A four-time Cork SHC winner with Sarsfields, Eoin O’Sullivan got a stark diagnosis five years ago. Ever since, he has drawn strength from hurling and his club. And inspired everyone in that club with his incredible courage, writes
It might appear flippant to itemise Eoin O’Sullivan’s extraordinary story in the context of club hurling matches. But Eoin wouldn’t see it like that.
“It’s all linked with the hurling for me,” he says. “You can link every surgery, every treatment, every setback, to the game I got back for.”
Want to offend Eoin? Suggest that all he has been through must put sport in perspective; that he’s got bigger problems than a free drifting wide.
“I don’t think anything healthwise would impact on how I’d view a mistake, or anything like that. Because a game is still the biggest thing in the world to me.”
Call it obsession. Call it love.
It’s unfair that none of the matches that won Eoin his four Cork senior championship medals will feature here. Nor will any of his appearances for the Cork minors or the U21s.
But in the five years since the last of those triumphant seasons, through all he has dealt with, he has drawn strength from hurling and from his club.
It would be crass to tell his story in terms of winning and losing. Illness doesn’t work that way. But Eoin’s sport has always given him a chance to feel like he’s winning. Given him one constant, driving focus: To get back on the field.
So we start, not at the beginning, but in Páirc Uí Rinn last August, the night of the Douglas shopping centre fire, when Eoin’s beloved Sarsfields torched the latest Douglas championship dream.
That evening, Eoin’s mind wandered, despite everything he has taught himself about staying locked in the moment, about refusing to glance up the track. A few times, crouched over the sliotar, in the autumn dusk, he let the weight of it all lean on him.
But he still nailed those crucial frees.
Aug 31, 2019: Cork SHC Round 3: Sarsfields 0-19 Douglas 0-15
Sars were two up, three minutes left, when Eoin O’Sullivan hunched over another. He’d already stuck over 10, but this was right on the sideline, just in front of the Douglas dugout.
If he heard anything from behind him, it was drowned out by the voices in his head. “I knew I had this surgery the Tuesday after, in the Mercy.
“I remember even during those frees, the last couple… They were big frees. I was saying to myself, ‘you’re going to be lying down for how long after this? Make sure you can look back and be happy about these frees going over. Don’t miss them’. I shouldn’t have been thinking like that.”
The streamed it live. The ball hadn’t travelled 10 yards before Cork legend Ger Cunningham delivered his verdict in commentary: “He has it! The minute he struck the ball, the hand was up: He knew it was on its way.”
Moments later, Eoin launched another and Sars were insured. Cunningham’s full-time debrief selected the hour’s hero.
“The star man for me tonight was Eoin O’Sullivan. He gave an exhibition. Twelve points, big scores from 80-90 metres. And his work rate, his energy, was so important to how Sars played.”
Afterwards, commentator Colm O’Connor was sharing his admiration for the Glanmire marksman. And somebody just mentioned, in passing, as if everybody knew: “Not bad for a fella with cancer.”
It’s not something O’Sullivan has ever tried to hide. Of course they all know locally.
“But it’s not like you’d be introducing yourself and saying it… it doesn’t really come up.
“I always kind of expected someone to ask me to talk about it. And I was always ready and willing.
“I think you’re better off being open about things like that. It does you no good hiding it. You need to talk about it. It helps when people understand it and it helps to tell people about it too.”
Back, then, to the start.
October 11, 2015: Cork SHC Final, Glen Rovers 2-17 Sarsfields 1-13
“The Glen gave us a nice hammering in Páirc Uí Rinn.
“It was around the quarter-final of the county that I had seen a mole on my foot, just a little black mole, nothing too serious. My mom was saying, ‘would you get it checked out?’
“I said it to the doctor in the dressing room, ‘would you have a look at that?’ And he said he’d have to take it off and put in a couple of stitches. So, I put it off for six weeks, until after the final. I was innocent at the time. I was 24.
“After losing the final, you’re not yourself for a couple of weeks. I put it on the long finger again. And by that time it was actually bleeding. So if I had a white sock on, there would be a dot of blood. Looking back, it’s a bad sign. It means it’s ulcerated.”
The doctor took the mole off on Tuesday and Eoin took the call the next Monday. Come in.
