Football is about family and friends for Dublin hero McCaffrey
By John Harrington
It’s the morning after the All-Ireland Final night before in the Dublin Gaelic Football team’s hotel, and Jack McCaffrey is one of the first players to make an appearance for breakfast.
Such is the energy with which he normally buzzes about the place both on and off the pitch, it was no surprise he was one of the earlier risers.
No surprise either to see him make him make time for every supporter that approached him in the hotel either, because that’s the sort of person he is.
Group photos were posed for, selfies were taken, and even babies were held.
Nothing was too much bother, even sitting down for over half an hour with a group of quote-hungry journalists to offer his thoughts on the previous day and life in general.
Had Jack’s father Noel walked into the lobby at that moment, he would have thrown his eyes to heaven, but then Jack has always been his own man.
“My father is an interesting fellow,” smiled McCaffrey when his father’s name was mentioned.
“Everything I do has been influenced heavily by my father and obviously I have huge respect for him and love him a lot but I remember when I started with Dublin in 2013 and I think I had played two Championship games and got offered a sponsorship thing, which would have involved something like this talking to the media.
“He said, ‘I will pay you whatever they are paying you to not do that, to just not go and talk to the media’. He had this thing that ‘whoever in the paper plays crap the next day. Just don’t do it’. I ignored that advice. I don’t think you’ll ever find Noel McCaffrey talking about me in a newspaper. He hates you fellas!
“After finals, he’s the first fella I look for and it’s always a little bit bittersweet because I never knew my grandfather, my dad’s dad, or my grandmother - I’m lucky enough to have my two grandparents on the other side and they take such pride in what I have done.
“But my father’s parents would have been GAA mad and grandad played for Monaghan, Meath and Dublin and we (his father and him) always end up having a conversation over the next couple of weeks about how proud they would have been.
“I watched in the lead-up to the first final highlights of the 1985 All-Ireland final that Kerry beat Dublin and the image at the final whistle is my father collapsing to his knees distraught and he was very unfortunate never to win an All-Ireland.
“It’ll be a couple of years down the line when I look back on this with him but I’m very keenly aware of how much this means to my family and that’s a large part of why I keep going and love it.”
Last week GAA.ie spoke to McCaffrey’s Clontarf GAA club mentor, Willie Lillis, who coached Jack from nursery right up to U-21 level.
Lillis also played with Noel McCaffrey for Clontarf back in the day, and surmised that while Jack might have a more outgoing personality that his father, they were both very similar in so far as they had hearts of gold and would do anything to help you if you could.
“Well I’m not going to air my character flaws,” responded McCaffrey when Lillis’ summation of the McCaffrey men was put to him.
“I rarely get to say this to my dad, but I occasionally do, that I admire him so much. And if I can be as principled and passionate and loyal as he is, in my adult life, I’d be very happy how I turned out.
“We’re obviously very different. I’m trying to copy him or be anything like that, but I just ... it’s hard.
“You know, with fathers, everything you do there’s probably a tinge of them through it, and he’s been an incredible influence on me, and he’s really not shy when letting me know I played poorly, and is really honest when I’ve played well, and proud and all that.
“So we’re obviously very different men, but I’d like to think that I’m honouring him in everything I do.
“When you’re a kid, you don’t think ‘why do I love my parents?’ My mam and dad are two incredible people, and they just put us first. I’m the eldest of four, my sister Sarah, and two brothers, Conor and Niall.
“And my parents took years off work to bring is abroad, they would have worked half-time so we could always walk to school together, and all these intangible things that most parents do for their kids, they just love us.
“They are honest, they’re really hard-working, not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, none of us are.
“But what I love in the build-up to these games is that I get a text off my mam and dad saying if football was to end, we’re really proud of you, the person you are, and where your live is going.
“Go out and enjoy yourself. They love the football side of things, it means the world, probably especially to my father, but if I turned to them, and I did, turned to them one year and said ‘I’m not playing, I’m going away’, and a lot of people were saying ‘okay, you’re going away?!’, they just said okay, whatever makes you happy, They’re very special people, and I’d do anything for them.”
McCaffrey is a very driven sportsman and loves winning, but even now when he’s in the thick of his career with Dublin he knows it’s not the medals accumulated that are making it worthwhile.
In much the same way as family means an awful lot to him, so does friendship, and he doesn’t mind admitting that he feels a ‘deep love’ for his Dublin team-mates.
“We did a bit of an exercise earlier this year where we paired up and you said to the other lad what you respected in them.
“I was with Bernard Brogan and I just ended up saying to him in 25 years I can see myself texting you, ‘Will we grab lunch? Will we grab a cup of tea?
“Bernard scored a million points for Dublin and is one of the best forwards that ever played the game and that kind of runs throughout the team.
“Obviously, what brings us together is we’re decent footballers and playing well together but we have been on the road quite awhile now and have gotten past that.
“What I love about this group is that I am really good friends with them and I have a deep, deep love for them, to be honest, which is something I can’t put into words.”
When Diarmuid Connolly was parachuted back into the Dublin panel during the All-Ireland Quarter-Final series, some wondered whether his return might have an adverse effect on team-spirit.
Would some players who had worked hard all year to try to break into match-day panels during the Championship have their noses put out of joint by being bumped down the pecking order by the return of the prodigal son?
McCaffrey can understand why some might have wondered whether Jim Gavin’s decision to recall Connolly was the right decision, but only because people outside the camp wouldn’t appreciate just how tight this bunch of Dublin players are.
“Of course, there was a danger of it being a distraction but I don't think it was,” he said. “I remember the session he came back, I was beaming delighted to have him back.
“I'm looking over at Cian O'Sullivan now, these are some of the best friends that you'll ever meet. I spend more time with the Dublin footballers than I do with my closest friends, probably than I do with my family.
“Dermo was such a core part of that for my first couple of years and then he was gone. We weren't sure what he was up to and how things were going for him.
“Without getting too emotional and stuff about it, I know things about the Dublin footballers that I don't think anyone else in the world knows. I've spoken to the lads about things that I'll never speak to anyone else about.
“Your concern for people and when they're not there and they're gone, you don't know what's going on with them. To have Dermo come back into that fold and just be so open and honest about everything was incredible.
“There's a risk in everything, there'd be a risk in not bringing him back in. We all have so much time for each other and no more so than Dermo. I'm delighted to have him back.”
Dublin’s band of brothers have achieved something truly remarkable by becoming the first team to win five All-Ireland Senior Football titles in a row.
McCaffrey is very much still living in the moment and conscious that there are other peaks to be scaled, but he doesn’t mind admitting either that he knows his piece of history is something he and his team-mates will always cherish.
“I don’t think it will register until we finish up,” he said.
“There is no point saying otherwise, this is going to be a massive source of pride for us as a group when we look back at it but the time to look back is when you have hung up the boots and when we meet up for a drink to watch the new young Dublin team going out and playing.
“It is definitely something that will be very, very special for us.
“The aftermath definitely felt a bit special. They all feel special but it was one of those where you had to drag yourself off the pitch in Croke Park.
“You just wanted to stay there and soak up everything. It was something we did not let into our psyche.
“In the aftermath, you could tell looking around at people, the emotions that were present in the stadium that this was a little different.”