I have never been a sports kind of guy. It just isn’t my thing. I was never any good at playing football because I didn’t care enough about the game, or, I didn’t care enough about the game to ever become any good at it. I’m not sure which is the primary truth.
Not that I haven’t tried to care. I’ve attended all kinds of games over the years; soccer, hurling, basketball, gaelic football. As a guy there’s a certain desire to fit into that world of testosterony ball-handling. But no matter how many games I attend I still wind up feeling like Nathan Lane in that scene in The Birdcage where Robin Williams asks him, ”How about those Dolphins?” and he replies, “How do you think I feel; betrayed, bewildered.” (You Tube it.)
I’ve had friends try to explain to me in precise detail just what the hell is going on in baseball (I still don’t get it). I’ve made every attempt at understanding the obsession with American football, and came away convinced that I must be lacking a chromosome or two. I even attended a Superbowl party once upon a time (I wound up getting a haircut that I quite liked. Don’t ask).
Perhaps I’m too cerebral. While everyone else seems to get lost in the unified roar of the crowd I find myself psychoanalysing the players, and, an even more futile exercise, the fans themselves. Don’t get me started on golf.
And yet, over the years I have met some wonderful friends who are not only sports fanatics but some who are arguably the greatest sportsmen in their respective fields. What I have discovered is that the more talented the athlete the more likely I am to feel a certain kinship with them.
What I have discovered is that there is an art to being great in sports. It’s not good enough just to like the game, it’s not even good enough just to be great at the game. There’s more to success than that, in any field. Perhaps what I identify most with is the “drive”, the drive to be the best.
There’s an art to being great. There’s a certain narrative involved. In many ways the story of Hemmingway’s life has endured just as surely as his writing. Would we have remembered Van Gogh if he hadn’t cut off his ear? Speaking of ears; Mike Tyson? Try forgetting Muhammad Ali’s self glorifying poetry (float like a butterfly , sting like a bee) or Brendan Behan’s drinking shenanigans. I doubt we will ever forget Tiger Woods but will it be just because he was a great golfer? I don’t think so.
I just finished reading my first sports biography; Paul Galvin’s, “In My Own Words.” For about a decade Paul was one of Ireland’s greatest footballers. He played Gaelic football for Kerry winning four All Ireland medals and was named footballer of the year in 2009.
I’m not going to even pretend I understand the game. I never once saw him play. But I did read his biography, cover to cover in two sittings. And for the first time ever I understood what it was like to be on the field competing for a national victory in front of a crowd of over eighty thousand screaming football fanatics.
When Galvin writes about each game he takes you onto the pitch with him. It’s impossible not to get wrapped up in the intensity of the battle. You can feel the turf breaking under your feet. You can feel the thunder of his opponents as they race toward him to retrieve the ball. When he wins you taste victory when he loses you feel the fall.
He does not shy away from the controversy that surrounded his career. He had a penchant for being a hot head. He relates one particular episode involving a yellow card and a referee with unflinching self reflection.
Nor does he hide from mistakes he has made off the field of play. He relates a story about an incident where he accidentally struck a student, in the classroom where he was teaching, with such raw honesty, that it is impossible not to admire his willingness to accept full responsibility for his actions.
Perhaps most surprising were the little details he drops revealing his love for fashion; a pair of pants his father wore, a silk tie a fellow teacher stops to show him in the hallway one day, a suit a friend wore on the morning after one of their All Ireland wins. He has been criticized by some of his Irish fan base for this appreciation, I applaud him for it. In a field dominated by testosterone fueled machismo he is courageous enough to not bow entirely to the stereotype. That takes a real man.
I don’t know what I was expecting when I cracked open this book, possibly boredom. But it did for me exactly what I’d always been trying to do when I watched any sport; it helped me understand what it was all about. Paul Galvin succeeded in putting me inside the mind of an athlete, not just any athlete, but a great athlete, and a colorful one at that.
I would expect nothing less from a great author, but from an athlete? There’s a certain greatness in that too. I might even call it art.
He might be retired from the game but rest assured you haven’t heard the last of Paul Galvin, not by a long shot.
I can’t wait to see what he does next.