He'll be remembered as a footballer but Keith Higgins has always been a hurler
It says it all about Keith Higgins that corner forwards used to spend the day marking him.
With his tenacious style and those frequent, uninhibited bursts from defence, Mayo's number four was a missile that took minding and in his company, forwards spent a long time chasing shadows.
In many ways, the Ballyhaunis clubman was a corner forward's worst nightmare because in a game so often played with cagey, reputational fear, Higgins was not afraid of the man he was marking. No matter who they were.
It takes you back to 2014, when this full-blooded approach left Higgins wide open against an in-form James O'Donoghue, who was Gaelic football's most lethal forward at the time. Buzzing around the square dominated by Kieran Donaghy, O'Donoghue nabbed Higgins for 2-6 (0-4 from play) in a Gaelic Grounds replay that is remembered by many as one of the best games of the last decade.
What sums Higgins up is that even after conceding 2-6 to his direct opponent, the general consensus was that he had broken even in their individual battle, so frantic, eye-catching and pivotal were his blocks, lunges and interceptions.
They say attack is the best form of defence and for 16 electrifying seasons, it was this full-tilt, flat to the mat whirlwind that became the beating heart of this tenacious Mayo team.
Not your ordinary corner back.pic.twitter.com/jZrDUIGnI2
— GAA JOE (@GAA__JOE) January 23, 2021
Their era has ended now but the memories will live long and above all others, Keith Higgins won't be forgotten. Gaelic football has come through many changes since he started out his career winning Young Footballer of the Year in 2006, but while blanket defences, screens and transitions made their way, Mayo and most of all Higgins stayed true to principle.
They say that hurling is a more instinctive game than Gaelic football and in this sense, it's hardly any surprise that the foreign game in Mayo was Higgins' first love. In fact, if you were to draw comparison between Higgins and any GAA player of his time, it's Tommy Walsh who springs to mind ahead of any footballer because of the inimitable whole-heartedness and the coltish fire exuded by both.
"It's great, you don't have to spend 70 minutes running around after somebody, you can make your own runs," Higgins said on The GAA Hour, after he'd left the Mayo football squad to play hurling for the 2018 League.
For Ballyhaunis, Higgins won 13 county senior hurling titles. He won an All-Ireland junior hurling championship for Mayo in 2003 as well as a Nicky Rackard Cup in 2016. It's an over-used statement but if you'd seen Higgins run any hurling pitch from centre forward, it's clear as day that he would have made it as a hurler in any of the top counties.
"I've always played in the forwards for the hurling so it's a completely different dynamic to the football.
"The last few years, it's been a struggle to get any sort of game time with the hurlers. This year, I just took a break from the football to get to all the hurling games and I'm just enjoying it. For me, coming from where I was with the footballers and the pressure in the league the last few years, it's just all about enjoying it and that's the main thing for me," he continued.
Mayo hurling folk will be begging the 35-year-old to stay on for another couple of seasons. Their football followers will smile at his memory. There have been more high profile dual stars, but few have captured the minds and hearts quite like Keith 'Zippy' Higgins.
He'll be remembered as a footballer but in Ballyhaunis - Mayo's staunchest hurling stronghold - Keith Higgins has always been a hurler