Ryan O'Dwyer's inspirational triumph over adversity
By John Harrington
Ryan O’Dwyer has always been a tough bit of stuff on the pitch, but the biggest battle he’s ever won came off it.
He was unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time on October 30th last year when he was struck from behind in an unprovoked attack outside a Birmingham night-club.
O’Dwyer and his former Dublin team-mate Maurice O’Brien had travelled to England to attend the Rugby World Cup Final in Twickenham and stopped off in Birmingham along the way.
They had only been in the city a couple of hours when O’Dwyer was assaulted, and suffered fractured skull, a broken jaw, and, most seriously, massive bleeding in the brain.
He spent a week in West Bromwich Hospital, but even after he was finally discharged his road to recovery from the brain injury he had sustained was a long and painful one.
It’s a testament to his own resolve that he not only made a full recovery but was back hurling for Dublin again this year. The way O’Dwyer sees it though, that would never have been possible were it not for the help of others.
"There's a lot of things that can be considered here,” says O’Dwyer. “I consider myself very lucky to be…well, I was never normal in the first place! But to be as normal as I can be. I'm very lucky to be like that.
"The backing I had, especially from the county board, was phenomenal. And especially Chris Thompson – he was our team doctor, and he got me the best medical treatment I could have got. So I'm grateful for all that.
"From a personal point of view, I look at my own life, my family, and they had a horrible time during that period. I actually had the easier time, because they had to put up with me. And especially my fiancée.
"But from a hurling point of view, I wouldn't have got back onto a pitch only for all of them. For Chris Thompson, for the county board. For the players around me – like, I was going to training and I remember the first night that I was training, that I was actually back on the pitch, they were all saying 'Well done, great to see you back.'
"So that drove me on. And it takes the hurling out of it, and it takes the friendship into consideration and the bonds that you build with these lads on the pitch, the county board and also the family.
"I know you say that this year has been a disappointment for Dublin…from a personal point of view it's a massive success for me. So yeah, I try and look at the positives."
Chris Thompson put O’Dwyer in touch with two neurosurgeons in Beaumont Hospital, Dr Mark Delargy and Dr Donncha O’Brien who told him just how serious his injury could have been.
Many people who had suffered similar brain trauma ended up with impaired motor skills or speech, so for O’Dwyer to go back to competing at an elite contact sport like inter-county hurling was a serious mountain to climb from the position he found himself in last winter.
He’s never been the sort to shirk a challenge, but admits himself he worried whether he was doing the right thing by putting his body on the line after such a serious injury.
"I think there were a lot of aspects,” he says. “I was back running for a while before I went back to physical contact, but I think when I went back to the physical contact I was very mindful of it…thinking 'Jesus, I've had my warning, how many bangs am I going to get before I can't take any more?'
"This may sound strange, but the one thing about it is the lads didn't hold back. Especially Niall Corcoran! I remember he hit me one night and I was seeing stars after it.
"But at the start I was building up my confidence – and my teammates gave me that confidence. That I can get a bang but I can still go on. But yeah, I was very mindful of it at the start, especially when I go home and there's a little baby and I want to be there for him. Hurling is a side point when you think of that."
O’Dwyer has always been the sort of player who relishes physical contact and even seeks it out on the pitch, so there was little chance some rough treatment from his team-mates was ever likely to dissuade him.
"I always saw those ones coming, though! Yeah, look, it's part of what I am,” he says. “I swore to myself – and actually Chris Thompson said it to me when I knew I was allowed to go back to physical contact, he said to me 'The best thing you can do is not to hold back, because that's when you do get a bang. And that's your game,' he said, 'you don't hold back.'
"And I said 'Yeah, you're 100 percent right.' When you get to a certain level, you can't forget what got you there. And what got me to hurl at inter-county level is just my attitude – definitely not my skill. It's my attitude, and hopefully it will stay there for another year or two."
It’s less than a year since O’Dwyer suffered an injury that was genuinely life-threatening at the time, but there’s no question that he’s made a full recovery.
If you were in any doubt, head along to Dublin Club SHC Semi-Final on Sunday where you’ll find O’Dwyer putting his body on the line in typical fashion for Kilmacud Crokes against O’Tooles.
He’s always hurled like a man who’s mad for action, but the experience of the last year has made him appreciate the joy of the sport all the more.
"I think every single game I play, I appreciate it,” he says. “Whether it's a challenge...I used to be the worst ever for playing challenges, I hated playing them. But I think every single match I play now, I'm grateful for it.
"Because it's coming up to a year's anniversary of what happened me, but it could have been all taken away there. But it's not; it's there.
"We'll worry about Dublin whenever we go back, but at the moment it's all about Kilmacud and I'm grateful that I can give a bit to Kilmacud because they were great for me in my recovery process."