Everyone knows him as a villain and the way he treated people but also then I know what he’s done for people who needed it so badly and he was able to say, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that for them.’” 

If everyone else was doping, he was so competitive that he wanted to be the best at that too.

TG: “If you look into his background…There’s a reason for everything. His psyche is such that the world was against him and his mother. Whether it was his father leaving or then his step father beating him, there’s a reason he is as driven to prove himself to himself as he is. If someone has that much of a desire, need and addiction to prove himself as worthy to the world when they have felt unworthy for so long and neglected and orphaned. They’ll do whatever it takes.  

“If doping was widespread, Lance was going to be the best at it. If that meant bullying people to do it then he was going to do it. But there’s also the other side. No man is so black and so white that we can only have….if we don’t see the grey we’re avoiding the complexity of the human condition.”

You spoke recently in the More Than a Runner podcast about your regret at not enjoying your inter-county career as much as you felt you should have. Was it the big games you didn’t enjoy or just the pressure and all-consuming nature of being an inter-county hurler? What was it you felt you should have embraced more?

TG: “It’s a good question. Looking back, I think going to Nova Scotia was good for me because I got to train on my own terms. I’m a fairly independent person. I’m very curious and independently minded. So I found the collective nature of it at times difficult.

“It’s funny I’m writing a piece at the moment on my first year on the panel and my experience of Ger Loughnane. I look back and say the first two years was just to try and hold to this fast-moving train and not get kicked off. Then there were three or four years where I realise I’m actually going to play at this level. It’s not just hope.

“Then it was really only in 2005/06 where I said, ‘Jesus, I can produce a fairly good performance every day.’ I can get three to five points every day. And this comfort set in. So then when my father died in 2006 I came back and played full time.

“In some ways that was the year I enjoyed most because I really got to spend time at the game and I was a lot less nervous coming up to the games because I realised that I was in great condition. Then obviously I did the cycling in 2007 and that kind of ended my career in a lot of ways. 

“How would I have enjoyed it more? I probably would have been more patient with myself not to treat every game like this was a reflection of who I am and what I’m worth.

“I read a lot about Jonny Wilkinson the year I was off. He reminded me so much of myself. The obsessiveness where you almost don’t let any enjoyment creep into the picture in case you get complacent.

“I think looking back I should have said to myself, ‘Didn’t play great there. Okay, that’s that. Now we’ll move on and we’ll look to the next day.’ Rather than say, ‘Fuck it. Jesus, maybe I’m not cut out for this.’ 

“So I’ve learned over the years, that’s why there’s a chapter in the book that’s how to manage that voice in your head that’s so petrified that it almost is a self fulfilling prophecy and gets the thing you fear because it’s so frightened. Did I enjoy it? Yes, I loved the training.

“I suppose what I should have done is…it’s almost impossible but realise it’s going to end and say to yourself, ‘Relax man, enjoy this. It’s going to be over so quickly you don’t even realise it.’”

dessie-farrell-and-ciaran-kilkenny-celebrate Dublin manager Dessie Farrell embraces Ciaran Kilkenny after the 2020 All-Ireland final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Dessie Farrell, who you’d know fairly well from your GPA days, wrote an autobiography that was groundbreaking in that he discussed his battle with depression a few years before you did the same. What’s your relationship like with him now? 

TG: “Dessie, I’m fortunate to consider both him and his wife as friends. I was at their wedding in Portugal. 

“The thing about Dessie is he is like a lighthouse. He’s always trying to shine the light on someone else. He’s been around so he’s coy enough. He’s probably had his fair share of being battered by life so he’s aware of how it all plays and how the GAA world works. 

“Look, I haven’t even asked him about their training and I was only talking to him last week. I’m curious about it. Because in some ways if he did plan it, it’s not like him. Because Dessie is one of the most caring, gentlest people I’ve met.

“He’s so compassionate. It’s no surprise he was a mental health nurse and he talks about that a bit. I think because at times – like we all do – he feels people’s struggles. But he’s a great person, a great friend. If I needed someone I know he’s the type of person I would call on and know he’d be there as a friend but also I’d say he’d be a great fella to play for.”

You could see in his embraces with the Dublin players on the field after the All-Ireland final that he’s very different to Jim Gavin. Jim was more standoffish while you can see the players have real affection for Dessie and he’s probably a lot closer to them.

TG: “Totally. What I’m saying to you about Dessie, people would feel comfortable around him because he is so honest. I’d say the way he operates with them is he brings out their best. Dublin couldn’t have hoped for a better successor to Jim because he does the human bits very well.

“Not in order to get a performance but because he actually genuinely cares about those fellas and sees their humanity and wants to help them. But he also knows how to be – not even ruthless – but just direct and say what needs to be said.

“Those embraces, like you when I saw them embracing each other, I said, ‘Well they’re real. Those lads were giving those hugs and they were felt.’ They weren’t thinking I better do this. They’d more than respect Dessie. They’d feel very safe around him I would say and seen by him.

“I’d love to be playing for a fella like Dessie. Because he gets human frailty so much that he sees it but he doesn’t judge it. He sees the potential beyond it.”

The Teenager’s Book of Life by Tony Griffin can be purchased on https://theteenagersbookoflife.com/

About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

Read next:

COMMENTS (4)

This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel