Jamie Wall: 'It's like looking back at a former life'
By John Harrington
Summer has come and passed
The innocent can never last
Wake me up when September ends.
Drenched in my pain again
Becoming who we are
As my memory rests
But never forgets what I lost
Wake me up when September ends
Given the context, the lyrics to Green Day’s ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ had an extra poignancy when they were played in a Croke Park conference room last Saturday.
The song sound-tracked a DVD former Cork dual-star Jamie Wall had put together as part of his presentation - ‘From Where I was to Where I am: Developing Coaching Expertise’ - at the 2017 GAA Games Development Conference.
Wall, 24, has been confined to a wheelchair since June 2014 because of cruel twist of fate.
Just three days after winning a Munster intermediate hurling title with Cork, he was rushed to hospital in an ambulance when a dull pain in his back that had been bothering him for a number of days suddenly flared into something much sinister when the power started draining from his legs.
He didn’t know it yet, but he had developed an infection on his spine that would immobilise him from the waist down.
Wall was meant to be captaining his club Kilbrittain against Valley Rovers in the second round of the Cork Intermediate hurling championship that day, but his condition worsened so quickly that he didn’t have time to tell anyone he wouldn’t be there.
Two of his team-mates on the way to the match were passed out by an ambulance, oblivious to the fact the person it was rushing to hospital was Wall.
He has missed many more matches he should have played since then, and that’s why the video he played as part of his presentation on Saturday was so poignant.
It contained clips of him playing as a youngster in the Sciath na Scol, right up to representing Cork underage teams in both codes and winning a Cork intermediate hurling Final with his club.
As the reflected glow from the tv screen flickered on Wall’s face, you had to wonder just what sort of emotions those mementos of former glories churned up?
“It is almost entirely like looking back at a former life,” Wall told GAA.ie afterwards.
“It's like looking at a different person. Maybe that's the wrong thing to say, maybe it's the right thing to say, but it's just the way it feels when you're looking at it.
“Not so much in a bad way, I suppose you just have to acknowledge where you are and how different things are. Looking back on these things then can take on that feeling of, 'Jesus, it is like looking back at a former life'.
“By and large, I wouldn't still have the DVDs with those clips if they were more negative than they are positive.
“The other day when I was going through picking out the clips I was looking at a lot of footage and that was a mixed back of an experience.
“You're looking and you're smiling and you're laughing, and then something comes across the screen that maybe makes you feel a small bit nostalgic.
“In a positive way, it can almost throw you a small bit. That wistful smile you might have thinking, 'Jesus, that was great'.
“And obviously that in itself is a mixed emotion because it's something that you're not experiencing right now. But it's obviously something that can't be taken away from you either. You have these memories and in the age of today you're lucky enough to have a lot of them on film. They're there forever.”
Until his illness, a huge chunk of Wall’s life revolved around playing hurling and gaelic football. So when they were taken away from him, much of his very identity was hollowed out.
The realisation of just how much he’d lost and how keenly he felt that loss only fully hit home ten weeks after he feel ill when he was allowed out of Beaumont hospital for a day to visit his Auntie in Dundrum and watch Cork play Tipperary in the All-Ireland SHC Semi-Final on her television.
As the game progressed he grew more and more irritable, and his darkening mood wasn’t simply index-linked to Cork’s second-half collapse.
Instead, it was the sight of Tipperary playing so well and the realisation he could no longer aspire to be part of a team-performance like that himself at an elite level that brought down a dark veil of despair.
He managed to keep his emotions in check until he got back to his hospital room, but as soon as the door closed behind he broke down completely.
As he was consoled by a young nurse from Wexford, Wall cried his heart out as he mourned what he had been taken from him.
In the following weeks and months his rehabilitation was his primary focus, but he also tried his hand at wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis, driven by a desire to see if he could replace what had been lost.
“Yeah, 100 per cent,” says Wall. “There's no point saying that not being able to play sport didn't leave a huge whole in my life because it did.
