Football. That’s the Way he Rocks.

Piece for the Gaelic Player’s Association on Ronan Rocks

This Saturday at Parnell Park, former Derry player Ronan Rocks will line out in the second Professor Hollywood Memorial Cup. The purpose of the match is to raise funds for the cancer units in St. Luke’s and St. James’s hospitals. The football match will be played by players like Ronan who have battled back after a cancer diagnosis. Eleven years ago Rocks’ world was turned upside down. Family and Football kept him focused as he explained to Joe Passmore.

All Ireland Semi Final 2004

February 2004. Ronan Rocks had the world at his feet. Back playing for Derry, His club An Lub had won the Derry championship for only the second time in their history and had surprised everyone by winning an Ulster Senior Championship under up and coming coach Malachy O’Rourke.

Featuring Derry players Paul McFlynn, Johnny McBride and Rocks the south Derry outfit combined a tough uncompromising approach with a tactical cuteness. Rocks was one of the go-to men in the forward line. The Ulster Final match report against St Galls: “Loup were stronger in the second half with the reliable right boot of Ronan Rocks proving a telling factor. The Derry star landed a superb ’45’ and a 35-metre free as Loup stormed to a famous victory.”

By his own admission the loss to the Meehans-powered Caltra in the All Ireland semi final was a lowpoint in his career. But it wasn’t the toughest battle Ronan was to fight in 2004.

Throughout the winter and into the All Ireland campaign Ronan had something else nagging him. He’d noticed a lump on the side of his neck that showed no sign of disappearing. He didn’t think much of it, although he remembers it would have been noticeable coming out of the shower after matches.

“It was maybe half the size of a mandarin orange would be the best way I would describe it. One night in the house Rhonda my wife says what’s that lump on your neck. I says I honestly don’t know, I must have taken a knock on the neck.

“You know yourself, you’re out training 3 or 4 nights a week and you think it’s just a knock or something. I let it go over Christmas. The local GP had told me it would do no harm to get it checked out but the usual thing being the typical man I suppose, I thought I was an indestructible Gaelic footballer and I did nothing about it. We played Caltra in the All Ireland semi final, though we lost, it was one of the best games I’d ever played. Little did I know at the time what I had.”

The Sledgehammer

When the dust settled on the All Ireland campaign, a week or two later, Ronan finally arranged to go and get himself sorted out. He takes up the story:

“A week or two after I went to see the GP and he referred me on to get a biopsy done. The alarm bells ringing for the doctor were that I was having a lot of night sweats. He was thinking out loud which worried me slightly, he got me pushed in as quickly to the hospital as possible where I got a biopsy.

Things moved fairly quickly for Ronan after that, so quickly that by his own admission he’d little time to get things sorted out with work and sport, let alone sorting out his own mind.

“It was 1 April, 2004. April Fools Day. I got the call then to come into the outpatients. There was a couple of doctors there, they sat me and Rhonda down and basically told me that what I had was non Hodgkins Lymphoma. Cancer of the lymph nodes. I obviously didn’t have a clue, but when they mentioned the word Cancer that’s when the sledgehammer hit me. Some April Fools day.

“When we left the room, we don’t remember driving back to Bellaghy, me and Rhonda, we were in a total state of shock. We’d just got married in 2002. We’d no children yet but we’d plans, we were just starting out, we were as happy as could be… more or less our whole world was just turned upside down.

Looking back now had he any more symptoms or noticed anything unusual at the time. He’s fairly adamant there wasn’t:

“I’d lost a small bit of weight but I was flying fit, I was playing the best football of my life, or so I thought.” he laughs. “I was back playing for Derry. I just thought that was a result of being in great shape.”

I had to Get Back

“I had to take a lot of things into consideration. A hundred million things were going through my head. But one thing I had in the back of my mind was I wanted to get back playing football. Even for one or two games. I had to get back.

“I had to get an operation to remove the lump in the neck, that was done fairly sharp and I had a loss of movement for while in one side.

A full body scan was done that revealed more bad news; there were two lumps the size of two fists in his chest that he was unaware of.

“I thought I was getting chemo for the sake of it just to be on the safe side after the lump was removed but halfway through the treatment they told me, no this treatment is for two lumps on my chest. The probably did tell me earlier on but I didn’t hear them.”

Looking back he finds the whole thing surreal.

“The word had come out that I’d cancer. I spoke to a couple of boys, the first couple of men I rang were Paul McFlynn and Johnny McBride, they didn’t say a pile and probably couldn’t really take it in. Malachy O’Rourke too. But those lads were great. When the word went out round Derry people had you dead. People though I’d only weeks to live. That wasn’t the way I looked at it.”