“Signs of melanoma.”
In his instinctive reaction to stark words, perhaps there were clues about the depth of fortitude he would eventually show.
“It was pure innocence, naivety, maybe pure stupidity. I remember thinking, ‘this is a challenge. I’ll knock this out of the park straight away. It’ll come and go.’
“To be fair, I didn’t know the seriousness, what it would entail. I didn’t understand the disease. The word cancer — I knew there were people beating it every day.
“My girlfriend Alanna is a doctor so she was clued in. She saw the seriousness of it.”
So began his first hospital stay, as the medics started on the puzzle.
“For this exact bit of affected skin, there’s one lymph node in your groin that’s mainly responsible for draining it. So, they inject that part of your skin and follow it up into the lymph node responsible. And they took it out, with two others.
“If that main node has something positive in it, it’s a bad sign. Then, they’ll have to take out all the lymph nodes there.
“The results take about a month. I actually went skiing three weeks later. I couldn’t walk, but I was able to ski. And at the end of December, they said it showed up in the three nodes.
“So I was back at the start of January, and they took out all the lymph nodes in my leg. That’s why my left leg isn’t as efficient at draining up fluid as it should be. But my swelling is mild. I’m lucky. I wear a compression sock and I’m disciplined in wearing it.”
They’d patched up his foot with a graft from his thigh and now they stapled a 10-inch wound running down from his groin.
Until all this, the boy born with a hurley had never had a stitch.
May 22, 2016: Munster IHC Quarter-Final, Tipperary 3-20 Cork 1-15
You need to know the kind of dreamer he was, that boy born with a hurley.
Cork superstar Joe Deane was his idol. And one year, Eoin’s devoted mother Mary dispatched a letter to the bank, in the name of her besotted son, addressed to Joe Deane.
She put a phone number on the letter and one day the house phone rang and it was Joe, just ringing to have a chat.
Eoin was 12 and his day, month, and life were made. He kept the number that showed up on the phone, and so, before every Cork championship game, from that day on, he’d text Joe.
“The morning of the game,” he laughs. “I was probably annoying him. But he used always text me back.”
Joe has his own experience with testicular cancer and he reached out again last year and the two hurlers shared a long lunch, which meant as much as that first phonecall.
Back in 2016, it was the blood and bandage of Cork firing up Eoin for his first of many comebacks.
“I’d been going to Declan O’Sullivan, the physio with Cork, since I was 14. He was excellent, setting me up with rehab and a plan to return.
“It was slow enough; maybe around April I got back training.
“And when I was easing myself back with the club, I played a challenge game against Meelin, with our intermediates. Ronan Dwane was in charge of them and I played quite well. And he was Cork’s intermediate manager. So off the back of that, he brought me in.
“And I started with Cork intermediates against Tipp, in Thurles, the day the Cork seniors were hammered by Tipp in the lashing rain.
“We were hammered before it as well. But that was something I was really proud of. I didn’t play that well or anything. But to get back to that stage so soon, it sort of showed me how big sport was for me. It can make you feel like you’re winning.
“The way melanoma goes, you get something removed, you watch it, watch it; something pops up, you deal with it; you watch and watch. Scan every three months.
“But I felt great, I felt perfect. There was nothing really holding me back. As far as I knew, there was no disease in my body. There was no evidence of anything.”
August 28, 2016: Cork SHC, Round 4: Sarsfields 1-15 Midleton 2-21
He badly wants them all to know how much he appreciates them.
His dad David, who’d drop everything, any time, and drive anywhere.
Mom, who keeps track of every appointment; logs every twist in this road.
Nan Bridie, who just loves him.
Alanna, whose deeper understanding of everything Eoin is up against means she gets asked too many questions.
And Conor and Orla, the brother and sister. And everyone at the club. The friends who can talk about it and the ones who can’t.
“Everyone helps in their own way, according to their own personality.”
Then there’s his consultant Dr Derek Power and his clinical nurse specialist, Emma O’Riordan.
“I remember my first time talking to him. He emailed me information. I was worried. I had a lot of questions. I was going to bed: half 11, 12. I emailed him; thought he’d see it in the morning. At ten past 12, he emailed me back.
