Odhran McKenna's incredible return is rewarded with Mageean Cup triumph
Three minutes of normal time remained at the Dub on Wednesday night when St Mary's CBGS coach Paddy Cunningham sent Odhran McKenna on for Darren Grego, as they were cruising to a comfortable win in the Mageean Cup final.
The crowd rose as one, including the St Killian's Garron Tower following, to hail the remarkable return of the St Mary's joint captain, McKenna.
Back in February during a nondescript Friday afternoon, he was travelling to his part-time job at Tescos in Crumlin when his car left the Killead Road and struck a tree.
Paramedics from the Antrim Area Hospital were on the scene as soon as possible, but it was actually the actions of those in a rapid-response car - which was under a pilot study in the Southern Trust at the time - that probably saved his life.
"Dr Dawson actually intubated Odhrán at the side of the road," recalls Odhran's mother, Sonia.
"We were told that was what actually saved his life because the paramedics, with what they had within their control and what was in an ambulance at that stage, wouldn't have had the drugs and the expertise to do that, but Dr Dawson did."
He was brought to the Intensive Care Unit in the Royal where he was under the care of Professor Danny McAuley.
In time he emerged from a coma and, after some time in recuperation at the Musgrave Regional Acquired Brain Injury Unit, was able to return home.
Sonia - a staff manager at the Northern Ireland Clinical Research Network and a midwife - was able to become his full-time carer, but it was a long road to recovery.
"He came home initially in a wheelchair on March 16," Sonia remembers.
"He looks so well physically, but for his psychological development, the GAA is such a part of our family life. Everybody is involved in the GAA. It's very important that Odhran got back into the routine of the family and what we do," she adds.
"There was lots of conflicting information, whether to play, not to play and different opinions from senior consultants. It was very hard for him to try and grasp this as a 17-year-old."
Odhran explains: "From learning to stand up, to learning to walk and then run, it wasn't always positive.
"A lot of consultants were pessimistic, saying I might never get back and that contact sport wasn't for me any more. I just had to keep positive."
There were enough people around him to keep a sunny outlook. His father Michael, older brother Peter and his twin CJ all played their parts.
At the club, his underage coach Gerard Shannon gently coaxed him along. He began doing light jogging, but then Gerard got him in to do a few drills with the team.
Happily, his hurler's feel for the ball hadn't deserted him.
"Even though I couldn't run the best, I was still striking well," he reveals.
And Gerard's son Shea, along with another friend Peter McCallan, "would have always been on my case that I would get back. And even in the dark days they were always reassuring you that you could get back.
"It was all very good. My first touch wasn't as good as it usually is, but it was still at a pretty high level. I was pretty happy with that and I knew I had a good baseline to work off."
When school came back around in September, so too did the Mageean Cup, the blue riband competition for college hurling. Odhran and CJ had won every Ulster title coming up through the ranks under the guidance of their coach, the former Antrim dual player Paddy Cunningham who teaches in the CBS.
Sitting on the sidelines would not do it for him any more.
"I threw the head up," Odhran laughs now.
"I still had double vision and the consultant told me to leave it for the next six months, go to the opticians and get the vision sorted. But I didn't want to miss this Mageean Cup so I just ploughed ahead."
In their first match against Cross and Passion of Ballycastle, he played a quarter of the match and ended up with a few scores to his name.
As Cunningham states, his influence wasn't just confined to the inside of the white lines.
"He is a huge personality, he is a huge leader and he has been a huge player for us since year 8, both him and his brother CJ," said the PE teacher. In my own head I had always planned on making them captains. They are the sort of lads you don't need to make captain, but with the work they have done over the last six or seven years, they both deserved to be captains this year."
He continues: "He is just a remarkable young man, with the example he set. It would have been very easy to throw the dummy out of the pram, especially him being so young, but the maturity he showed is beyond his years, especially with the trauma he has suffered over the last six months.
"The boys on that team, they did it for him. It was talked about in the changing rooms before the match. He has been a huge factor in that team all the way through and no matter what happened we were pulling that result out.
"They all love him to bits, he is a massive part of their lives, on and off the pitch. It was just great for him and CJ his brother to finish on the pitch as joint captains and lift the Mageean Cup."
The moment was special to Odhran as he was able to hoist the cup into the air, both brothers as the leaders of the west Belfast school.
"It was brilliant to get lifting it with CJ," he smiles.
"It was one for daddy and mummy to look back on. It's been rough for them, rough on my big brother as well."