"I had no real fear of inside a prison cell, it was the shame of the thing" - Johnny McGurk back on his feet
He's not sure if it's the hurling or the football or the breeding or something he picked up along the way but whatever it is, when he walked into prison, Johnny McGurk had no fear.
That was in 2016, the Derry GAA icon having been sentenced to 30 months, 10 in prison and 20 on licence for stealing more than half a million pounds from his employers. McGurk, who worked for construction firm Patrick Bradley Ltd as an accountant, had stolen the money to feed a life-changing gambling addiction.
Those were dark, dark days when, despite seeming to have it all going for him, McGurk plummeted to 'rock bottom' and walked around in a secret life of despair and depression. Like it had done to many before him and like it will do to many after, gambling's seductive siren had sucked him in and shook him up.
It was only when it all caught up on him, when he told his proud and renowned GAA family and when he was sentenced by a high court judge that, for the first time in a long time, McGurk was at peace. It might seem strange that, on the day he was sentenced, McGurk cried 'tears of relief' but relief is exactly what he felt.
"I felt if I was sentenced at that time at least it was some kind of closure on it," he tells us over a Zoom call ahead of his Laochra Gael on Thursday night.
"I'd gone to court, I'd faced up to my sins as such and I felt at least if I got some kind of sentence, it justified the fact I could walk around the place again.
"Not really with my head in the air, but with more of a justification that I had served my prison sentence and that they had decided that was right in terms of the length of the prison sentence and so forth. It marked a bit of drawing the line."
A line had been drawn but although the years will pass, the memories will fade and McGurk will do whatever he can to move on, try as he might, he knows that he'll never fully be able to get it out of his head.
"It is something that is not going to leave me. It’s there and it has left marks and scars and so on so I don’t think I will ever totally get over it. The fact of the matter is that I have to do what I can and move on."
He began to move on back in 2016, rebuilding his life from the strange and unfamiliar surroundings of a prison cell in Derry. He worked in the kitchen, peeling onions and spuds and cooking and cleaning and he started to study again. He didn't put his time to waste.
"The prison life; I actually didn’t struggle a lot with it," he says.
"For some reason the five years that I’d walked about and didn’t know what was happening (were worse.) At least in prison I knew exactly where I was heading and I tried to be as positive about it as possible," the dual star explains.
"But I had an opinion that I was going to do what I could in there, I knew I had sons that were going to do GCSE maths for example, so I started to study GCSE maths again.
"So I was able to do that and I did some computer work as well and tried to make sure that when I did come out, I had done something positive and it did help in terms of helping the children with their maths and I do tutoring now for GCSE maths as well, so it was something that probably was good. I had no real fear in prison in terms of other inmates or things like that.
"I suppose being a Gaelic footballer and hurler, you maybe don’t have as much fear of those things as some people should have. I’d probably put it down to something like that, but I had no real fear of inside a prison or a prison cell. The shame of the thing probably more than anything else was a factor, but the actual experience of being in there didn’t really worry me that much when I was in. I took it ok to be honest."
When you've took on that Meath team of the 80s, that Cork team of the 90s and when you've won five county hurling championships in Derry, it takes a whole lot more to shake you.
So what did it take for a man so talented, a man so normal and a man so well-raised to be sent flying over the edge? His gambling began in college, was soon shelved for the good of his hurling and football but it was when that all stopped that it started again. By 2006, he was betting big money on reserve soccer teams in Turkey and soon after he was sacked from his job, lost his marriage and ended up in prison.
He has good reason never to travel those roads again.
“I have got a good structure now. I have got Helen and the children here and so there's a great structure to my life, probably the best I have ever been for a long, long time.”
Coaching the kids of Lavey kept him going during the dark days and now there are a few young McGurks on Derry underage teams.
"My family have given me such a chance and a second chance in life that I couldn’t go back there to ruin that for them."
“I suppose being involved with the children and hoping that one day they will emulate a wee bit of the success that I was able to get, was lucky enough to get, That would be a big part of what keeps me going at the minute now.”
— Spórt TG4 (@SportTG4) February 15, 2022