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12th Jan 2022

“By second year I was the best fighter in the school because that was all that I done.” – How hurling saved Sambo

Niall McIntyre

Terence ‘Sambo’ McNaughton says that, in his Laochra Gael episode which airs for the first time this Thursday night, viewers will see him opening up like never before about the speech impediment that dogged his life.

Not even his wife and kids had heard this much and, after being put through an emotional ringer as he watched a preview of the programme himself, it’s only since that he’s sat down with them to talk freely and openly about his struggles.

That he can now talk freely shows how far the man has come, especially when you consider the horrors he went through as a youngster. That was a time when, as a result of his communication difficulties, Sambo was unable to go into the shop to buy an ice-cream. He was told to go to sleep during class. It was a time when, if someone stopped him on the street and asked him for the time, this young man wouldn’t have been able to give them an answer.

We spoke to him on Monday night ahead of the TG4 programme and it was an emotional interview, with Sambo raking over the coals of his painful past.

“I had to go into the left hand side of the classroom, the back of the classroom and the teacher made me fold my arms, put my head down and go to sleep.

“That was for a full year. She never even spoke to me. Never gave me homework or anything for a year.  So If I didn’t feel like an outsider, she was definitely going to make sure I was an outsider.

“Waiting for that bus on a Monday, the Special Needs bus and all the other boys slagging you and bullying you and all that sort of thing, you really felt like an outsider.”

The only place he felt at home was on the hurling field.

“The school was 50 yards from the pitch and it was just like two different worlds,” Sambo says.

“I don’t know where my life would have been if I hadn’t have played hurling because by the time I got to secondary school I was unteachable.

“By the time I got to second year I was the best fighter in the school because that was all that I done. React to anything somebody said and it was just, bang. Leaving school I had zero education, not being able to read and write, not being able to communicate and no communication skills whatsoever.

“I don’t know where I would have ended up and what would have became of me only for hurling. I make the point, I needed Cushendall hurling club a lot more than it needed me. It saved me.”

Of course there are still times when the publican finds himself lost for words, and there was a moment in our interview when the words wouldn’t come easily but crucially, he is no longer as hung up on his difficulties as he once was. He just gets on with it now and if anything shows how far he’s come, it’s that he’s been managing teams, the Antrim senior hurling team among them, ever since he retired from playing.

“Even now I’m not comfortable talking in front of teams. Even when I took over St Enda’s there, to walk in a room with 30 guys not from your own club, I found it very difficult to do.

“But I love the game and I get over it. Most people are understanding, they know the score now, it’s not as big a hang up for me as it was by any stretch of the imagination. Even the fact I’m sitting here, I can communicate reasonably well.”

And it’s not the odd stop or stammer, it’s the sense of humour that’ll stay with you after a chat with Sambo.

“The one thing about a speech impediment, you see whenever you’re mad, you could always fuck, you could always swear, for some unknown reason your speech impediment never seemed to bother you whenever you were threatening somebody,” he laughs.

And even though his past was painful, he says it played a big part in making him the hurler he became – one of Antrim’s greatest ever.

“I had that fierce desire. I met a lot of better hurlers than me but I met very few that matched me for desire or determination.I was tunnel-visioned, and I really mean that. I would get the wife to drop me off in Carnlough and I’d run home just to keep the weight off. If I had a bad game it bothered me for days.”

“It probably moulds your character. It leads you to that determination I had and that desire. I am well aware that I could fill Croke Park with better hurlers than me. The only thing that I brought to the table was, ‘I don’t care how good you are, I am here for an hour and I ain’t going nowhere.’

“I am not saying that to sound arrogant, but it’s the one thing that you didn’t need to be from Kilkenny for, or Tipperary – desire is something that comes from within and I had an abundance of it.  I really wanted to succeed because that was the only thing I could succeed at because I was never going to invent a cure for cancer.”

You won’t want to miss this one.

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