Karl Lacey hoping to deliver on the biggest stage
New father out to cap life-changing year with Donegal success
On the evening Donegal sent shockwaves through the GAA world and refreshingly doused us with the reminder that anything is possible in sport, the 2012 Player of the Year Karl Lacey posted a picture on his Twitter account of a baby in full Donegal kit, knitted booties and all. Cute overload.
The caption read: 'It has been some nine days, my little son Noah born last Friday night and now an All-Ireland final to look forward to.'
At the last time of checking, it had been retweeted 498 times, favourited 1,841 times.
While the rest of the Donegal squad were hard at their revision of the ways and means to set up a roadblock for the unstoppable Dublin juggernaut in Johnstown House, Lacey was concerned with more important matters in Letterkenny General Hospital, where his girlfriend Ciara was in labour.
"It's funny," he recalls now with a smile. Everything is done with a smile now it seems.
"When Ciara went into hospital the boys were actually away training. I was home and Ciara had gone in. They didn't know if the baby was coming.
"It's a long process. I didn't think it would be as dragged out as it was. But Jim (McGuinness) and Paul (McGonigle) were very good to me. We were on the phone to each other each day. They were asking how things were going. They were saying: 'Stay where you are. That is more important at the moment.'
"Thankfully Ciara had the baby at 11 o'clock on Friday night. I left Letterkenny hospital at 2.30am. I jumped in the car and went straight down to the boys for training. The boys were training at 11 o'clock on Saturday morning."
You heard right. He had a few hours as the head of a brand new family before jumping into the car to tend to football matters.
By the time he got to base camp, it was 6.00am. He tried to get the head down for some sleep but his mind was swimming with the possibilities of life – and the new life in his care. In no time at all, it was breakfast and training. Gotta go to work.
"Ciara was being cared for in hospital so I wasn't going to miss out on anything there," he explains.
"Thankfully it all worked out in the end. We stayed down on Saturday night and came back up the road again on Sunday so I saw her and the little man. It was something to look forward to, driving up the road."
And as for Dublin, well, a football match in Croke Park is a picnic. "That's for sure," Lacey agrees. "The labour ward – that's a real war zone."
On Wednesday past, Lacey turned 30. It seems there are milestones in his life everywhere. There was a time when he was a real man of leisure, afforded a certain measure of flexibility by his GAA-sympathetic employers in Ulster Bank.
His situation now is busier and more fulfilling.
"There are special moments in your life. There is your football and general life," The Four Masters clubman puts across.
"Football is winning Ulster Championships and All-Irelands. In your life you have your family. I have a beautiful son now. But I would like to add an All-Ireland medal to my back pocket. That would be a year to remember."
Time management has become another skillset he has to master. On Lacey's Twitter account, a landscape picture of him navigating a longboard through the surf in a pair of 'boardie' shorts dominates.
Surfing was something himself and Ciara did together. The saltwater aided with his recovery and added a fun element the day after games.
But it is also tied up with bad memories, out on the waves in June, Donegal's inter-county season over for another year. No wonder: "The surfing has been light during the last few years."
Donegal has some of the world's best surf spots but he knew where to seek out the real deal. The choppy, irregular waves of Rossnowlagh were not for him and he instead favoured the long regularity of Tullan Strand, and Strandhill in Sligo on occasion.
No time for that now. Not in a county that has gone pure demented on football.
While he was in the labour ward, he could barely tip down to the hospital shop for a paper without people wanting to chat about Dublin and how they were in for an awful going over.
There was a lot of that about, so Johnstown House became a sanctuary. Outside that circle, the world said Dublin were set for two All-Irelands in a row. Inside the bubble, Donegal were plotting and scheming.
The theory of sport now comes easier. Within the last year he waved goodbye to the security of the Ulster Bank job and embarked on another spin at studying, this time at University of Limerick and a Sports Performance course. He graduates in December.
It took guts to do a quantum leap like that and it's not as if he hadn't enough on his plate with the commitment required to be a Donegal footballer. It meant a lot of motorway miles and journeys back up to the north west for training.
"I had a great position there and they looked after me well," he says of the bank job.
"I left that to go back and study this because I am very passionate about it."
Perhaps the submergence in sport has helped him in his county career too, he suggests.
"It's the choice I made. Maybe in the back of my head it is one of the reasons I did it. I wanted to give this year one big massive push," Lacey says.
"I play for Donegal and I don't think I could give the commitment I am giving at the minute if I was in full-time employment.
"I wouldn't like to be working now, heading into an All-Ireland final with the wee boy at the house. Things have worked out well for me.
"The demands on a GAA player now are huge. Hopefully, I've done the course at the right time. The big one now is employment and getting work out of it."
The various strands of sporting science are now mainstream in the GAA, or at least the counties that are serious about their sport.
In the long-term, Lacey would love to return and set up home back in Donegal town, bring something back to his own county.
For now, it is all about accumulating experience. Next year, he has a loose arrangement to go over and work with an Aussie Rules club.
The course has helped him understand the body on a more profound level. Previously when he had a muscle injury, he was told to take protein on board.
Now, he knows the exact science behind it, how his hamstring is comprised of four different muscles and what food and supplements to take when he feels a twinge.
"You would be in the classroom and the lecturer would be saying something and I'd be thinking: 'We do that after games, so that's why we do it.'"
It's also opened his eyes to how good the set-up in Donegal is. Last year he was over at the Arsenal academy and even considering how forward thinking a club Arsenal are: "It's not near what GAA players are doing. It's ridiculous."
He was talking to German striker Lukas Podolski, for example.
"Lukas asked me what we did for training. I was telling him that I had to get up at 6.00am to drive 40 minutes to Letterkenny so that I would be in the gym for 7.00am. I would be in the gym until 8.30am.
"Then I would fire a shake into me and get some breakfast. I would be in work at the bank for 9.00am. Then I would leave at 5.00pm, jump in the car and go training for three hours. I wouldn't be home until 10 or 11.00pm. You could just see his jaw dropping."
That's the way it is in the GAA. If anything, the Association requires seasoned players such as Lacey putting themselves through these courses to ensure better practice for the future.
"The GAA has gone through the roof," Lacey acknowledges of the physical preparations.
"We lifted it to a level in 2012. Dublin raised it. Now we will try and lift it again. God knows where it will go in the next 50 years. Thankfully my legs are going so I will not be involved!"
He says the legs are going, but he's still there, the wispy corner-back of old who developed into a durable, creative hub at centre-back, starting moves and getting on the end of them to score.
Winning four All-Stars on the way. And a Player of the Year. One All-Ireland. Another to go.
For Noah. For Ciara. For themselves. And for Donegal.