“He’s world-renowned in melanoma and he’s unbelievably available and empathetic. A really good guy and I’m lucky to have him.”
Dr Power found a medical trial in London. No disease was showing, but this was another layer of precaution.
“They give you a drug, see if it will keep melanoma away.
“The caveat was it’s double blind. Every trial needs that. The patient doesn’t know if they are getting the treatment and the people giving it don’t know if you’re getting the real drug or the placebo.”
By now he had finished a masters in education at UCC and was teaching in Christians. The school freed his timetable to allow him to travel to London on Wednesdays.
A new routine formed: Train Tuesday night; Cityjet Wednesday morning; fly home Wednesday evening; train Thursday.
“I never gave myself the out to miss training. I didn’t think I had an excuse. I was feeling fine, so much so that we were thinking I’m getting the placebo, not the treatment.”
The only thing he’s ever asked of the club is that they treat him like any other player. The only thing he doesn’t want is minding.
That first year, he did wonder, once or twice, if he’d made a mistake being so open about his illness.
“There was one fella, not the manager, who said it to me, that we thought you were a good bit weaker because of the treatment. That pissed me off, because I was not missing training, I was keeping an eye on everything I was doing in the gym, my numbers were up.
“When you hear that you’re thinking, ‘maybe it’s not something I need to be saying, because people are making inferences’.”
He was in London getting treatment the Wednesday before they lost in the championship.
“We had a disaster against Midleton.”
He doesn’t mention that he scored the goal.
And then, a few weeks later, London rang.
“I’d get a scan every fourth time I went over and something showed up.
“They could tell me then that I was on the drug, because that would impact my future treatment choices. Which was good and bad, because it meant that drug wasn’t an option. But they had to release me from the trial.
“So, I went back in for surgery in the CUH, to take out much deeper lymph nodes.” Another wound. More staples.
“But that was fine.”
Sept 4, 2017: Cork SHC quarter-final: UCC 0-18 Sarsfields 1-15
[timgcapimported=Eoin O’Sullivan wins the ball from UCC’s Mark O’Brien in their 2017 clash. Picture: Eddie O’Hare]febb8788-f0fd-4321-b25e-5be4ad3bcf3c__09c3a56a-3d05-4a09-a37c-ed408bc1470f[/timgcapimportedBut that was fine!Along the way, Eoin started to study the teachings of performance guru Gary Keegan. And he began to hold one line of Keegan’s very close.‘The obstacle is the way.’“It was probably the way I’d been living anyway, to a degree. But it made me think about it even more.“Instead of showing resistance to something, the way I interpreted it is, whatever obstacle you have, whatever adversity, it’s all about how great can you be against that challenge.”So in 2017, when “something popped up again”, as he puts it, Eoin faced it head on.“I remember, I had a good bit of groin pain. I missed training, rehabbing what I thought was a groin injury. But it was a mass in under a muscle.“They went in again, same scar, just made it a bit bigger. Took out more lymph nodes. You’re basically just rehabbing a scar, or the muscle that was broken through, to get back playing again,”By now, Sars manager Brian Roche knew exactly where Eoin stood. In truth, he’d always known. If he was down in the field he was all in. He didn’t need protecting.“I just made it back for UCC. We were down a good bit and I came on, maybe 20 minutes to go. And I had a big impact, I was scoring and set up a few. That was huge for me. It felt like I had got over something. It was a tangible goal I’d reached,“Coming up to the matches, you’d be saying, ‘if I can play this match and do well, whatever happens after, if I don’t play again, fuck it’.“But it’s not a healthy thing to be thinking. You end up wanting more all the time.“We drew and won the replay. I remember Brian Roche was so happy for me. He came up to hug me after and he split his head on my helmet, he was so excited.“My mom and dad would have seen me have enough disappointments. So moments like that were great for me, but great for them as well.“What sport offers you is massive. It’s something tangible. You can do your rehab, go to the gym, do your runs, tick all the boxes. It’s tangible; it’s easy, in a way.“The harder part is the intangibles. Your mindset and keeping on top of that. It’s the same with hurling. If you’re going well, you can take your foot off the pedal. ‘What am I doing with negative thoughts? Am I managing them’?”Not long ago, he got a text from a former manager Conor Cusack, who’d taken his Imokilly group at U15 and U16.It read: ‘Cancer picked the wrong battle’. And Eoin sent one back, reminding the sender of his part in building what strength he had.