Stephen Ferris: 'I had to write about my brother's death in my book because it's something that is so important to the family - Andrew will never be forgotten'
Stephen Ferris, rugby star-turned-pundit, speaks candidly about his life, including the pain of losing a sibling and the joy of his forthcoming marriage
Stephen Ferris was an outstanding rugby player for Ulster, Ireland and the British and Irish Lions. Dynamic and destructive, he was an inspirational figure when his home province reached the European Cup final in 2012, won 35 Irish caps playing a crucial role in the iconic 2009 Grand Slam success and sparkled, although was ultimately injured, for the Lions while on tour in South Africa the same year.
Flanker Ferris constantly put his body on the line, but his all-action style came at a cost, leading to injuries and ultimately retirement in 2014 due to a long standing ankle problem. He was 28.
As Stephen speaks - in a typically honest interview - about his sport, family life and tragedies that affected him deeply, he tells me that he has "no regrets" about his playing career ending prematurely and how, in his mind, he had "to be the best player on the pitch in every game" and was disappointed when he didn't reach that standard.
Ferris, now 31 and getting married to girlfriend Laura later this year, clearly applies the same mentality to his current role as a rugby pundit.
In the TV studio or commentary box, in-keeping with how he played, the Maghaberry man takes no prisoners. His straight talking is popular with the viewers. Broadcast companies love him too. Sky Sports, BT Sport and the BBC hire him on a regular basis.
During Ulster's awful run of recent form, Ferris has not spared his old team, criticising their performances and at one stage accusing them of lacking heart and passion - a statement which did not go down well with Director of Rugby Les Kiss and his players.
When Ferris speaks, people sit up and take notice. He admits, though, when he started out as a pundit shortly after retirement, there were doubts if he was up to the task.
"My first game was an Ulster match at Kingspan on a Friday. I had been in front of the camera quite a bit throughout my rugby career with interviews, but that night I was nervous and doubted myself a little bit," he says.
"It was like when I first played for Ulster. You have butterflies and wonder are you good enough to do the job, but when you are good enough you gain a lot more confidence."
On his hard-hitting punditry style, he adds: "There is no point in me doing this job if I'm not going to say what I feel. If the day comes that I don't do it that way, that'll be the day I don't do it anymore."
Given his comments about some Ulster performances this season, you would think Ferris is completely detached from the team. That is far from the case. He insists that he still has friends in the dressing room, that his criticism is never personal and has invited players who have issues with his views to get in touch.
"It is difficult jumping on a chartered flight to a game when players who have disagreed with some of my comments are sitting on the plane and you have to look them in the eye," says Ferris, an engaging giant of a man.
"But if anyone has an issue with something I have said I'd ask them to ring me or go for a coffee to discuss it, no problem at all. Everybody has an opinion. Whether they agree with me or not, that is okay. I don't take it personally that somebody like, say, Les Kiss or Andrew Trimble disagrees with something I say.
"I've been on that side of things. I remember years ago Andy Ward saying 'Stevie Ferris does too much talking off the pitch and not enough on it'. He said that as a pundit when I was 23 years of age and I wasn't best pleased.
"Now I'm really, really friendly with Andy. He's a great guy and we speak to each other regularly. Back then he was only giving his opinion and now I'm giving my opinions. The last thing you want to do is to break friendships that you have had for years and create barriers.
"It can feel slightly awkward at times but you need to be able to separate work and social life outside of work. If you can do that it makes relationships a whole lot easier."
Ferris spoke to Kiss 10 days after his "no heart and no passion" blast. They got on just fine.
The former Friends' Grammar School pupil says that he chats to Ireland captain and pal Rory Best and others in the Ulster camp on a weekly basis.
Ferris hopes these connections will never be broken. Like everyone at Kingspan Stadium, he was shattered by the shock death of Ulster star Nevin Spence, who lost his life along with his father and brother in a farming accident in 2012.
Eight years earlier Ferris was on the pitch for Ireland in South Africa in an under-19 Rugby World Cup match against New Zealand when team-mate John McCall collapsed, dying later in hospital.
He admits he still thinks about Nevin and John and reveals that what happened to them has had an effect on how he lives his life.
Ferris states: "Life was taken away from them too soon and that's one thing I always have in the back of my head that you don't know what is around the corner, so if you are given a chance at something you have to take it.
"It was so unfortunate what happened to Nevin and John. I would still think about them a lot."
In his must-read autobiography Man and Ball (far right), Ferris wrote about another tragic episode, telling how Andrew, the brother he never knew, died in a car accident aged four.
It was a moving account of a heartbreaking time for his mum Linda and dad Rab.
"It happened before I was born and had a big impact on my family.
"I could probably count the number of people on my hand who knew about it before I wrote it in the book, but I felt it was an important thing to do because to us Andrew will never be forgotten," he says.
"It also makes people realise that you haven't had an easy ride and that your family hasn't had an easy ride. It shows that people go through different experiences in their life and not everything is plain sailing."
I ask him about his parents. He pauses for the first time during the interview, thinking about them and his older brother David before replying. Then comes an answer filled with pride and love.
"My parents were a huge influence on me. My dad is very witty and well-read and has worked night shifts for the last 30 years for Royal Mail.
"He is still there. He wanted to provide for his kids and his family.
"My mum finished university and qualified as a nurse and left nursing and qualified as a teacher and is now a senior teacher at Parkview Special School in Lisburn.
"They are still very happily married, are very grounded people, know exactly where they came from and have worked hard to make their lives successful.
"I just tried to follow their example. It's amazing to think what they have done after going through losing their first-born child at the age of four.
"I'm very proud of them and everything that I've become today is down to my mum and dad and my brother Dave as well, because he is not only my brother, he is my best friend. He lives around the corner, he has two daughters now, my two nieces, and we are a very close-knit family."
One day Ferris wants to have children of his own. He weds his long-time sweetheart Laura McNally on August 12 in Co Cavan.
With a big beaming smile, Stephen says: "Laura has actually found her wedding dress after six months of shopping around. It's only the small things that need polished off now.
"It's another part of my life that I'm looking forward to. All the people that I care about and have a lot of respect for will be there to share the day with us and it's going to be brilliant. We are very excited.
"Laura is a great girl. After I retired, we travelled the world for three or four months.
"Living out of someone's pocket, travelling for that length of time and not getting into many arguments and with everything very good, that's when I knew Laura was definitely the girl for me to marry and hopefully raise a family with in the years to come."
Before the big day and more analysis on the rest of the rugby season, Ferris has a fun weekend in Las Vegas to savour. With a group of mates he will be cheering on his friend Carl Frampton in his world title fight against Leo Santa Cruz on Saturday night at the MGM Grand Hotel.
"Carl is a great lad," says Ferris who walked Frampton into the ring ahead of his first world title victory versus Kiko Martinez in Belfast in 2014.
"I have done training with him and couldn't get over how strong he is pound for pound and the weights he throws about. He is half my weight and there wasn't a huge difference in the weights we were lifting.
"I'm really looking forward to seeing Carl fight in Vegas and hopefully cheering him on to another big victory."