“And to an extent that hole is still there, it's just a bit smaller now than it was. I don't think you'll ever fully cover up that hole. And that's the same if you finish up at 21 or you finish up at 35.
“It's something that almost defines you as a person a lot of the time. It takes up so much of your time, and not in a negative way, it just consumes so much of your time and your mental time that obviously when something like that is gone it leaves a huge void.
“So I suppose trying out all of these sports, trying out different things, I was obviously trying fill that void. Unsuccessfully I suppose at times.
“I'd be keen to stress though that that wasn't down to any failing in any other game or any failing of the guys involved in those sports because they were incredibly good to me. It was just that, you know, I had something that meant so much to me that I wasn't able to replace it with these things that didn't mean the same thing to me.
“That's not a slight on anything, they just didn't make me feel the way that losing an All-Ireland Final in Croke Park felt, or winning an All-Ireland semi-final against Galway felt.
“They were two very contrasting emotions, but if you have a life where you don't get to experience both ends of that range of emotions, then it's going to leave something lacking.
“And I suppose when it gets to the point when you're missing the feeling of losing and caring enough about something that when you do lose it matters to you, then that in itself should be a fairly big warning sign that you're missing something.”
Playing wheelchair basketball and tennis just didn’t animate him in anything like the same way, and eventually he realised that the games he’d grown up with were the ones he wanted to grow old with too.
He might no longer be able to play them, but he wanted to be involved in them and to influence them.
As a player, he’d always been a sponge for information. He consumed analysis pieces and data, and actively wanted to be coached rather than just do things his own way.
He felt he wasn’t as naturally talented as gifted team-mates at various levels like Brian Hurley, Conor Lehane, and Declan Hannon, so he compensated by doing his utmost to unlock his full potential.
That sort of inquisitive mind was always going to be a natural fit for coaching, and in June 2014 he first dipped his toes in those waters when, along with two friends, he took charge of the Kilbrittain U-21 team.
12 of his starting 15 were still in the minor grade and the team lost all four matches they played, but they were a group that gave their all to a coach who gave his all, and Wall came away from a positive experience knowing he’d found the sort of outlet he’d been looking for.
In December that year his friends Gavin O’Mahony and Shane Nolan asked him to join the Mary Immaculate College Fitzgibbon Cup side management team that was headed up by Eamon Cregan.
Wall was a Mary I alumnus himself and had hurled on the team that reached the 2013 Fitzgibbon Cup Final, so it was proposition he immediately warmed to.
He likes to downplay his own role, but those within the camp will tell you Wall played an important role in helping Mary I win their first ever Fitzgibbon Cup last year.
He woke up on the morning of the final against University of Limerick feeling sick to his stomach with nerves, and that was the moment he knew he’d found his place in the GAA universe again.
“Yeah, that day, whether we won or lost, was one of the better ones I've had since,” he says.
“That was the day I felt, 'Jesus, this matters to me. This matters to me an awful lot. I will be disgusted if we don't win this and I will be delighted if we do win it'.
“Whereas, you know, doing things before, I was kind of very in the middle. I was very steady. Good things wouldn't push me up too high and bad things wouldn't push me down too low.
“It was almost a very cynical world-view. I wasn't feeling things at the massive highs and lows that sport had previously given me.
“And I suppose to get that back, whichever side of the coin it was going to fall on, was going to be huge. And just the fact of being able to say going up to that game, 'Jesus, if the boys can't see this out today then I'm going to be distraught'. That in itself, when you think about it afterwards, was unreal.
“Brilliant, I'm actually going to get to be distraught over something. I'm going to care enough about something to be distraught over it. That was a big thing for me.”
It’s a testament to the impact he made last year as a selector and coach that Wall was then appointed manager of the Mary I Fitzgibbon and Freshers hurling team when Eamon Cregan decided to step down from the roles after last year’s success.
For a coach still very much at the start of his journey, Wall’s promotion is a real vote of confidence in his latent ability, but it comes with a good deal of pressure.
