He had such a frightening scare with concussion that, this time last year, Shane O’Donnell was coming to terms with the fact that his days as a hurler were done.
He hesitated to go into the details but, in admitting that his “brain was not functioning” at a time that he could not “process anything,” it was a stark and jarring moment.
This man has been through the mill in the last 12 months. But even after all that, after many reservations, a false dawn, and plenty of advice from the experts, the Éire Óg Ennis dynamo is back. He’s back to his best and, as the PWC Hurler of the month for May, it’s a sign to him and to all of us that the thing has come full circle.
“I got a memory come up on my phone three days ago, and I was like ‘Oh God, that’s a memory I could do without’. It’s 12 months ago when it happened (O’Donnell was concussed in Clare training.)
“It was very difficult. I had 10 or 11 weeks off the pitch where I just could not… Hurling was just not to the forefront of my mind.
“There were six or seven weeks where my brain was not functioning. I could not process anything. Going from, like anyone, having a normal function where you go through your day and expect things to work. And go from that to having an extended period of time, the guts of two months, where suddenly you can’t process thoughts, your brain isn’t working well, you’re having all these extreme symptoms, pressure in your head, I’m not going to go through it. It was an extremely difficult time.”
“And also psychologically, it’s hard to know when that’s going to end. And if it’s going to end, because the nature of concussion, it’s isn’t just that you start with really bad symptoms at the start, and it gradually gets better. It comes at you round after round. And it feels like you’re never going to get to the end of it, being honest.”
“Once I had fully come to terms with what happened a few days after and I was feeling the full brunt of the symptoms, I’d accepted that I wasn’t ever going to hurl again.”
Eventually, and albeit tentatively, O’Donnell changed his tune and took his first, baby steps back during last year’s club season but he quickly discovered that physically and mentally, it was too much too soon.
“So after I eventually got over the physical symptoms, I went back playing club. I took a couple of hits, and I just wasn’t confident enough that the hits I was taking, I was able to ride through them. So they psychologically set me back. So ultimately, I ended up waiting until March this year to get the all clear again from the specialist, after getting it all done last year, getting the all clear.”
“I just wanted to get the OK from him, and just be told ‘yeah, you’re ok to play’. He told me ‘Physically, you’re fine. But I think you still have psychological [hang-ups], you’re concerned about it basically…the best way to handle the anxiety like this is exposure. The best thing you can do is get back on the pitch. That’s what I did. I asked Brian would they take me back in in March, and they were very very open to that, and I was delighted to get back on the pitch. It’s not been pleasant, the last 12 months to be honest. :
“It’s been an absolute tonic to be back, being able to just train, and it’s got me through that difficult head space. It’s been a joy to be back.”
GOAL! Shane O Donnell with a fantastic goal for Clare! pic.twitter.com/elWDJXSiWV
— The GAA (@officialgaa) August 5, 2018
O’Donnell has been at his selfless, lively and ball-winning best since his return and one of the things he puts that down to is his improved physique. He had a lot of time away from the field and O’Donnell says that he spent much of it in the gym.
“It’s definitely a silver lining that I have got to spend a bit more time in the gym but even in the last couple of years, I’ve been extending my off-season a small bit and trying to get to put more time into the gym before I come back in for pre-season.
“But yeah, last year was an extreme example, by the time I went back in this March, all of a sudden I had six plus months of being able to go to the gym (behind me) and half of that is being in the gym and half it is not being on the pitch, burning the work that you’re doing in the gym so I definitely feel like I’ve put on a bit of weight and feel like it’s helping too.
“The games are extremely physical in Munster and having that extra couple of kilos definitely contributes – you’re able to get involved in things that maybe you wouldn’t have had the impact without it.”
As for his switch from corner forward to wing forward, O’Donnell says one of the things he’s focused on is improving his ability to take long range scores.
“It definitely gives you more freedom to actually impact the game when you’re not getting delivered ball directly. In the corner you kind of need to be fed the ball a lot of the time and wing-forward is completely different. You can just keep working, even get in the way of the opposition by tracking back. You’re doing whatever needs to be done but you can actually influence the game without needing to be directly involved in it by another team-mate. I really enjoy that.
“There’s pros and cons. I always loved playing in the corner. When things are going well in the corner there’s no better position and I still believe that. But wing-forward at the moment I’m really enjoying.
“I’m definitely focusing on the need to be able to shoot more and having that in my locker. It’s something I’ve been working on this year and the last two years. When I’m playing wing forward, it’s something that you just have to be able to do. At the same time, over the last few years, I always felt the right decision was to give it to whoever, Tony or the lad that’s running through. Just say when you’re full forward and you’re running out with your back to goal – there’s one on you, a second coming to you, usually the right decision is to give it to a spare Clare man.”13 June 2022; PwC GAA/GPA Players of the Month for May, from left, Clare hurler Shane O’Donnell, Waterford Camogie player Lorraine Bray, Dublin footballer Sinéad Goldrick and Derry footballer Brendan Rogers with their awards at PwC HQ in Dublin. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile