Only last March, Marvellous Marvin Hagler died aged just 67. He was the undisputed middleweight champion of the world from 1980 to 1987. He lost his titles controversially to Sugar Ray Leonard in Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas in 1987 and never fought again. It wasn’t the ending to his career that he would have chosen, but boxing politics and Sugar Ray’s procrastination resulted in no rematch. But he exited the stage in his prime, not on his terms, but in his prime. He is also credited with one of the finest sporting quotations that I know of. ‘It’s tough to get out of bed and do roadwork at 5am when you have been sleeping in silk pyjamas.’
There is no doubt that fame and fortune change sports stars. This is most evident in boxing. Ordinarily, world boxing champions have had tough lives in their formative years. Boxing offers an escape, most notably from poverty. And the riches are often unparalleled if and when they do arrive. Being ‘good with money’ is not often a skill that boxing world champions are adept at.
Despite being a rich man, Hagler was willing to do tough road work at 5am. His hunger for success never waned. He desperately wanted that rematch with Leonard, only for Leonard to retire. So Hagler announced his own retirement, only for Leonard to make yet another comeback, once Hagler had safely left the ring for good. Clever boy, Sugar Ray. Hagler could have taken fights against lesser opponents, made some more millions, and fought on for several more years. But the loss to Leonard had got to him and atonement for that defeat was the only thing that motivated him. It was the only thing that could have gotten him out of his silk pyjamas. Sugar Ray didn’t fancy it and so it never happened.
And I was thinking about sports stars and their motivation last weekend when news broke that Tom Brady was retiring. This is a man who will be regarded in years to come as one of the greatest quarter-backs in American Football history. Thomas Edward Patrick Brady is 44 years of age and up to last weekend was still competing at the very highest level. His name is synonymous with the New England Patriots, he played with them for 20 seasons and was central to their success. I could start to list all the records that Brady holds in American Football but I’ll keep it to just a few. He is the only quarter-back to win Super Bowls in three different decades. He is the oldest ever player to win the Super Bowl MVP (most valuable player) accolade which is the equivalent to our ‘hurler of the year’.
He has won it on 5 separate occasions. The Americans have an unusual system for assigning good college footballers to professional teams or franchises. It is called the draft. It is an attempt to keep the playing field as level as possible. Essentially the poorly performing professional teams get the first pick of the really good college players each year. And the top players get drafted early on. Brady was 199th pick. Six other quarterbacks were drafted (picked) before he was.
Team after team passed up the opportunity to pick Brady for their side. He was the sixth pick that year for the New England Patriots who must have believed that there were five better options than Brady that year. For a player who was the 199th pick, to go on and become one of the greatest players of all time will surely become the subject of a Hollywood movie in due course. But that is not the full story. He played in 9 Super Bowls for the Patriots and won 6 of them. In 2019, aged 42 he sought a new contract with the Patriots but was only offered a two year deal. The following year he left New England and joined the poorly performing Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In 2020 he won his seventh Super Bowl.
It was only the second time that Tampa Bay had won the Championship, their first since 2002. How he kept himself motivated is a mystery to me. His body is ravaged by injury, his knees are most likely held together with bailing twine. To end his 20 year’s of service with the Patriots over a contract extension dispute and to go to Florida and win the Championship once more aged 42, is truly astonishing. This season he guided Tampa Bay to the equivalent of an All Ireland quarter final. His side were 3-27 behind in the third quarter before Brady, now aged 44, guided them back to a 27-27 tied game in the final quarter. A late field goal by the LA Rams won the game, and Brady bowed out at the very top of his sport.
The Tom Brady story is not unique. Team owners can make mistakes when it comes to negotiating contracts with their senior players. One of the best football midfield players of the recent past was Andrea Pirlo. This was a player whose career was going nowhere in the early years. He had signed with Inter Milan where he failed to make any impact. They sent him on loan to lowly Brescia where he teamed up with an ageing Roberto Baggio (yes, that Roberto Baggio). His style of play changed from offensive midfielder to a deep lying playmaker and he never looked back. AC Milan bought him from Inter for 33 Billion lire, which is about €17 million in new money. He would spend over ten years at Milan winning two Italian titles, two Champions Leagues, as well as a world club title in 2007.
He had contractual squabbles with the owner of AC Milan, particularly over the length of contract on offer. He was 32 when he left Milan because the owner (Silvio Berlusconi, yes, the very man) refused his request for a long term contract, believing Pirlo to have his best days behind him. Pirlo left Milan for Turin side Juventus on a free transfer. Yes, you read that correctly, Juventus paid no money to secure the services of Andrea Pirlo, and they gave him a three year contract, one year more than was on offer in Milan.
In all, he played for four years with Juventus, winning four championships (one each year), one Italian Cup and guided his side to the Champions League Final in 2015. Also, during this time he guided the Italian national side to the European Championship Final of 2012. A world cup winner in 2006, he was capped 116 times for his country. How do you like those statistics Silvio?
So Andrea Pirlo and Tom Brady and Marvellous Marvin Hagler are on my mind as the National Hurling League gets underway. A new manager, new faces, new sponsors. But some very familiar faces too. Brendan Maher has called time on his inter county career, his loss to the dressing room is enormous. But Seamus Callanan and Paudie Maher and Bonner Maher, alongside Noel McGrath remain. All are aged 31 or more. All have given their county great service. There is no transfer market for hurlers but what would any of this quartet be worth right now if one existed. What length of contract might they be offered at this stage of their careers if such a hypothetical situation were to exist? Who knows.
What we do know is that the Tipperary Minor winning teams of 2006 and 2007 have given us more enjoyment at senior level than perhaps any minor teams of the past. Injury has robbed Bonner Maher of a few years in his prime. At training, his fitness levels are the stuff of legend. His ability to get himself back on the pitch after cruciate and Achilles injuries, whist in the autumn of his career, is magnificent. I, for one, am giddy at the prospect of seeing the Lorrha legend line out for Tipperary senior hurlers once again. He played the full 60 minutes of Fitzgibbon Cup action last week and is clearly part of Colm Bonnar’s plans for 2022. So too Callanan and Paudie and Noel. All are named in the squad for the league campaign.
Critics pointed to a lack of game time for some of the younger squad members last season. Liam Sheedy was loyal to the players who had been in the trenches with him from his time as minor manager and thereafter. He knew them, he trusted them, they had repaid his loyalty before. Tipp’s All Ireland success in 2019 was built on orthodox methodology.
Limerick and Waterford now utilise a different style, a fast transfer game and relentless hard running at the opposition defence. This style requires super human fitness levels and places a huge demand on ageing bodies. In order for Tipp to be successful in the coming years, a change in style is needed. I am not suggesting an abandonment of traditional orthodoxy but the second half of the last years Munster Final showed us that adaptability will be essential if we are to match Limerick. How we marry the skills and enthusiasm of our younger players with the experience and street smarts of our more established players will be key. I’m sure that little else is on the mind of Colm Bonnar right now. When he was appointed Tipp manager several people, who knew him well, told me that, at the very least, Bonnar’s teams are incredibly fit. We will need all of that and more to dethrone Limerick. And no one need ask if our players will shirk the 5am road work, silk pyjamas or not. History shows us that success extends well into your thirties.
Join Ronan on Extra Time every Monday night at 7pm on TippFM