Gabriel Rangers midfielder Stephen O’Mahony missed two years because of a bad back injury. He told his story to KIERAN McCARTHY
STEPHEN O’Mahony’s L4 spinal disc is sitting at the bottom of his fridge at home in Ballydehob.
The disc rests inside a small tub, wrapped in plastic bags, and while his mother has suggested throwing it out, Stephen, ironically considering it was removed from his back, is still quite attached to it.
‘Not many people can say that their L4 disc is at the bottom of their fridge,’ the Gabriel Rangers midfielder smiled.
‘If you squashed some mince meat from a supermarket, that’s what it looks like.
‘After my surgery in 2014, the surgeon put it in a little tub and gave it to me, and unless oxygen gets to it, it will live forever in this tub.
‘I kept it as a keepsake.’
It’s also a reminder of what might have been.
He’s not going to take it out and have a look at it before this Sunday’s Munster junior club football final against Kerry champions, Glenbeigh-Glencar, but he also realises that he’s lucky to still be playing football.
The 23-year-old admits he was foolish that he didn’t get his back pain checked out earlier then he did in 2014 because it was almost too late when he was diagnosed with a slipped L4 disc in his back.
At the time the former Cork minor and U21 footballer was captain of the Gabriels U21 team competing in the South West championship. He remembers the aftermath of one game in particular, a championship round one win against Clann na nGael on March 8th, when the pain was unbearable.
He knew something had been wrong the previous few months.
Now he knew it was serious.
‘I could barely walk after that game. But I kept going. I kept ignoring the warning signs because I was captain of our team and wanted to put the effort in,’ Stephen recalled.
‘I was genuinely such a fool about this, but when I started getting sciatica and not being able to walk, I knew it had gone too far.
‘To be honest I did the dog on it, I played through some severe pain. I got to the stage where I genuinely couldn’t get out of bed in the morning and genuinely couldn’t put on my socks.’
When Stephen eventually went for an MRI on a Monday morning, his worst fears were realised and two days later, he was undergoing four-hour surgery in Cork University Hospital.
The severity of his situation shocked him.
‘I am six foot seven so I have thinner discs than everyone else. Either through playing or training, I must have got a belt in my back but I neglected it and kept playing through the pain barrier, thinking it would be okay,’ he said.
‘I had a slipped disc into my spinal cord, which was one-seventh of its natural size so I was very close to being paralysed from the waist down.
‘I was very lucky. I had emergency surgery back in April 2014. The surgeon said it was one of the worse cases that he has seen.
‘I broke the filament around the L4 disc, it got ruptured slightly and the surgeon reckoned that happened before the new year.
‘Then I had all January and February training on it, and by the time I had surgery it was badly out of place.’
In fact, his spinal cord had been compressed to about two millimetres and on average the cord is 10 millimetres, Stephen explained, so his cord was at breaking point. The compression was due to the disc compressing upon the nerve.
Rehab wasn’t much fun either, and the Gabriels midfielder, who recently picked up a 2016 Carbery GAA All-Star award for his heroics this season, fell out of love with the game.
The former Cork underage footballer lost all interest.
He didn’t watch inter-county games on television and it stretched to the point that when Gabriels were playing Bandon in the 2015 South West JAFC, he had even forgotten the game was on.
By then, early 2015, he was in college in Edinburgh on a five-month internship for his college course – Government and Public Policy in UCC – before spending the summer in London.
‘When I was away, and I don’t mind saying this, I genuinely fell out of love with the GAA,’ he admitted.
‘I played a bit of football in Edinburgh and London but the heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t have much interest because I wasn’t ready to play.
‘I had 15 months of rehab and I missed two years playing with Gabriels so that was frustrating.’
Once he started his final year of college late last year, he was back in the gym and by January he hit the ground running with Gabriels.
He had got his taste for football back, and he’s enjoyed his best season yet for Gabriels, who have won West Cork and Cork junior A football titles and they’re now in the Munster final this Sunday. It’s the stuff of dreams for the giant midfielder who – touch wood – hasn’t been troubled by back issues this year.
‘After having such serious surgery it’s never going to be 100 per cent again – but it’s good enough for me to play 60 minutes and not think about it,’ he said.
‘I have stretches that I do daily and I swim a lot, but from where I was with it to where I am now, it’s been an amazing recovery but it did take a long time. For 15 months after the surgery I wasn’t right with it. In June last year it started to get back to normal.
‘To be honest, these last few years opened my eyes. When I was a Cork minor and U21, it was football, football, football, training, training, but when you get injured like this, you realise that football doesn’t really matter if you can’t get out of bed in the morning, if you can’t go for a swim, if you can’t cycle.
‘Football is not the be-all and end-all, your health is so important.
‘It was a scary moment and that’s why this year is a lot sweeter because I have come back and I had a lot of people to prove wrong. It’s been my most enjoyable year playing football.’
And this year is not over yet, and it could get a lot better this Sunday if Gabriel Rangers break Kerry’s stranglehold of the Munster JFC and open the door to the All-Ireland series.
If Gabriels do win, O’Mahony will be key, and he will also have to postpone his impending one-year sabbatical in Australia ... again.
‘I am going travelling in Australia. I always said when I was finished my studies that I’d like to move there for a year so I’m going playing for a club called Wolfe Tones,’ he said.
‘I graduated from UCC on October 28th and I was meant to leave on November 14th, but we’ve been in Munster these last few weeks so the flights are now booked for January 16th but if we win on Sunday they’ll be moved back again!’
Stephen would love nothing more than to sign off with an All-Ireland medal but he knows the challenge ahead against Glenbeigh/Glencar this Sunday.
‘We are basically playing intermediate grade with the way that the gradings are so we are playing a grade above us. It’s going to be very tough, they have some top players, Darran O’Sullivan, Pa Kilkenny, and Gavin O’Grady – I played against him when I was minor – so we know we are up against it. But we have been underdogs in a lot of championship games and we’re still winning so we won’t be afraid of anyone,’ explained this Gabriels leader who has seen his team take their performances to a new level this year.
‘There is a lot of belief this year. In the past we might have thought that the big teams like Bandon, Caheragh, Colum’s would get the better of us but there’s no fear this year and the team is a lot more resilient – that’s thanks to Mike (O’Brien, manager), he has instilled the belief and the confidence in us that we feel we can win every match.
‘We beat Leap on August 28th and then we have four weeks off, but since then we have played nine games in 11 weeks and we have only lost one and that was a league match. When you are out every week or every second week, like in a soccer season, there’s a great togetherness there and it’s allowed us to build this momentum. Winning is a good habit.’
Let’s hope Stephen and Gabriel Rangers are back in action – pardon the pun – early in the new year in the All-Ireland club series.