Paul Whyte: Retiring at 26 left me shell-shocked but I was ecstatic with Wexford win
BY SHANE STAPLETON
In the dying embers of Waterford’s Division 4 clash with Carlow on February 24th, Paul Whyte fisted home a goal to put an unlikely comeback on the cards.
Just a couple of weeks later, the Kilrossanty man was told he’d never lace up a pair of boots again. Three specialists would examine his hips, confirm there was no cartilage left, and each delivered the same sombre verdict: retire. As it turned out, that three-point loss to the Barrowsiders a few short months ago was, at 26, his swansong. There would be no comeback.
Any time Whyte tries to run, an excruciating pain shoots through his hip. There wasn’t one big moment when he knew he was in trouble — no impact of note. The Beast from the East rolled into the country, the players had to down tools for a week or so, and during that time the Deise man’s body said no more.
“That's probably been the hardest thing about the whole situation,” he says. “It wasn't actually any particular moment or incident that caused it. It just happened. The week there was snow, obviously we couldn't train on the field and couldn’t run for several days, so I felt this ache coming on during the very cold weather.
“I've always had problems with my hips anyway, so I just thought it was the cold bringing it up. Then I tried to go back training and I just knew that something wasn't right, so the physio just said we need to go for an MRI to see what they say.
“Basically he just said there's no cartilage there, so there's nothing they can do. So I went to three specialists and it's just hit me like a tonne of bricks at the time. I had played half of the league, I was feeling good, I was flying fit, and then suddenly, bang. I just had to stop everything.
When asked how it happened this way, Paul explained, “I've always continually trained and trained and trained, and my body just built up this coping mechanism,”.
“So when I had that seven or eight days of not running and training, Dr Eanna Falvey (Consultant Sports and Exercise Medicine Physician), said my body just stopped and the pain just kicked in. Once it's there it's very hard to get rid of it.”
Whyte, who played Under-15 and Under-17 soccer for Ireland, has been on the Waterford senior panel since he was 17, and Tom McGlinchey had made him captain for 2018. Five nights per week, Whyte was throwing his shoulder to the wheel for one of the more unfashionable county teams around, and then suddenly he was sitting at home wondering, “how do I go about changing my life around so quickly?”.
“If I met people around it was ‘you're Paul Whyte the footballer’, or whatever. Now that identity is gone and I'm just Paul, and I'm just trying to fill that void.”
His fiance Roisin and daughter Fiadh, who turns one shortly, have been a huge help and support over the past couple of months. He hasn’t given up hope just yet, and spoke with former Clare hurler Darach Honan about his attempts to return from a similar diagnosis. Honan is undergoing stem cell treatment just now, and Whyte is monitoring the Banner man’s progress with huge interest.
McGlinchey wanted to keep Whyte on board, in any capacity he could. The talented forward has been cut down in his prime, but can still be of use in a leadership role, bringing in water and directing his teammates from the sideline.
“Tom Prendergast was the one who put it forward,” explains Whyte.
“I was probably so shell-shocked at the whole situation that I didn't really know what to do. Credit to Tom, who remains the captain of the Deise, he just left me in control of everything. If I wanted to stay involved the door was always open for me to come to training and to have my say. He really made me feel at ease in that way, so I never felt like I was in a place that I shouldn't be.”
The Deise were beaten comfortably by Tipp in their Munster opener, and no doubt the absence of their talisman didn’t help, but they recovered against Wexford to win a first championship game since 2011. It was a glorious day for the Deise, just under seven years since that most recent victory against London. As fate would have it, that was the day a young Whyte had made his debut for the county, top scorer with 0-7.
“When the final whistle did go, it was just that initial joy and relief, and afterwards on the bus I was thinking ‘Jesus I missed out on this and I had no part to play’, I was just there on the sideline carrying water.
“So for me, initially it was just complete joy, but just sitting there in your own thoughts you’re thinking about what could have been or what if. That's when it gets hard, and I'll always have that memory of ‘what if I wasn't injured?’ Look, it's hard to always bring it back to myself, because it's a team at the end of it. There’s a few lads in the dressing room that I've been with through thick and thin, so I was probably more ecstatic for a lot of those lads more so than myself at that moment.”
The reality is that Whyte has given his life to GAA and, on the field, has just that single championship victory against London to his name. But as he explains, there’s more to it than results. They’ve made strides in Waterford, and convincing new blood to join the panel for 2018 has really lifted the group. They have their win for the year, and they aren’t ruling out a shock against Monaghan either.
“It's nice to be at home and as Tom said, we've nothing to lose now because we have our championship win, which was our aim at the start of the year. We have to throw the shackles off now. They lost to Fermanagh, and if Fermanagh were coming down to play us, we'd be semi-confident. So why should we fear them?”
“People have been saying to me that GAA is just a game and there's more to life,” Whyte concludes. “It's great to know that I have Roisin and Fiadh, and they have been brilliant over the past couple of months while I've been letting it all settle in. It's great to have that distraction away from GAA, and it's not the be all and end all. Life in general is more important than sport.”