“He changed me. The way I think and the way I’m able to deal with this, I’d attribute back to him. The tools he gave us when we were 14.“He had us visualising before a final with our eyes closed. Things that were way down the line.“For all the causes he’s helping now, which are probably more important than anything to do with sport, his loss to hurling as a coach is immense. He was the best.”Starting to soarThe late Jim Stynes, the great Australian Rules footballer, is another inspiration.“I watched the documentary . He was an unbelievable man. He had melanoma and he started at stage four. I started with stage two or three and I’m at stage four now..“He said in the doc’, and I couldn’t understand it, that he needed melanoma to happen to him. His life was gone in a way that he needed it. I’d never say I needed it but I understand it now, in that it’s definitely changed me, changed my mindset.”The Reach Foundation Stynes helped build is dedicated to inspiring young people to believe in themselves and get the most out of life.Eoin was drawn to it, and its Irish counterpart, Soar, founded by former Clare hurler Tony Griffin, with Karl Swan.“I just loved the messages they were giving.“Tony is one of the best men I’ve ever met. When you’re talking to him, you have 100% his attention. He’s so present. It’s really special. It’s a gift.“It opened up my world outside of sports, to be a better person. To try to find a profession I love and enjoy.“Only for them, I wouldn’t be doing physiotherapy now.”.That’s what he always wanted to do. But the points were high and anyway he didn’t want to leave Cork. Training with Sars was the priority.But with all the physio he was getting, it struck him that the people treating him shared his calling.“And I kind of felt, ‘if it’s something you want to do, why didn’t you do it?’ So, I went back to do a masters in anatomy, because I had no science. And, eventually, I got accepted into physio in UCC.”And now Declan O’Sullivan, his physio since he was 14, is his teacher too.September 16, 2018: Cork SHC quarter-final: Sarsfields 1-14 UCC 0-20
“During that winter, I started getting this terrible back pain
“I’m mad into NFL and NBA, so if I woke at two in the morning, I’d get up and watch something. But I remember the pain was so bad you literally couldn’t focus on the game.”
More scans showed there was something left over and it wasn’t removable by surgery. “I missed the semi-final of the league against the Barr’s. I was too sore; couldn’t play. I couldn’t do anything, really.
“The consultant had a new drug he offered me. Many people with melanoma have the BRAF gene. And there are drug options to target that gene. It’s immunotherapy. An immunosuppressant. It targets the gene that makes melanoma spread and causes it to stop the spread.
“So I had this terrible back pain and I took this medication and, two days later, the pain was gone. And it wasn’t a painkiller. It literally deleted the disease. It was amazing.
“It has other effects. Your white blood cells would be a bit lower. Your immune system is affected. But nothing that made any difference to me.
“I had a scan a couple of weeks later: Everything was gone. Unbelievable.
“But the thing with these drugs, they are like antibiotics: They have a shelf life. The max, normally, is five years, though there are people on it five years and still going on. But you know there’s a timeline. It’ll stop working at some stage.
“But I was flying. You take them every morning and every evening. It’s slightly inconvenient. You can’t eat an hour before and two hours after, but it’s nothing really, with something like this.
“I started taking them a week or two before the league final and I was able to play. Now I was shocking, I pulled a hamstring.
“But it felt unbelievable. That consultant — do they know the effect they are having on you? I was able to have that winter, the whole next year, totally clear of anything.
“And then the manager asked me would I feel comfortable captaining Sars. Did I have too much going on? Did I want it? And I did want it. And I had that full year, something you always dream of doing, captaining Sars.”
We dwell, for a moment, on that old Gordian knot, club versus county.
Eoin’s brother Conor was playing for Cork, but deep down did he really want Cork to keep winning? When he was this healthy, time was so precious. A club game put back a month is torture.
“It was selfish. When you’re younger, you’re so passionate about Cork. But if Cork are winning, it could delay your whole season. A lot of club players don’t really care about Cork now, besides your friends playing and your family. And it’s a pity.”
