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Fleming's pride shines through

Colm still playing despite near-death injury

By Declan Bogue

Colm Fleming undoes the top button of an expensive-looking shirt, and pulls loose the knot on his tie.

He shrugs the shoulders of a tasteful suit to afford a viewing of the nape of his neck. An inch-wide scar tracks a gouge several inches long, disappearing down between his shoulder blades.

A reminder of the time he broke his neck. The time he almost died. The time his father saved his life.

At the time, O'Donovan Rossa were preparing for an all-county Championship final against Cargin. They were doing a drill involving tackle bags and his father Sean was holding one.

"I got the ball and ran through the first set of tackle bags," Fleming recalls. "Whatever way the impact was I lost my footing as I was running too quickly. I ducked down and hit my head.

"Then, when the ambulance came, they didn't think it was broken. They just said it's precautionary because it was a neck and spine injury."

Rain was falling and some suggested moving him over to the steps to keep him dry. Sean knew his first-aid and insisted he stay there until the ambulance arrived, stabilising him with two tackle bags.

It turned out the C5 and C6 vertebrae were broken.

"If they had moved me, I could have died. It was a C5 injury, which controls the breathing. If you move at all, you could die," he recounts.

The legacy of the injury can be heard as he passes through airport security and the beeps signal the presence of a bolt and two screws in there. For life.

The following year he was back in another minor final, this time against Sarsfields. He knew his neck would be right after he got a thump on it.

You must excuse us if we can't quite tally the fresh face with our impression that he has been around for a long time.

He's just turned 24. After his birth certificate prevented him from playing minors by a matter of days, he went along to a county under-21 trial in January 2009, hoping the experience would stand to him the following year when he would make a serious push.

A week later, he was still in his Rathmore Grammar school uniform when Liam 'Baker' Bradley was on the phone, asking if he would play that weekend in the McKenna Cup against Cavan. He stayed on the panel as Antrim reached their first Ulster final in 39 years.

Now, he is out of college, working as an accountant for PriceWaterhouseCoopers and splitting his time between Dublin and Belfast.

When he is in Dublin, he stays at the Maldron Hotel and does his gym work at the St Jude's club along with Mark Sweeney, who is based there with his work as an Actuary.

Actuaries. Chartered Accountants. This doesn't exactly tally with Joe Brolly's insistence on players being 'indentured slaves, moving from one wee coaching job to the next.'

Fleming says time management is crucial. "It might be a sacrifice in terms of giving up time elsewhere, but playing county, going through University, you know how to balance your time, how to plan ahead and make time for your friends, your girlfriend, whatever. I don't think it affects it. If you want to do it, you know what you have to do."

So much for the sense of victimhood apparently rife among county players.

There is one thing that gnaws at him a little, though. Last year his girlfriend Aoife had her pharmacy graduation ceremony at Queen's the same day Antrim had to travel to Limerick for a qualifier. A number of players walked away from the panel and he thought there might be an opening to make his Championship debut.

Baker told him to stay alert and he warmed up a few times, but the call never came. Despite that, he has everything good to say about Liam, who always played a straight bat with him, and the coaching of Paddy Bradley last year who showed him how the best forwards think and react.

He will work hard on that, because hard work was mandatory in the Fleming house.

Sean teaches in Edmund Rice College and is constantly running around in his work for the GAA, his latest post being the PRO of Antrim county board. His mother Leonie teaches in Sacred Heart, Newry.

"We were told we were not allowed to be teachers because there are no jobs!" laughs Fleming.

By his own admission, he is not even the best footballer to come out of the house. That honour, he states, belongs to his brother Eoin. But some time ago, Sean used his brown belt experience to teach a bit of Judo in his spare time. Colm and Eoin went along.

Eoin got in at a good time. He now fights for Ireland and came fifth in the Commonwealth Games last year. Now that he is a funded athlete, studying maths with finance at Queen's, he cannot tog out for the Rossas.

Colm and Eoin have their career paths decided and sister Marie-Therese is sitting her A-levels and playing camogie for Rossa in her spare time.

On Wednesday morning Fleming was all set for a start with Antrim until their visit to take on Tyrone in Omagh was called off due to the snowfall. Antrim have named the same team tomorrow. He starts in corner-forward, all six foot three inches of him.

Tell him that in the eyes of many, the Antrim footballers are real heroes of the inter-county game with no reward in sight, and he will respond with: "A lot of it depends, in my opinion, in the pride of wearing the jersey and the pride in being part of the county panel. That, for me, means a lot."

Maybe the GAA isn't such a bad world after all.

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