How deep faith helped Mickey Harte through the hell no dad wants to face
In the build-up to Tyrone's All-Ireland semi-final match against Kerry, we talk to the Red Hands' manager on his pride in his family and how they helped him cope with the tragic loss of his beloved daughter Michaela
It was on a January night of sub-zero temperatures in 2003 that, encouraged by my long-time Ulster Council companion Cuthbert Donnelly, I approached with outstretched hand a dapper figure in a peaked cap at Dunmoyle, the hillside headquarters of Errigal Ciaran, the then reigning Tyrone and Ulster senior club football champions.
This was my introduction to Mickey Harte, a man destined not only to transform his county's football fortunes, but also to become one of the most iconic personalities in Irish sport.
He had just been entrusted with the Red Hand reins, yet his focus remained firmly on preparing Errigal Ciaran for their participation in the forthcoming All-Ireland club series.
Courteous, affable, yet extremely driven, as I was soon to discover, he exuded an air of quiet confidence but unmistakable authority as he conducted an intense training session on a night when even car lights on the network of surrounding roads in the normally busy Ballygawley area were conspicuous by their absence.
Just nine months later and a whole world away from the Arctic environment of his home club in every sense, Harte was to preside over a seminal moment in his county's GAA history when the coveted Sam Maguire Cup was captured for the first time, with the legendary Peter Canavan taking delivery of the trophy which had proved elusive for so long.
Nor was this to prove a mere dalliance with success. Twice more since then (2005 and 2008) the All-Ireland title has been claimed by the O'Neill county, along with four Ulster senior crowns.
Today, a dozen years after taking his bow on the inter-county stage, during which a whole platoon of county managers have taken the exit door following stints of varying timespans, Harte remains firmly ensconced in his role and, if anything, more hungry and ambitious than ever.
With his Red Hands side through to the last four of the All-Ireland race - again - Harte can reflect on a life well spent to date but which has brought ecstasy and agony in equal measure.
And while the arrival of silverware in what was a success-starved county has brought immense satisfaction for Harte, his real reward goes deeper that tangible trophies.
"It's the challenge of working with good players that has always appealed to me," he points out. "The task of helping young, new players, in particular, to be as good as they can be and to encourage those who are more seasoned to continue to work at their game is what I am about. The art of management is to help everybody to be the best they can be as an individual and then help them fit that into a team ethos."
But Harte, a man of deep faith who strongly espouses family values, has endured more than his share of tragedy.
The deaths of Tyrone minor player Paul McGirr and then senior team captain Cormac McAnallen in 2004 were to impact deeply on Harte.
He was to suffer the greatest personal tragedy of all through the death of his beloved daughter Michaela while on honeymoon in Mauritius in January 2011 - an event that he admits has changed his life.
In coming to terms with what was unparalleled grief, he and his family - wife Marian and sons Mark, Matthew and Michael - revealed a steadfastness of faith, dignity and courage that bordered on the incredible.
Harte himself is always willing to pinpoint from where such inner strength came.
"I have had challenges to deal with in life and I have always felt that God was with me through those," he stresses. "It's something that has come to me. I've had a good life, many good things have happened to me and I have had setbacks. But all the while I have believed that God was at the helm of everything."
It was his solemn bearing and firmly-held beliefs particularly during the greatest cross he has to bear that resulted in Harte becoming a source of comfort and encouragement for those in difficulties.
Countless bereaved families throughout Ireland, numerous community groups, a host of charitable organisations and many sports clubs encompassing various pursuits continue to reap benefits from his inspirational rhetoric.
"I don't think that I have anything wonderful over anyone else. I just try to be who I am and that being the case, if I think I can help somebody then I will try and do it. I've been to places where I have got positive feedback from being with people and sharing experiences with them. There is nothing more rewarding in life than being able to give of yourself," says Harte.
His pride, too, in his family is manifestly evident.
"I think Mark in particular showed a great level of maturity in the unfortunate circumstances of Michaela's death. He went out there and he represented us and it was a very tough challenge for him but he took on that mantle just the same. I am very proud of him as I am of all our children," states Harte.
"They are well grounded young people and my wife Marian is a lady who has stayed out of the picture as she finds that sort of life difficult. She has a nice personality and is a real good person."
Mark and Matthew are teachers - Michaela was also a member of the teaching profession - while Michael is a physiotherapist.
"Our family are very supportive of us now and they have very much matured since this tragedy happened in our family," reveals the triple All-Ireland winning Tyrone boss.
And it comes as no surprise to learn that he spends practically every spare hour he can muster in the bosom of his family.
His pride and joy are his two grandchildren to whom both he and Marian devote themselves.
"They certainly provide me with all the comfort and inspiration I need," smiles Harte. "Obviously they are our pride and joy and there is nothing I enjoy more than spending time with them. Football can make big demands on you but when you have your family to come home to, it helps to keep everything in perspective. We are blessed to have the grandchildren because they add another dimension to our lives and they also certainly help to keep us on our toes - but then any grandparent will I am sure agree with that sentiment!"
It's in the comfort and privacy of his home, far from the spotlight, that Harte loves to relax, watching television or reading - a man of simple, uncomplicated tastes who never for a moment thought when he made his debut as Tyrone minor manager all those years ago that his journey would take him to sporting immortality.
And he is still abashed when on those occasions he dines out with Marian that his autograph and photograph should be eagerly sought.
Yet it's his willingness to accede to such requests and to provide a helping hand wherever it is sought that have played their own part in helping to secure for him the elevated status he continues to enjoy.
The perusal of football material in whatever format - he is an avid reader - and a diet of television sport allow him to, temporarily at least, free himself from the pressures and worries of a role he nonetheless he clearly loves with an abiding passion.
And he takes a keen interest, too, in the Michaela Foundation, the body established to honour the memory of his late daughter.
From modest beginnings the foundation has blossomed to the extent that hundreds of young people now attend special summer camps aimed at promoting values that encourage them to succeed in life fulfilment and happiness with faith, confidence and fun as their base.
Michaela was invariably the first to reach her father's side at the end of big games, the bond between the pair clearly palpable as they celebrated many epic sporting feats.
Football, of course, took a back seat for some time in the aftermath of Michaela's death but gradually Harte immersed himself once again in the sport in which he has long since attained his slot in the pantheon of great managers alongside such luminaries as Kevin Heffernan, Sean Boylan, Mick O'Dwyer and Peter McGrath.
If time waits for no man, then Harte has surely maximised to the best of his ability since then the opportunity to honour his daughter's memory, cement his family's pride and for the most part to sustain Tyrone's status as a football power-base.
He himself remains the same unassuming, yet passionate, articulate and single-minded competitor who not only has the courage of his convictions but is always prepared to wear his heart on his sleeve.
On Sunday week he will send his Tyrone side out against Kerry in an All-Ireland semi-final for which Eamon Fitzmaurice's reinvigorated outfit are favourites not only to reach the final against Mayo or Dublin but are viewed in some quarters as capable of retaining their title.
With God on his side, though, master tactician Harte is quite capable of ruining this particular script.