He talked with the sports psychologist Caroline Currid, whom he knew from his UCC freshers team. “She helped me with those feelings and made your process of thinking better. You wouldn’t allow yourself to get away with thinking like that.
“In the end, we lost to UCC in a quarter-final, but there was no problem for the whole year.”
He scored six points that day.
Dec 17, 2018: Cork Senior League final: Sarsfields 0-15 St Finbarr’s 1-10
This is Eoin’s story. But it is important too, to Sarsfields, that Eoin knows how much he means to them, how much he inspires them.
Club chairman, stalwart, Tadhg Murphy was managing the intermediates that first year, when Eoin was, in his words, easing back.
“We were beaten by Kildorrery in the championship. And he played with the same intensity and determination as if it was an All-Ireland final. Whenever he puts on the jersey, he just drives on.
“It’s unreal, his commitment and his determination. Even outside of the response to his illness, it’s just his total dedication anyway. If you pass the field, you’re 99% sure of seeing him in there, practising, practising. And it has paid off: His ratio on the frees has improved in recent years.
“We all know the knock-backs he has had. That day against Douglas, he was just out of hospital a few days. What must have been on his mind? But he can close things out and focus on the job in hand. He got them from all angles when we needed them. He’s an unreal young fella.”
O’Sullivan was a quiet captain, but a hugely popular one, who led by example. “He was very good with the younger players coming into the panel. He shares a lot with them, his positive thinking. They take great inspiration from him.”
So it meant more than a regular league title that they won with him as captain, beating the Barr’s in the final.
Sept 21, 2019: Cork SHC quarter-final, Imokilly 1-17 Sarsfields 0-10
He played against Kanturk in the first round. Did well. Then something showed up again.
“It had always been on the left side. This time it was in the mid-line of my aorta.
“Basically, all your intestines are inside this sac, and there’s a layer that surrounds that, the peritoneum. It was behind that, behind the aorta, in this space called the retro-peritoneum. It just made the surgery bigger. It’s quite invasive.”
Another six-inch scar.
Alanna had almost come to enjoy those first few minutes when he’d wake up from surgery; the nonsense out of him when he was still under the influence. She’d always remind him of it later.
“There was no craic after this one. The pain was so intense.
“On the physio course, I had a class and the guy mentioned retro-peritoneal surgery and he said the outcomes aren’t good for recovery. He wouldn’t have known about me.
“But I was probably back playing in two months. I was lucky. I had a baseline. You’re healthy and fit. And before, with the surgeries, you’d be nice to yourself. I’d eat a bit of crap food. By that stage, I had such a focus on coming back, I wouldn’t even eat hospital food. My mother would be bringing in the best of food, trying to get high protein, trying to get recovery for the tissue.
“I got back playing league games. But you do have it in your head that it could be your last game at any stage.”
Because there was more disappointment. It still wasn’t gone.
“I’m too far down the line to be protected now. My consultant never wants to tell me over the phone if there’s anything bad, but I don’t care now. I don’t need to sit down to hear it either. I’m kind of used to it. Basically, he said you need to go and get this special type of radiotherapy.
“I’d had 30 rounds of radiotherapy before, when I had the back pain. But this was called stereotactic. It’s new; hi-tech. I would have to go to Dublin for 30 days, six sessions, Monday to Friday, move into the hospital grounds.
“But I started feeling queasy and sick. And I knew it wasn’t just anxiety. We played Blackrock in the league final and I was feeling terrible, but I played.
“And then I asked for a scan, which I had never done before, but I knew something was up.”
The scan showed something in the adrenal glands. So radiotherapy was cancelled and he’d need more surgery, after the Douglas game.
Nail those frees Saturday evening, into the Mercy Tuesday.
“A new guy, Criostóir Ó Súilleabháin. He was excellent. A normal guy; no airs or graces. He said the aim was to do keyhole and a good recovery. But there was a chance he’d have to do a big cut and he wouldn’t know until he tried.”
Three keyhole incisions and one medium-sized cut did it. Now for Imokilly, 18 days later.
“The surgeon met me in the corridor the day after. And he’s a big man. Six foot something. I remember, he slapped me down on the shoulder as hard as he could and said, ‘how are you feeling?’ And you’d be half-shocked, but delighted, because it was him saying, ‘you’re not fragile’.
