John O'Brien's courage in the face of adversity
By John Harrington
John O’Brien was just 22 years old when he was told he would never walk again.
The Nobber club-man’s life was changed forever when a car journey to Navan for a bag of chips after football ended tragically when his car collided with cattle on the N3 in August 2012.
The impact left him with a spinal injury that paralysed him from the chest down, but it’s a testament to O’Brien’s strength of character that he has never let his disability define him.
In recent years he has completed courses in sports journalism, sports psychology, and social care and counselling.
Currently he’s taking courses in counselling and psychotherapy as well as public speaking.
He’s also the inspirational club captain of Nobber GAA and one of the men behind the hugely popular Meath GAA Lad Podcast along with Gearoid Rennicks.
But for all the impressive milestones that he has reached and the ones he’s eying further down the road, he’s not going to pretend the journey along the way has been an easy one.
When your life as you know it is shattered forever, glueing the shards together to create something new is a difficult task.
“Yeah, very hard,” O’Brien told GAA.ie. “I would have went through a lot of emotions from my accident.
“Maybe in the early stages I didn't understand the seriousness of it. It happened in August and I was thinking I'd be grand and be out before Christmas.
“Slowly you realise this is serious stuff, this is big stuff, and then when you realise then that you're not going to walk again and when the nurses tell you that, it's kind of like, "Why me? Did I do something wrong? Did I deserve this?"
“Those sort of feelings of self-pity. Then you have anger. And then you take the anger out on the wrong people and then you're sad. All of those emotions in the early days.
“I probably had to come through all of that to learn. My emotions now would be completely different. I'd like to think that I'm positive enough.
“Now, I do have negative days, but I'd like to think the positive ones outweigh the negative ones. I'd like to think I'm more determined and focused now.”
He has gained strength along the way from the solidarity of others.
The O’Brien family have always been stalwart supporters of Nobber GAA club, and when their need was greatest the club rallied to their aid.
Along with other clubs in the surrounding borderlands of Meath, Louth, Monaghan, and Cavan, volunteers from Nobber GAA club spearheaded a community drive that raised €250,000 for the construction of a wheelchair adapted extension to the O’Brien family home.
“That's something that will never leave me,” says O’Brien. “At the time of my accident I was rushed to Drogheda Hospital and then I was in the Mater in Dublin, the spinal unit for a while, and then I was brought to the NRH (National Rehabilitation Hospital) in Dun Laoghaire.
“My Mam and Dad and my brother and sister would have told me what was going on at home in terms of fund-raising.
“The work was just unbelievable. Larry McEntee would have been a big Nobber man and one of the people involved in getting the fund-raising going in Nobber.
“Not just even in Nobber, the whole GAA community in Meath and a lot of clubs all over the county just did so many different fundraisers for me to help me. I couldn't believe it, it made me very emotional when I was in hospital but it helped give me that fighting spirit to keep going.
“It wasn't even the clubs in Meath. Where I live I'm quite close to the Meath/Cavan/Monaghan border. So in around Kingscourt and Magheracloone where my mam is from, they would have done fundraisers as well. We're not far from Louth either and the likes of Ardee and other local areas like that helped out too.
“I'm lucky that where I live in the country we had room to build on to the house. Where I am today I have my own adapted home, all wheelchair accessible, and I have all my equipment in it. My ceiling hoist and my special bed and my exercise equipment and my own bathroom, everything.
“I do think about it a lot, the way the people really rallied around me and helped me so much. I suppose in a way when I got an opportunity to help Nobber football club I had to because they helped me so much back in 2012/2013.
“So I wanted to help them and I hope I have and I hope I can continue to do so, just to repay the community back.”
The most recent way that O’Brien helped his club was by entering Nobber in the Beko Club Champion Competition in association with Leinster GAA before Christmas.
In an emotional video interview he put together as part of the entry he explained how the club had done so much for his own mental health over the years and had been a force of good in the community during the Covid 19 pandemic.
Thanks to O’Brien’s testimony, Nobber won the Beko Club Champion Award for Meath which netted the club €1,000 worth of equipment.
What you can’t put a monetary value on is the priceless contribution that O’Brien has made to Nobber as their club captain since he was asked to take on the role in March 2019.
The players will tell you he was a vital source of inspiration for them as they beat the odds to win the Meath Intermediate Football Championship that year.