Fitzgibbon Cup hurling is the closest thing there is in terms of high standards to the All-Ireland hurling championship, and taking charge of the reigning champions with the task of successfully defending their first ever title is an thrown-in-at-the-deep-end sort of task.
Wall doesn’t have a whole lot of time to learn on the job, and when you’re taking charge of a dressing-room stacked with inter-county players who demand the highest of standards, then you better measure up pretty quickly.
“Yeah, I suppose there's no point pretending there isn't big pressure,” says Wall.
“But I suppose in that sense what I found from those top, top guys, the likes of Ronan Maher, Cian Lynch and Richie English and these guys, they very quickly take that pressure off you because of how easy they are to actually work with.
“Like, I'll never forget last year when I went in as a selector, ringing Ronan just to talk to him the day before the match about the role that was expected of him, who he'd be picking up, and that sort of thing, and just how receptive he was to instruction. It made me just think, 'wow, this guy is a real pro'.
“And that's the experience I've had of these guys, they want to be coached. They want that guidance. And if you in yourself can be confident enough and genuinely believe that what you are trying to do is the right thing, they'll respond to that.
“If you trust them and if you trust yourself, players in general will respond to that. Look, you can be proven wrong and that doesn't make you any less of a coach, you can get things wrong, because players get things wrong on the pitch and coaches get things wrong all the time.
“In my opinion that doesn't make you any less of a coach. It's being brave enough and honest enough with yourself and your group to have the courage of your convictions, that's what players really respond to.”
Wall’s presentation was one of the highlights of the Games Development Conference.
Many of the coaches in the packed room were probably drawn there by the human element of his story, but would have left with a high regard for Wall the coach rather than just Wall the person.
During his presentation two remarks he made really resonated – ‘Coaching is something you do with someone, not something you do to someone’, and ‘Delicacy is just another word for dishonesty’.
It’s clear that engaging with his players on a very open and human level is at the core of his philosophy. That might mean some harsh truths will be spoken on the way, but Wall believes players would not want it any other way.
“I think the only short-coming that players won't forgive is dishonesty," he says. "I believe players respond to somebody who's honest. The rest of it you'll learn as you go along.
“The key to anything is that honest communication with people. You have to give that honest communication, but I think just as important is that you then show you're making the effort to affect a change in a positive change with that person.
“It’s a collaborative effort. As a coach, you're saying to players, ‘here's our problem, here's how I think how we can fix it together’, rather than ‘here's how I'm going to fix you.’”
Fixing his own body is a cause that Wall remains committed to, but, for now at least, not to the same all-consuming extent it has been until recently.
The realisation dawned that he needed a temporary release from the mentally draining nature of that single-minded mission, and coaching the Mary I Fitzgibbon and Freshers teams has provided him with that.
“I'm doing a small bit of my own personal rehab at the moment,” says Wall. “Probably nothing like on the level that I was doing or probably should be doing.
“But I suppose from a mental aspect I just needed to take a couple of months where I took the pace of that down. I did enough to keep myself ticking over but didn't let it consume the rest of my life which is what it was doing and which in the future I'll be very happy to let it do.
“But I just needed this break because I hadn't really had it since getting out of the hospital. You can become institutionalised in your ways. And you forget about the business of living.
“You will forget about just enjoying or at the very least trying to enjoy the few things that are going on that are actually positive.
“Certainly having something like coaching the group of lads that I have to coach at the moment who in themselves have been fantastic and have responded to the coaching and who in turn feed that desire to actually do my best for them, and that goes for both panels, Fitzgibbon and Fresher, I really have been blessed with two groups of lads who just respond to honesty of effort. And respond with honest of effort.
“I suppose that newfound sense of, we'll say, yeah, this is what I'm doing now, that gives me a small bit of a break from the full-time rehabilitation. It's certainly something that will stand me in good stead if nothing else in my future rehabilitation because you can only do something for so long at such a level without the batteries getting a small bit drained.
“You just need to take a step away, recharge for a couple of months, and go at it again. That's something that, if nothing else, this whole experience will have stood me in good stead in terms of my own personal journey when it comes time to go back to that."