It is a cold, Irish winter morning and the pain is exquisite. I am fifteen years of age and I am playing football on a frosty pitch in a foggy park. My team is Rovers and we’re playing the league leaders. A win would put us above them. I am captain of my team, a centre-half, and we are drawing 1-1. There are ten minutes left in the game. It is intense, niggly, verging on violent. We are schoolboys but this, to us, is Division 1, the European Cup, the World Cup. Win at all costs. Our coach screams from the touchline urging us to ‘keep our shape’. I am vocal. I talk to my fellow defenders, bellow at the midfielders to come back and help when they’ve been caught in possession far upfield. If we want to win this game then we all have to give everything we’ve got. Tiredness can wait. Fatigue is for other teams, not for us. I cajole those who need to be cajoled, rollick those who need to be rollicked.
The running battle with their striker has been physical. He’s quicker than I am, I’m stronger than he is. He’s more skillful than I am, I read the game better than him. I know where his teammate is going to play the ball, it gives me the head-start I need to get there first. I need the head-start, he’s lightning. The pitch is muddy and heavy. The entire left side of my body is caked with dirt from a sliding tackle which prevented a cross but provided them with a corner. I am marking the striker. He’s a mouth. Tells me he’s going to do me, he’s going to get the winner, he’s just waiting for the mistake he knows I’m going to make. You’ll be waiting I tell him. He smiles. I don’t.
The corner comes in and I head it clear. It falls outside our area to Johnny, our left winger. He’s quick. Very quick. And we can break. All he needs to do is play it inside to Anto who can put the ball behind their last defender and Johnny’s gonna get there first. The whole pitch in front of him and nobody will catch him. Only the keeper the beat and the game is ours. But what Johnny has in pace he lacks in brains. He tries to nutmeg their player who can see it coming. Their man wins the ball, touches it forward, he’s going to have a go. He’s going to shoot. We’re charging out of the area. Out, I’m screaming at our players. Push up. Someone go to the ball. For once they’re slow. Nobody reacts quickly enough. Some of them stand off him. This won’t do. I have a bad feeling about this shot. I can see it flying over our keeper and just below the bar. I can see them celebrate. I can hear that striker crowing in my ear. And then I will be forced to kick him up in the air next time he gets the ball. I might get booked again but what choice do I have?
Everything moves in slow motion. Everything. Except me. From somewhere I find a burst of energy. My boots don’t get caught in the sodden pitch. It’s like I have the wind behind me. I will not let him shoot. He touches it again, setting himself for the shot. His leg draws back, I can see the muscles of his thighs bunching, ready to explode, he’s going to hammer it. He’s going to hit it as hard as he can and unless I do something he is going to score. He is not going to score. He will not score. We will not lose this game. We have to win. There’s nothing else to it.
He has reached the top of the arc, he has picked his spot, now he just needs to connect. There is only one thing in my mind. I come from his left hand side, launching myself. My left leg is tucked underneath me, my right extended, foot pointing forward, sliding towards the ball. His foot against my foot. Who gets there first wins. I strain as much as possible, hoping, because I do not want to lose this game. I do not want their striker in my ear. I want to shake his hand at the end and tell him well played and smile in a way that makes him know I don’t really care how he played because we have won. I want the unbearable smugness of winning wrapped in the gossamer shell of sportsmanship.
As it turns out I will not have that pleasure. I get to the ball first, split seconds ahead of their player. So small is the margin that he actually gets a bit of the ball. Not enough to move it towards goal, it is pushed into the path of Johnny who charges up field – good man Johnny, now you make the right decision. Not enough to prevent him following through and kicking me just above the ankle joint on the back of my leg. At first I think the crack is just my shinpad, it’s when the other players tell me not to move, not to get up, to lie still, that I realise it is my leg. I look down and I can’t help but laugh at the fact my foot is facing the wrong way. Teammates and opposition turn away. It is grotesque yet compelling. I can’t feel a thing yet. They’re screaming at the ref. The coaches and parents on the side don’t know what’s happened. And my foot is backwards and I am laughing. They rush on, look at it, look at me and tell me not to worry. They say that it will be ok and they’re terrible liars. I know this is not going to be ok. I know this is going to hurt. When any bit of you is facing the wrong way it’s going to take some time for it to be ok again. I look again, laugh again, perhaps it’s shock.