It was a mutually beneficial arrangement, because being closely involved with the team was a huge boost for O’Brien’s mental health at a time when he needed it.
“It was just unbelievable to be asked and just a shock at first because I never expected something like that,” he says.
“They just said they wanted me to be on board with the panel and any ideas I had that they wanted to hear them. They wanted me to be at training sessions and be with the team before games in the dressing-room and things like that.
“Straight away it was a shock, but then I was thinking, "This is class, what can I do to help?" The championship was coming up in April and my focus was on that, we were playing Oldcastle and I was just thinking what could I do to help the lads?>
“We were in the Intermediate grade at the time and what we wanted to do was win the Championship, deep down that would have been our goal. That was something in the back of my head, if I could help the lads do that it would be great.
“It just gave such a huge boost. I have people who come in to help me, personal assistants, because I need help with basically everything that I do.
“Getting up out of bed in the morning, the preparing of my meals, setting me up to do my exercise, bringing me to the gym when I could do that pre-Covid.
“I have a wheelchair adapted van so they would drive me. I need help with everything and this just gave me a real boost. My brother is involved and plays football with the team and it kind of gave me a purpose.
“My accident was in August 2012 and I know this was 2019, seven years later, but it probably took me a long time to really push myself because I was probably in a comfort zone here at home for a while.
“By being asked to become part of the football group it made me get out of that comfort zone because I had to go to training and matches and speak to people whereas beforehand I might have shied away from that kind of thing. So it really helped my confidence and over time it was huge for my self-belief and self-confidence.
“Looking back to March 2019 compared to now, it's just completely different, it changed me massively.”
O’Brien made good use of his qualification in sports psychology as he became an integral part of the team during their unbeaten run to the Meath Intermediate Football title.
Underdogs going into the County Final against Trim, they played the game of their lives to triumph by 15 points.
O’Brien was a lightning rod for the explosion of emotion that followed the final whistle, and framed photos of those moments now hang as proud mementos on his walls.
“They're class memories and they'll never leave me. It was just so emotional,” he says.
“For a long time before and afterwards I couldn't stop thinking about it. It basically took over my life.
“At home when I'd go to bed I'd think about it before I went to sleep and when I'd wake up in the morning I'd be visualising again us winning the championship. So it was just brilliant that it came through.
“I got my Intermediate medal, we had our dinner dance last January, and it's just something that will never leave me. It's a brilliant memory.
“And that day in Navan when we were out on the pitch and everyone was hugging you and high-fiving you and wanting to take pictures with me. I was like, "What's going on here?", it was a bit unbelievable. I nearly felt like a celebrity.
“Then Brian Farrell who was our joint-captain with Brendan Heffernan came up to me and said, "Are you coming over to get this Cup or what?"
“I was like, "What are you on about?", because the Cup is always presented up in the stand and there are steps up to it so I was presuming I'd be with the supporters on the pitch looking up at the lads lifting the Cup.
“But the Meath County Board, and this was the first time I've ever seen anything like it, had set up a table on the pitch and the Cup was presented there so I could be there with the team and they presented the Cup to me.
“It was a moment that will always live with me, it was just unbelievable.”
Nobber will have new management whenever the club scene resumes in 2021 but O’Brien has already been asked to stay on as club captain and is only too happy to do so.
He has has to be extra-cautious during this Covid-19 pandemic, but he’s still keeping himself very busy.
His latest podcast for Meath GAA TV is an excellent interview with his fellow Nobber club-man and former county star, Brian Farrell, and intends to keep that flame for sports journalism lit.
What he wants to focus on most in the future though is to earn the qualifications required to help people deal with the sort of adversity he’s overcome himself.
The course he completed with eight distinctions out of eight in social care and counselling skills last year has set him on a path he intends to explore further.
“I've done work experience in SOSAD in Navan and I really enjoyed that and I recently just started an online certificate in counselling and psychotherapy,” he says.
“That's all online for the year. I've been doing that once a week since September and I'm really enjoying that.
“My hope is to go into counselling and psychotherapy. I know that will be another three years of study but the hope would be to eventually get a bit of work in that sphere if the course goes well.
“I'd love to see myself as a counsellor or psychotherapist in three or four years time.
“I'd like to be able to help people in years to come who might be going through something that I have gone through and continue to go through.
“It is a life-changing thing and there are a lot of dark days but you have to overcome them and reach your full potential and I’d love to help others do the same.”
You don't doubt that he will.