“Recovery was slow. After a week, I came down to watch training, two weeks out from championship. I walked a few hundred yards and I was exhausted and sore.
“By the Tuesday, I was trying to puck a few balls, pulling with the arms rather than the abdomen. And I had small, tiny improvements in what I could do. I talked to the physio, Declan. And I was delighted when he said, ‘if you want to play, you’d want to be running in a couple of days’.
“Maybe a week and a half out, I was able to hit a free from the opposite 60. I was really improving.
“I was doing a lot of stretches, trying to stretch the scar. The pain was intense enough.
“So, Declan advised me about this American company, who make this protective gear for baseball. Basically, it’s like that compression gear you wear under your jersey, but there is a slot for the abdomen you can slide things into.
“So, you get this gel and put it in the slot and mould it around your body and within 30 minutes it’s rock-solid. A tailor altered it for me to protect exactly where my stitches were.
“The last advice I got was maybe not to play, that the wound was a bit deep. I’d never gone against advice before. But I had my mind made up at that stage.
“I knew I was pushing the boat out. But it was Imokilly. We knew it was do or die. I said I’d chance it.”
First, he needed to play a training match.
“Fellas were being careful of me. But at one stage the ball broke and Daniel Kearney gave me a belt of a shoulder and he apologised straight after. But it was great to be able to take it.
“I came on against Imokilly when the game was half-over. I didn’t do anything. I scored a free. But I felt perfect playing.
“And I was delighted I did, because I was able to be in and around it, taking shoulders. And it was something to be proud of.”
Staying in the moment
Of course he’ll hurl this year, if there are matches.
“I was training away mad up to the shutdown. We did a 50km challenge with Sars in April.
“Before everything closed down, I went down to the Sars gym and we all took a barbell and some weights.
“If the GAA opened it up and they were happy for hurling to go ahead, that would be enough for me. You can only mind yourself so much. But I’m being responsible. I’m basically just following the government guidelines. But if sport is opening up, I wouldn’t think twice.”
There has been more back pain, and a scan in April confirmed a dread: Another lymph node.
“On the front of the vertebrae, where the muscles attach on. Extension exercises in the gym would be very sore the day after.
“For a month, I hardly slept. They were looking at surgery again. But, basically, if they remove it there’s a good chance my kidney could be taken out. And I have a perfectly healthy kidney, so they couldn’t advise it. It would be hero surgery.
“So I’ve done four sessions of radiotherapy in the Bons, at the new centre there. The consultant Paul Kelly is excellent.
“I’m on quite strong pain relief. You feel like you’re after a few pints. I was a zombie for a few days. I wouldn’t have been in a good place to talk last week. But I’m back feeling good. I can eat, I’m sleeping.”
He finished that radiotherapy yesterday. The mass has reduced, but they won’t be able to judge success for six weeks.
He won’t let his mind wander up that track. Not much.
“This has definitely changed me, for the better in a lot of ways. Before, you’d have a scan, and I’d be shitting it two weeks coming up. Get the scan, I’ve to wait a week, then worry, worry; thinking, thinking, thinking. Now, I walk in, get the scan, walk out, and I wouldn’t think about it until the day I’m finding out.
“Any book you read about mindset, it is all about being in the moment. And not worrying about the future.
“I definitely do worry about things. I worried about that back pain. I’d look at that as not being good enough, thinking like that. You need to be better; you’re not being fair to yourself thinking like that, or being fair to people around you.”
The illness has made him less selfish, he hopes, more interested in other people. He gets my life story before I sit back in the car.
He’s grateful for so much. He knows it’s a luxury that he can stay in college, change career, that his parents look after him.
He made it to the States with Alanna before Christmas. Two Lakers games; Saw LeBron twice; Vegas, San Fran’, New York. And it was magic.
He loved , is stuck in a million discussions about it. But Jordan’s leadership style wouldn’t be his. There’s a selfishness he can’t take to now.
He thinks he’s become a better hurler every year, despite everything. “That Douglas game was probably one of my best performances.”
He is back meditating again.
And as we sit here, on a beautiful day, looking out on the Sars training pitches, there is social distance between us, but you know he is totally here, in the moment.
He has that gift too.