Laughter then turns to frustration when it dawns on me I won’t be able to finish the game. I won’t be able to see it out, to celebrate the win with the goal I know we’re going to get. To hug my teammates, enjoy that handshake with the losers, especially their striker. I bang the ground. They take this to mean the pain has arrived, they reassure me things will be ok but what do I care about ok in the future when now is what counts? I haven’t put eighty-five minutes of pure effort into this game to have the last five minutes stolen from me. The five minutes that seems like fifty. ‘How long ref?’, and he tells you five. Twenty minutes later you ask ‘how long ref?’, and he tells you four. It’s a trial of body and mind. It’s maddening, energy-sapping, a test of endurance. Can you make your body do what your brain tells it even if your body is telling your brain that it is going to ignore any further instructions? Mind over matter. Their player is heading towards goal. You can give in, listen to your muscles and hope for the best, or you can tell your goddam legs to do what they’re goddam told and to chase him, tackle him, hack him down, do whatever you need to do to stop him.
And when the five minutes that is fifty minutes is finished and the ref has blown the whistle, when the game is won, the rush of adrenaline wipes away the exhaustion and the ache that consumed every part of you in that final period. You could do a hundred laps of honour. Instead you shake hands with your opponents and tell them good game because it’s easy to tell them that when you’ve won. When you have prevailed. When you have given every bit of yourself. You got asked questions and you answered. You won. It is the best feeling in the world and it’s not going to happen this time and that’s why I beat the ground.
Then it starts. Dull at first but soon it is like a white-hot poker being fed down the marrow of my bone. The agony makes me sweat, turns me pale, and now when they tell me you’re going to be all right they look even less convincing. Someone has gone back to the clubhouse at the other end of the park to call to ambulance and they cover me with a blanket as they’re afraid to move me off the pitch. No £3.99 First Aid kit or can of magic spray prepares them for this.
The striker, my nemesis, my enemy, comes over, asks if I’m all right. You wouldn’t have scored, I tell him, teeth gritted as waves of torment shoot from foot to knee. He laughs, you’re probably right he says but I will next time. He is crowded out by concerned adults. I see him talking to the one whose attempt to score the goal they didn’t deserve brought all this about. He might be crying. I can’t tell. He can’t look at me. I don’t blame him. Who wants to look at somebody whose foot is on backwards? The novelty of that gets old very quickly let me tell you.
The paramedics arrive. They ask my name. I tell them. Ok they say and use my name at every opportunity. It is annoying. I know my own name. We’re going to give you some oxygen, Ok? Ok. I get the mask and suck greedily on the gas because it hurts now. A lot. And the oxygen makes me dizzy. It still hurts but it builds a little wall between me and the pain. Not much of a wall but anything that helps is my friend. It is hard to describe how it feels when they splint my leg, when they move me into the ambulance so very carefully to try and minimise the discomfort. They are so careful, so gentle, and then they drive as fast as they can to the emergency room, each pothole and bump on the road causing the leg to move and for the pain to start again and I’m still using the oxygen and soon it all becomes a blur.
I realise I’m in a hospital, I realise from the lights that I’m in an operating theatre. My body is racked, shaking, I’m cold and I would give anything to make this pain go away. Count backwards says the doctor and I do and the room turns black and … when I wake I can hear the white noise of a hospital. The bustle of nurses and visitors and patients, some of them moaning and crying, and a TV somewhere and my leg is in front of me, thick and white and plastered. I don’t feel the pain anymore.
And just like that I am snapped rudely back from my daydream as the door opens and the nurse who checks my vitals comes into the room. My leg is long fixed although my football career never really recovered. And I remember where I am and how long I’ve been here and I think back to that day when I was fifteen. On that day I would have given anything to rid myself of the agony of the broken leg. Now I realise how trite that was.
Now I really would give anything to feel that pain. The crack and the snap, the cold mud, the physiotherapy, the stiffness, the tenderness as the bruise spread up my leg as far as the top of my thigh. If given the choice between nothing and pain I will choose pain every time because now I feel nothing. I have felt nothing for almost fifteen years. I am back in a hospital bed. I’ve been here since 2004, since the car crash. I cannot move or speak or communicate with anyone. They think I’m brain dead. They don’t realise I can hear every word they say, they don’t know that my mind has not suffered the same fate as my body, and it has been like this for five thousand four hundred and sixty two days. I don’t count the hours or minutes though.
That would drive me mad.