KEVIN HINPHEY: Damian’s legacy will endure

I HAD penned an article about the race for the Liam McCarthy cup for this week’s edition but the tragic news from the weekend made that topic seem trivial.

Kilkenny legend Eoin Larkin attended the Kevin Lynch hurling club dinner dance a few years ago as the guest of honour. I was lucky enough to sit beside Eoin in the evening and get the opportunity to have a chat with him. In passing I asked, did he ever find it hard to keep going, implying, how could he find the continued motivation to commit the time and effort needed to compete at the top level?

Eoin was genuinely surprised at the question. His immediate response was more or less, what the hell was I talking about? He explained, every year Killkenny were pretty much guaranteed to be in the mix come the business end of the championship. Croke Park filled with 80,000 people, All-Ireland semi finals and finals. Celebrations where the whole county was joined in jubilation with the team at the heart of everything. The buzz, the adulation, the glory. This was followed by team holidays to all corners of the globe, memories that will endure a lifetime.

As he spoke, it made total sense. What the hell was I talking about? Being a hurler in Kilkenny, Galway, Limerick or any of the traditional powers isn’t much of a hardship.

Being a footballer from Dublin, Kerry or even from the long-suffering county of Mayo isn’t

The rewards are obvious, the perks are annual, all the effort and commitment guaranteed to be met with reward. The big days are going to happen.

I met Derry hurlers Gerald Bradley and Cormac O’Doherty in Dungiven club on Friday evening. They had been at the Derry u-19 hurling final at Kevin Lynch Park, where Sleacht Néill had, depressingly for the rest of us, claimed more silverware. As we were chatting the devastating news about Damian Casey was beginning to filter through. Initially we felt it couldn’t be true, but unfortunately the same report continued to surface, with the ever-increasing likelihood that it was.

I met Damian a few times over the years but wouldn’t by any stretch claim to have known him well. My only interactions with him would have led me to the same conclusion as the many people who have contributed to the huge outpouring of grief and sympathy on social media sites: a really good lad. Damian was by all accounts, unanimously respected, admired and liked by everyone.

I played against Damian in a club game at St Mary’s Killyman a number of years ago and had the opportunity to watch him play on a few occasions over the past few years. After the game in Killyman it was clear he was a special player. Truthfully, we would not have expected to face a player of that calibre in a game against Dungannon or from any club in Ulster, outside a handful of the top Antrim or Down teams. Each time I got to see him, his talent was unmistakable, his class instantly recognisable. His conditioning and skill level was on a par with any player from any county.

Being a hurler from Dungannon and Tyrone is not like being a hurler from Kilkenny or Tipperary. The dedication to really excel, to commit to a lifestyle where you are asked to sacrifice a lot, to train hard on freezing winter nights, to discipline yourself in terms of your diet, the gym work and social life, where your whole life is completely focused around hurling and being the absolute best you can be. That commitment is so much more difficult to give, where the rewards are far less obvious or guaranteed. Damian Casey was the epitome of what it is to be a serious county player playing in the lower tiers.

Tyrone had a massive victory in the Nickey Rackard Cup this year with Damian as captain. The new tiered competitions have been a great success for hurling and ensured that players like Damian have the opportunity to display their talents on a national stage at Croke Park. His scoring tally over the years is truly remarkable, 39 goals and 908 points in 101 games for Tyrone.

There are tough days ahead for Damian’s family and friends, for everyone at the Eoghan Rua hurling club in Dungannon and for the wider Tryone hurling community. Damian’s memory will endure. Unquestionably Tyrone’s greatest ever hurler, hopefully his memory will inspire the next generation of Dungannon and Tyrone hurlers. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

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