Fox fondly remembers former mentor Ducksy Walsh
By John Harrington
When Antoin Fox talks about Ducksy Walsh it’s still with a shake of the head incredulity that the handballing legend is no longer alive.
The 38-time senior All-Ireland titlist passed away suddenly in 2016 at the age of 50 when he was still competing at the highest level of 60x30 handball.
Walsh was Fox’s handball coach and the two had developed a strong bond from countless hours in the alley together, so the sadness at his passing is still very real for the young Loughmacrory man.
“He was actually chatting to my Dad that morning,” says Fox.
“He was going in to play an All-Ireland Doubles Final with Ciaran Neary. And Ciaran said, 'What's wrong with your face, Ducksy'. He was like, 'Ah, don't worry about it, lets just get in here and win'.
“Then he said, 'I actually don't know if I can play, I don't feel too good.' And then he just took a stroke in the car on the way home.
“It was hard to believe, it was just mad.”
Fox is one of the most talented young gaelic footballers in Tyrone and a key member of the U-20 county team that will play Armagh in the first round of the Ulster Championship on Saturday.
But until Walsh’s death it looked like handball would be his sporting focus as he racked up multiple national titles in both Ireland and the US.
Walsh had spotted Fox’s potential from a very young age and over a three-year period travelled long distances from Kilkenny to coach the Tyrone tyro on a weekly basis.
“I think I was playing in a National Final one time when we first met,” says Fox.
“He was friendly with a few Carrickmore ones and he was there watching the game and after it he came over to my father and said, 'That's your son Antoin, isn't it?'
“Daddy was like, 'Aye, that's him.' And then Ducksy said, 'I'd like to work with him'. And it all started from there. It must have been two or three years he was my coach.
“Some weekends he would come up to us in Loughmacrory to train and other weekends I'd go down to him, but mostly we met in Kingscourt every Saturday.
“We'd play 12 to 15 handball games between him and all the players he'd bring with him just to play me.
“If he was still alive at the minute I don't know if I'd be playing much football.
“He was dead against football. Any time I had a football match I always had to make an excuse I was going to a birthday party or something because he wouldn't let me play the football!”
Ironically, Fox believes the speed, endurance, and hand to eye coordination he develped as a handballer under Walsh's watch have helped make him a much better footballer.
Were Walsh around today though, he would surely point to the injuries that Fox has sustained on a football pitch over the last two years as proof positive his former pupil would be better off in a ball alley.
In 2018 Fox broke his shoulder and ten minutes into his comeback after six months out he popped the AC joint in his other shoulder.
As tough as that experience was, it wasn’t nearly as frustrating as the season-ending ankle injury he sustained in the opening minutes of last year’s EirGrid All-Ireland U-20 football semi-final defeat to Cork.
“The foot was bent back, it was just the way that Blake Murphy came back down on top of us,” recalls Fox of the injury.
“I tore ligaments on both sides and fractured the ankle as well. I think it was after three minutes I got the injury. I played on, I didn't think I had done as much damage as I had. Playing on probably making it worse
“After nine weeks it wasn't healing. So I had to go get an injection into it to try to make it heal. Everything just seized up and I couldn't move it then. It was so much rehab to try to get it moving again.
“It was meant to be a nine-week injury but it ended up being a 27-week one.
“Everyone was onto me asking when I'd be back and I'd be saying I'll be back next week. Then it just kept going.
“So frustrating. Because I kept thinking I was getting back and sometimes I was trying to force myself back. It was just knock-back after knock-back.”
In a way, he believes his background in an individual sport like handball has helped him cope with the mental challenge of overcoming such a frustrating sequence of injuries.
He’s had to spend a lot of time working in the gym on his fitness and to build his body back up, and such a solitary existence probably would have been harder to take for someone who has only played sport in a team environment.
He’s finally starting to feel like his old self again now and is hopeful he’s ready for the physical test of Saturday’s match against Armagh.
“We did fitness testing before Christmas and I struggled big-time, but we did fitness testing a couple of weeks ago and I was pushing into the top-five, nearly,” says Fox.
“You can see the progress, which is good. If you couldn't see the progress it would be in your mind that you weren't fit.”
Last year’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Cork still grates and not just because Fox had to watch most of it from the sideline.
Tyrone were seven points up early in the second-half, but when they were then reduced to 14 men they couldn’t resist Cork’s late charge.
Now in his third and final year in the U-20 grade, Fox is desperate to finish on a high after two seasons ended by injury, but he knows too that Tyrone can’t afford to look beyond what’s always a tough challenge against their neighbours.
“Armagh is a big test for us,” he says. “You saw the rivalry a couple of years ago with the brawl and stuff. It's a big rivalry for us. We have a few injuries, so hopefully if we can get past Armagh hopefully it'll give them more time to get back.
“Armagh is a big one to start off with. But, looking forward, you want to win Ulster and progress to St. Patrick's Day if we can, that's the big stage.
“But we're not looking past Armagh. We have to get past them first and take it from there.”