Kilbride and Roscommon footballer Conor Shanagher tells Roscommon Herald Sports Editor Ian Cooney how his promising playing career has come to an abrupt end at just 20 years of age as a result of concussion…
Conor Shanagher harboured aspirations of playing at the highest level. He envisaged a horizon speckled with big matches and heady days in the primrose and blue of Roscommon and the green and white of Kilbride.
Having burst on the scene as a beanpole full-forward during Roscommon CBS’ amazing Hogan Cup run in 2015 — his late goal threatening to shock the warmest of favourites Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne in the final at Croke Park before the Dingle school recovered their composure — being made joint captain of this year’s Roscommon U-20 team confirmed his upward trajectory.
Just over three weeks ago, however, his sporting world collapsed like a house of cards around him. He was advised to quit Gaelic football due to concussion.
It was a bolt from the blue that, in his own words, “still hasn’t sunk in”. It’s only when the training paddock becomes a hive of activity in the New Year that he’ll fully accept that he can no longer influence the sport he loves from a playing perspective.
“I’m still asking myself, ‘is it for real?’ But I can’t ignore it and I have to try and deal with it as best I can. Nobody can stop me from going back playing but the consequences of another one (concussion) could be severe. You weigh everything up and you come to the conclusion that it’s probably not worth it,” he explained.
The talented footballer, who has also dabbled with rugby and hurling, suffered four concussions before he left secondary school. He admits that there may have been “one of two more” that he wasn’t aware of.
A week after producing a Man of the Match performance for the U-20 footballers against Sligo in June, he collided with one of his own players early on during the memorable victory against Galway at Tuam Stadium a week later.
He lay unconscious for three minutes. Yet, as he was carted off to hospital in an ambulance, his only concern was being ready for the following Sunday’s provincial final against Mayo at Dr. Hyde Park.
“I felt grand, rested up for a few days but it was only when I went running with the physio at training on the Tuesday night that it hit me. I was drained, feeling really tired and I had a splitting headache,” he recalled.
He was subsequently ruled out of the game but time was on his side. Club activity had come to a standstill in the county, so he passed all the necessary tests to make it back in time for Kilbride’s remaining three group games in the intermediate championship and the subsequent quarter-final against Oran.
“Midway through the second half, I was involved in another collision. I’m not sure if I was knocked out but I was eventually taken off. I think the Gaels and Pearses were playing afterwards and I stayed to see some of that.
“Then the headache kicked in, way worse than before. I went back to college in Maynooth. All I did was sleep. I had no energy. I couldn’t go to lectures. I came back home on the following Tuesday and eventually went to see Dr (Martin) Daly, and he advised to me to get a second opinion.
“I went to see a neurologist in St. James’ Hospital Dublin. I had already got a MRI scan done in Ballinasloe, which came back clear. At that stage, he was saying that I might have to contemplate giving up the football but when he said he’d see me in a few weeks, I felt everything would be grand.
“When I returned, my memory and reaction test results were much better. Then he hit me with the news — change the way you play or give up the game you play.
“I couldn’t believe it. You can’t change the way you play so he was basically telling me to hang up the boots. I had suffered two concussions in the space of three months and the recovery periods were getting longer. I was just in shock,” he continued.
Unlike limbs and muscles, the brain doesn’t recover and Conor was made fully aware that another concussion could lead to a serious trauma with life-changing consequences.
“I was devastated. I had played different sports but I was fully focussed on the football. I had one goal, and that was to play senior football for Roscommon,” stated the final year Arts degree student in Marketing and Business Management.
While Conor was naturally crestfallen, he also felt a great deal of sympathy for his parents Sandra and Padraig who have watched him realise his potential to the point that he was ready to make the step-up to adult football at intercounty level.
“It was just as tough on them because they had seen the work I had put in to get to this point. To be told to give something you love up at just 20 years of age was ridiculous. But they knew what could go wrong if I kept going. We discussed it and wondered was it really worth it?”
As part of his marketing module in college this term, Conor penned a blog about his experiences on social media, and he has been blown away by the reaction.
“I suppose I didn’t really know how to deal with the news at first but I did a few blogs and was surprised by the reaction. I wanted to tell my story, even though it’s still very raw, and if it means that a few young people learn something from my experience, then that would be something,” he suggested.
As a professional sport, rugby has cleaned up its act when it comes to concussion. On the field, players that take a bang to the head are immediately sent for a HIA (Head Injury Assessment). However, Conor feels that the GAA has a long road to travel in terms of taking the issue seriously.
“I think it’s swept under the carpet a bit (in the GAA). It’s like, sure he got a bang on the head, as long as he’s able to play on or be ready for the next game, he’ll be grand.
“Because it’s an amateur sport, someone might get concussed during a game and they’ll be back at work the next morning.
“I just think that every coach at club level needs to be educated about it because it really is that serious. Workshops could be organised to explain how concussion can be treated and what the consequences might be.
“I suppose I’m the example of what actually can happen. I’m 20 and it’s the end of the road for me. This stuff can and does happen. This is the real world,” he highlighted.
Not that Conor Shanagher is going to sit at home and feel sorry for himself. His outlook on life, and sport, remains positive. He’ll keep himself fit in the gym and he’ll wander down to Kilbride GAA Park in the New Year to have a kickabout with his team-mates when training resumes.
For now, going to the bother of highlighting the impact of concussion on his young life represents maturity far beyond his years and is set to leave a lasting legacy.