The Comeback Kid – Ken McGrath

By John Scally

A man was condemned to share a cell for one night with a deadly snake coiled
taut in the corner. The man dare not sleep, move or even breathe deeply for fear
of attracting the snake’s attention. As dawn lit the horizon, the man relaxed.

In the full light of day, he saw that the snake was but a length of old rope. Many people
have hundreds of lengths of rope thrown in different corners of their minds. Then
their fears begin to work on them. They grow into monsters.

As a boy, Waterford legend Ken McGrath had big dreams. Croke Park All-Ireland
Final day is sacramental, a transcendental experience that calls automatically upon systems of thinking and feeling with a whole undergrowth of behaviour, sentiment and attitude.

It satisfies so much in GAA folk that pines consciously or unconsciously for appeasement – a worthy stop-off on an unfinished and unfinishable journey for heroic feats rendered into the ever-stable currency of sporting legend. In the closets of a child’s mind, a lot of dreams are consumed by thoughts of playing in an All-Ireland final.

However, Ken McGrath has known real adversity. The three-time All-Star hurler
ran a sports shop in Waterford for four years, until like so many others, the economic crash led to its closure in 2011. But the biggest battle of all was coming down the tracks.

“Every family or every person will have their challenges over their career or their
life. I had ten, fifteen years playing with Waterford – loved it, loved every minute of it,” recalls the Waterford legend, who played his final championship game for the Déise in 2010.

“The recession hit and it hit Waterford unbelievably bad. Retail fell off a cliff down in Waterford city and we were probably not in the game long enough to sustain it. The business went. It was a tough couple of years, very tough. We put an awful lot of work into that. Our life and soul went into that for a few years. We knew it was failing in the last year or so, or the last few months, and you’re saying ‘we’ll push on and we’ll drive on’ the whole time.

“When it didn’t succeed, you’re nearly embarrassed putting up the ‘closing down’ signs, or whatever. You know you’ve failed again in something that you tried to put everything into. It was tough going. It was tough financially as well. But I suppose it all paled into insignificance when the heart problems started arising and started occurring.”

Over so many years for Ken McGrath, the games rushed in against each other until if felt a lifetime, but a single day shaded in a proliferation of different colours. While he and his wife Dawn were still coming to terms with the financial implications of being forced to close their business, he underwent surgery at the Beacon Hospital in Dublin.

In December 2013, Ken, at just thirty-six years of age, suffered a brain haemorrhage and ended up spending several months at Ardkeen Hospital in Waterford, after tests revealed an abnormal valve and infection in his heart. Luckily, he made a full and relatively speedy recovery from the extensive surgery that was required the following April.

“It was hard on me then, but it was tougher on Dawn, I suppose. She was at home with the kids and trying to work, whereas I was was stuck in hospital, getting fed every two or three hours, getting antibiotics, no bother. I had an easy enough life just trying to get better. Thankfully I did. The care I got in Waterford and in the Beacon was unbelievable.

“I was in a different place back then than I am now. Thankfully things have turned out for the good. I suppose you don’t give up hope. At times, when the shop was gone, we were struggling, we were under pressure, but we always felt that things would turn and change for us again.” Ken is counting his blessings in this sea of strangeness.

“I think if I had let it go any longer, heart failure was my only option. Thanks be to God, we got to it in time and the lads dealt with it in Waterford, and then up in the Beacon. I’m flying, I’m a new man here. The energy is unreal. I was suffering for a few years (and) I didn’t really know.

I’m probably one of the lucky ones. When you hear stories of young people losing their lives, it would rock you a small bit and it would have you thinking a small bit more about how lucky you are and how much we take life for granted.” The difficulties for Ken are thankfully in the past. It was like the world had been dim and flat and suddenly it is in Technicolour 3-D.

“I am working with my brother Eoin in a coffee business. We were in the right place at the right time. We started the business just as the economic recovery started. People always love coffee! I have two young kids and I am trying to make as much time for them as I can. I am involved in coaching underage teams with the club, but that is all I have time for at the moment. Who knows what could happen in the future?”

After Derek McGrath’s retirement as Waterford manager, the team’s fortunes went into decline. Is Ken optimistic? He looks forward to the start of the championship every year filled with possibility and adventure, but not yet sullied by reality. Anything can happen. With the intensity of a couple newly in love, his passion for the Déise set his very soul ablaze.

“You have to hope. I would like to think we will have our day in the sun again. We can be up there with the best of them.” Since his recovery, Ken has joined the ranks of former stars who have turned to punditry and has climbed the summit as a panelist on ‘The Sunday Game’. “After I retired, I drifted from the game a bit. You do lose contact. I love working as a pundit because you have to keep an eye on what is happening right across the hurling world and it revives the interest.

I enjoy the contact it gives me with legends of the games. I keep away from social media most of the time, but now and again, I use it when I get worked up about some issue in hurling.”

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