Handballer Paul Brady gilds his legend
By Paul Fitzpatrick
In the build-up to last August's World Handball Championships, which doubled up with the US Nationals for the first time, dozens of people in Cavan asked me how it would go. “Will Brady do it again?” they wondered.
My answer was the same every time: “I would never bet against him.”
Only a foolish person would. In our sport, Brady has done it all - and every way it can be done. He won his first world title on a raucous night in Croke Park in 2003 while limping on one leg. The next morning, he would play the doubles semi-final, with Michael Finnegan riding shotgun. Watching him seized up after that singles final, I was sure he would have to withdraw. But he didn't – and they won the doubles too.
That was the start of the Brady legend, the night when he became known as a man of steel. Handball's box office name, the peerless Ducksy Walsh, had reached the end as a small-court superpower; the way was clear for a new king to emerge and after the manner of that coronation, opponents were spooked. How could this man be beaten?
Six years later, preparing for the Worlds in Oregon, Brady ripped his quad muscle from the bone when training. He went to see a specialist who started to explain how he could go about recuperating from the injury, at home, thousands of miles from the action.
The doc didn't understand, Brady told him. He would be playing in the tournament. Losing, as he said himself, was not an option. So, on one leg, for a second time, he did it again, coming through the toughest draw of all.
In 2010, he won the All-Ireland with a badly broken finger. And in the 2012 World Championships, he was losing heavily in the first game before the biggest crowd ever assembled to watch a handball match.
I can still see Finnegan, courtside, turning to the 4,000 in attendance, leaping to his feet and punching the air. He knew – as we all did - that once Paul had won the first game, he had broken his opponent. The second was a victory lap.
In 2015, Brady was as brilliant as ever in Canada in retaining that World Championship title. But time moves on and, although we didn't notice it, the cavalry were coming.
The following June, he was beaten on the finish line by a young, hungry Corkman, Killian Carroll, in the final of the US Nationals. Brady needed one win to tie the record held by the legendary Mexican Naty Alvarado. That would have to wait.
A year later, Carroll confirmed the form and it seemed to signal the end of the road for Paul. Killian, based in Boston, was improving, developing a vicious offensive game to complement his insane retrieving. How could Brady match it?
Yet as a handball follower who has watched Paul for 20 years and observed with awe how he could almost always find a way to win, I refused to believe it.
A King Canute tribute act, flailing to hold back the waves, is never a pretty sight in sport but this was Paul Brady. Normal rules don't apply, as he showed time and again, winning matches and tournaments against the head.
He once told me about a quote from Brian Cody which he had memorised. Cody had said something in passing about his players being willing to die to win a match. Brady turned it on its head. When the door of the handball court closes, he said, "I'm not willing to die, I'm willing to kill".
And yet Brady is that very rare thing in sport – a dominant champion who is almost universally admired.
There is, naturally, some jealousy out there towards the Mullahoran man but given how he has crushed the dreams of so many other players, I have detected very little resentment over the years.
That comes from how he has carried himself. Brady has been an impeccable champion, winning and losing with class and sportsmanship. And in the years since he lost his titles and Saturday night, when he won one of the Majors back at the age of 39, he cemented his legacy. Because he never gave up.
In the build-up to last August's event in Minnesota, he trained with the desperate intensity of someone who knows time is against them. In order to fine-tune his game and for conditioning, he regularly played other elite players two against one.
There was nothing more he could have done and he rolled through his first couple of games but, in his quarter-final against Luis Cordova, it was quickly apparent that something was not right.
The Gunner had been carrying a nasty elbow injury for a couple of weeks and was minding it against the Mexican. In doing so, his movement was affected. Like all thoroughbreds, it doesn't take much to throw him off and reaching for a backwall shot, he suffered a grade two ankle sprain.
After taking a 15-minute injury time-out, he returned to the court and, from somewhere found the courage to close out the game.
“Brady is running on fumes,” came a text. It was a good description, I thought; adrenaline and the heart of a champion was about all that was keeping him going.
In the second game, he fell 10-0 down and managed to claw it back, inch by painful inch, to win. But it was in vain. As soon as he limped out of the court and the adenaline subsided, it became clear that he would be forced to withdraw from the following morning's semi-final.
Carroll went on to win the crown and that really did seem to be that for the five-time winner.
The handball world is very closely connected; a few degrees of separation are all there are between players worldwide. The popular Cordova is from Juarez, Mexico and came across the border as a child in the pre-Trump days, trying to build a better life with his family.
In 2005 in the baking heat of Houston, Texas, I played him in the C Singles grade (the basement, in case I am accused of bragging!). I was 21, Luis was 15. Later that morning in the same venue, Brady beat the great Canadian Danny Bell to become the first Irish player to win the US Nationals Open Singles.
The wheel seemed to have come full circle last August when it was Cordova whom Brady played in what seemed likely to be his last match in a competition the Cavanman ruled like a personal fiefdom for a decade.
Yet, over the winter, Brady went at it again. He entered and won a tournament in New York in April, which gave his supporters hope. The final took place a couple of hours before Tiger Woods won the Masters at Augusta. The parallels were obvious.
But when he lost to American Sean Lenning in Salt Lake City a few weeks later, it drained away again. Lenning had never before, in a couple of dozen attempts, beaten Brady. What did that tell us about where our man was going?
And then came last week and the Nationals and another stab at Alvarado's record. From early on, Brady was moving well, taking out a couple of durable journeymen with ease.
A break fell his way, then, when American Dave Fink dismantled Lenning. Brady cruised past the left-hander and with Galway's brilliant Martin Mulkerrins toppling Carroll in the other semi, suddenly, it was on.
In the final, he was the Brady of old, physically dominant, focused and yet at ease. A tired Mulkerrins battled hard but fell in two, 21-11, 21-7. The king of handball had his crown again and his reaction – which has been widely shared online – said it all about what it meant.
“I worked so hard for this over such a long time,” he told a reporter afterwards.
“I kind of screwed up a few times over the last few years so I was intent on not screwing up today.
“I want to thank Martin for a great game, it will be heartbreaking but you have to lose one or two before you win one or two, that's what happened me and I want to wish you all the best.
“You have to beat the best if you want to win and I kept telling myself that, he was the best in this tournament and I had to try to beat him.
“But I came looking for two other guys [Lenning and Carroll] but I ended up getting Dave [Fink] and Martin. There will be other days...”
Will he go again? He hinted he might but then backtracked. Who knows. For now, he's entitled to a rest. But records, as he said himself, are there to be broken.
I would never bet against him.
* Paul Fitzpatrick is a journalist with The Anglo-Celt in Cavan and an avid handball player.