A Normal Routine

“When treatment started, the doctors told me don’t get out of your normal routine, I made a point of getting up in the morning when Rhonda was going to work to keep my general routine. Rhonda was working and I wasn’t and to be honest in terms of general living it was hard enough going.”

“After I got the operation I lost the power down the right side. But I remember in my own head deciding every day of this is one day less until I go back to playing football.

But it was tough, literally he had to pick himself up off the floor after one treatment.

“The first few sessions, I thought this is no big deal but after the 3rd or 4th session I thought hold on a minute here, and this is when it really started to kick in. Physically there were days you couldn’t get out of bed. The mental thing was the big thing, you drove yourself to get out of bed.

At the time Mickey Moran was manager of Derry.

“Micky Moran came to me and said you’re still part of the panel. You’re one of the boys, if you’re fit to come along to matches. Derry got to the All Ireland semi final that year and I remember I went to four or five of the games. The boys appreciated it I think, it maybe gave them a sense of you never know what’s round the corner.

During the campaign he was still receiving chemotherapy. On one occasion he got on the team bus with a cap on. The players didn’t know how to react when he took the cap off and he’d lost his hair. Ronan laughs at the memory:

“Later, on the road home after the game was won, the craic was good, and a few beers were going down, Togger Kelly says in that broad Slaughtneil accent ‘you’ve a quare shiny head on you’. It took a few drinks and a victory to break the ice. “

He missed the game against Westmeath due to a treatment and was given a boost when Paddy Bradley dedicated the win to him after the game. The Game. That’s what kept his mind straight.

“Mentally you were always thinking that’s five sessions away from playing football, all I could think about what getting back to playing football. All I thought about, that’s what I was clinging on to. I didn’t want people meeting me and saying you’re the lad that retired because of cancer. I wanted to prove that I could play another year or two.”

Eleven Years Later

Eleven years later, he’s still playing. Since then he takes nothing for granted and lives for his family. Rhonda’s sister Marcella passed away suddenly in 2005 with an undiagnosed heart condition. That struck Ronan to the core.

Ronan still togs out for the Bellaghy Over 35 team, he moved to Bellaghy where he now lives. The football bug that kept him going through the dark days of chemo and treatment still gnaws at him. He laughs and tells me there’s times he thinks he could still do a job for the seniors before reality bites. He’s been coaching with Ballerin club in North Derry and even helped out with his club Camogie team.

Himself and Rhonda now have four young children, Marcella the youngest is named after her aunt, Callum 8, Cadhan 5 and Charlie 4. Callum the oldest lad is starting to get an inkling of his father’s journey. Ronan says when the time is right he’ll talk to his son about it.

The next match he’ll play is this weekend’s Professor Hollywood Memorial Cup, in its second year of raising funds for the cancer units in St. Luke’s and St. James’s hospitals. The GAA football match will be played by those who have received cancer treatment and they aim to show others that there is life after cancer.

Ronan travelled down last year to play, along with his dad and his uncle Colum. He didn’t know much about the game in advance but sitting in changing room putting on his gear, the penny dropped.

“I remember sitting getting togged out, like a thousand times before. What struck me just before we went out onto the pitch, and you’ll understand having been in a club changing room, you’ll have cousins and brothers, lads you played with all your life, there’s a unique bond because of where you grew up.”

“But here I was with 35 men walking out onto the pitch. And there was a similar bond. Everyone of them had cancer. It almost brought a tear, the guy standing in front of you; the man behind you, the boys you were playing with, the man you were marking, everyone of them was a cancer survivor. That was the thing that stuck with me. Men of all ages and backgrounds.”

“The match was unbelievable Mick O’Dwyer was our manager and he was an inspiration. In his seventies still going strong, still learning and inspiring men round him.”

I asked him about his advice to his younger self and it is the same advice he’ll give his sons, and every young player:

“Simple. Get everything checked out. I thought cancer would never affect me. You think you’re indestructible but you’ve no idea. I can’t stress it strongly enough any lumps, bumps, lads not feeling themselves, afraid to talk to anyone. Anything at all, young lads if they’re feeling down, feeling a lump wherever go and get it checked, go and speak to someone.

This weekend Ronan returns for the 2015 Professor Hollywood match. He’s looking forward to it.

“Wee things that used to faze me don’t. Your family come first and trivial things don’t bother me anymore. I’m looking forward to the match and seeing all the lads again. I’m bringing Rhonda and the kids with me. Last year after the game I wished I’d had the family with me, other men had their children on the pitch. So this time I want the family there with me on the pitch when the football’s over. They’re all part of the journey.”

Football and family. Family and football. For Ronan Rocks, that’s the start of it and the end of it.


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