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'Christopher was a big part of the family. His death shocked us all'

 

By Declan Bogue

On Thursday night, they gathered in the Church of the Assumption, Pomeroy, Co Tyrone.

Men and women in club jackets, black and amber of Pomeroy Plunketts, with a few black jackets with white trim, marking them out as Clonoe folk.

They packed the pews, taking up all available spaces to celebrate the life of Christopher 'Crico' Colhoun with a month's mind mass.

Colhoun was many things - a Pomeroy stalwart, a one-time Tyrone footballer who skated around the fringes of the team a decade ago, a dedicated teacher and vice-principal in St Patrick's primary school in Donaghmore, and a devoted father of Grace and Beth and husband to Lisa.

The two had made their home in Clonoe after they married four years ago. But when a flu which he had battled for a couple of weeks escalated, he was taken from this life in the early hours of Monday, January 8.

That it happened to him was an enormous jolt. 'Crico' had been a healthy athlete, renowned for his fitness levels in Gaelic football. He was one of their key performers as Pomeroy captured the Ulster Club Intermediate title the year before.

He was also very proficient in the martial art jujitsu.

He was admitted to hospital and brought to the intensive care unit at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital and although medics battled to save his life, the situation became extremely grave rapidly.

The parish priest, Fr Benedict Fee, had visited the hospital that evening.

"When I left at 10.30pm he was alert and articulate and knew I was there," he recalled.

"I didn't know how serious it was, there wasn't a mark on him. I didn't think he was dying... I just didn't think Christopher was going to die."

Among the crowd at the month's mind mass was Connor McAliskey, the talented Tyrone footballer and brother of Lisa, brother-in-law of Christopher.

When he casts his mind back to those days and hours, the shock is still there with him.

"It's difficult," he said. "The shock… how sudden it was.

"With Lisa with two young girls... to be honest, I can't speak for Lisa, I can only speak for myself and I had got very close to Christopher and we lived in the same housing estate."

A while back, Connor moved out of the family home and away from his father Sean and mother Bertilla. Being Clonoe to the bone, he moved into the same housing development as Lisa, Christopher and their family.

"With the two girls, I have found myself over in the house a good bit and when I have a free moment I am over there. It was a big shock how it happened, it's scary to think it is a month already," he said.

When Connor was growing up, Christopher was already a fixture among the family. Becoming so came naturally to a man who seemed to excel at everything he turned his attention to. Although he hadn't been teaching very long, he had already ascended to vice-principal. He had a way with people, as Connor explains.

"He definitely was a big part of the family. He had been around a long time and he and Lisa had the two girls, the only grandchildren, and they would have always been in the house and about at Christmas," he recalled.

"It was great to have Christopher and the two girls and Lisa down. Every day, he would have been ringing daddy. He never tried to force himself into the family or anything, he just slotted right in.

"Mummy and daddy thought he was a great lad and he was just like a brother to me, it wasn't as if he were forcing his way into us to like him, he was just a likeable lad and he fitted in perfectly with the family and it was such a big shock."

It's a curious thing, but when Connor was playing for Tyrone in the opening round of the Dr McKenna Cup in 2017, he turned the wrong way in the 62nd minute.

His cruciate ligament was torn, along with his hopes and aspirations for the county season ahead.

Through sheer determination he got fit enough to play club football for Clonoe in the Tyrone Championship.

Long hours were put in with personal trainer Damian Burke, and boxing sessions with Ronan McCann. His auntie Maorisa is also a physio and when the body tired after twice-daily rehab sessions, she would nurse his legs and get the blood flowing.

He got some game time against Dromore in the first round of the Tyrone Championship. He managed the second half of their second round game against Pomeroy and then the full game of the replay, which they lost, with Christopher playing his usual, high-energy game for the winners.

Football was the start of their bond that became so much deeper.

"When I was younger, me and him had the craic, we always had a bit of banter about football," McAliskey reflected.

"He did always talk about playing for Tyrone a bit and I had it in my head that I was going to as well. Me and him used to laugh and joke and he used to say that I had done a bit better than he had done.

"I was always out watching him. When Pomeroy went and won the Intermediate Championship and then onto the All-Ireland, I went to all the matches.

"Definitely I would have kept a good eye on his football as well. When Pomeroy played us in the Championship as well, it was good craic."

It's been a rotten year for McAliskey, known among those that write about Gaelic Games as one of the most genuine individuals in the game.

Not only that, but at the time of his injury, he had been due to start a new job with Almac. He was forced to delay his start time until April as he was incapable of walking, with his leg in a cast.

All he could do was throw himself into his recovery from the injury.

"Obviously there was a lot of work. I would say it has made me mentally tougher," he explained.

"I think I had a lot of good people around me. It helped with family and friends as well as the Tyrone ones and the Clonoe ones.

"I didn't know what I was going to do. I had thought about the year out and what I was going to do with my time. But once you are putting the effort into your rehab and getting stuck into it…"

He spent February to April building up the muscle in his calf with Tyrone physio Louis O'Connor, working with him twice a day in the pool or in the gym.

The GAA community wouldn't let him cut any cords. He hung around the Red Hands panel all year, attending the team meetings, the odd training session and by the end of the summer, he made an appearance in the squad for the All-Ireland semi-final. His dedication was beyond exemplary.

"I know it is a big commitment physically and on your time scale, but mentally it didn't seem to be a full year," he recalled.

"I could see a big improvement and that made it easier too. After so long, I realised there was a good chance I could play football again and when I had those games at the end of the year, especially the way the Clonoe games fell, that there was a chance I could play. That was a big spur to keep myself going."

He has come back looking in peak physical shape. During this year's Dr McKenna Cup, a Fermanagh defender tried to run across his path and dragged him into a test of strength. McAliskey ended up much the better off as the Erne defender was left pulling his shirt over his head again.

He stated: "With all that hard work, I suppose I probably did put on a wee bit of size. But there is a lot of work to be done to try and put the miles into the legs after the year spent on the sidelines.

"I would be happy with the way it is going, to be honest."

But as he knows only too well, it's only a game.

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