“You look down at children with tears in your eyes, then you look up and the adults are crying too” – The42 | Directory Mayhem

IN ONE of his first AFL practice sessions, Mark O’Connor dithered the ball a second too long during a practice game. The Kerry Minor All-Ireland winner was programmed to look up and scan in before delivering a pinpoint kick pass delivered.

Sensible in one area, silly in another.

In a new world with different rules. The 19-year-old’s 80kg body was shaken to the core when the 105kg Harry Taylor rolled him over with a tackle. There was always an expectation that transitioning to the top of a professional sport would be a significant leap, but this was on another level. He was gasping for air in a place where the oxygen was thin.

The Dingle Club man experienced a rapid rise in Australia, mainly thanks to his running skills. Knee problems dogged his Gaelic football career and exposure to an elite medical environment was a key reason for his move.

O’Connor played the All-Ireland minor in 2015 badly crippled, unable to jump off one leg or walk down the stairs afterwards.

Twelve months later, the dreaded infamous AFL preseason was looming. He really wanted to be ready. Certainly. Running was out of the question, hard work was not.

At the bowling alley-turned-West Kerry Fitness gym, O’Connor would do daily Wattbike sessions and push himself to the point of exhaustion. When he landed he was fit to fly, although that would only ever get him so far. All gas, no power.

Fast forward to August 2022. Geelong was on course for a sensational Grand Final victory and O’Connor was right in the middle. Midway through the MCG, Sydney’s James Rowbottom took off and attempted to deliver a kick within 50.

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He looked a moment too long. The Kerry native chased him from 20 yards and pounced on him with a textbook tackle. Feels at home on the country’s biggest stage.

“The whole team’s performance was the stuff you dream of,” he recalls with a lingering sense of disbelief.

“It’s the state of flow that psychology talks about and always strives for.

“I mean everything. It was all fairytale stuff. Joel (Selwood) scores his goal and retires after playing that game as Premiership-winning captain. If it was in a movie you would say it’s gross and it’s not true. Zach’s 250th game, he with the Portlaoise flag afterwards. There was so much in it.”

O’Connor played 22 games in 2022 and nearly missed the finals. He spent the week on standby as a medical sub while midfielder Max Holmes faced a late fitness test which he ultimately failed to pass.

It meant a nervous week of prep, build-ups and saves, never knowing if he was going to play.

“I kind of had a strong feeling. I also knew that if I played Brandon (Parfitt), who is a close friend of mine, would be the medical sub. When I found out he was in a hotel room across from me.

“I didn’t know if he knew. We had both promised each other that if either of us found out, we would tell the other. Anyway, I got the call. I just walked down the hall and hugged him tight. You see, only the 23 entered for the finals get a medal, nobody else on the list, which I think is a shame.

“I was happy for him and he came on and scored a goal. It just worked incredibly. It was emotional going to him. He was one of the guys who came to Dingle with me a couple of years ago and we’re very close.”

He’s speaking from his home township of Dingle, where he’s busy preparing for a District Championship quarter-final on Saturday night. With the club’s blessing, O’Connor will play at Austin Stack Park, cheered on by a traveling Geelong contingent.

There is a pub in his hometown, Hannie Agnes’s. A signed Tadgh Kennelly jersey hangs on the wall. It was his first humble AFL encounter, a tangible reminder of the sporting world beyond the kingdom. When the prospect of AFL studies in DCU first surfaced, he was lukewarm. Athletic tests on hardwood floors with your knees? nightmare fuel.

Gradually he made progress and found himself in Geelong. Thankful. Six seasons later he is Premiership champion with 88 games under his belt.

Track progress from there to here; at first glance it looks like continuous growth. Debuting in his rookie year, moving up into the leadership group in his third year, participating in a Grand Final the following year and winning last month.

If it just could be that easy. This season has been anything but smooth. At times it was miserable.

“I’ve had a bad enough season for the most part, just middle of the road. I lost some of my competitive advantage there at the beginning of the year. I was happy about the victories.

“When there was a tough game it was almost like pulling yourself together and pulling yourself together. To be honest, I felt like I hadn’t crossed borders or myself for a while.

“It was… I don’t know. I only existed for a while.”

The 25-year-old is a pleasant companion. Open, thoughtful, remarkably attentive. Most pay due attention to what they are doing; Mark O’Connor is equally aware of why he’s doing this.

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Credit: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Who got away for Kerry? Maybe. Another possibility is that he was the one who couldn’t get there in the first place. Knee pain haunted his final years in green and gold. In 2016 Eamonn Fitzmaurice included him in the matchday squad for the Munster Championship semi-finals against Clare. During the warm-up his knee gave out and his day was over.

When Geelong’s offer came, he looked upside down. A professional environment with full-time physiotherapists.

It was a simple joy just to be able to train, something unthinkable in Ireland towards the end. He was promised academic opportunities and a different lifestyle.

This belief gave him the clarity that has carried him through the past few years. In 2022 it got blurry.

After completing a successful pre-season, he had to stay on the sidelines for the first three weeks due to a knee injury. He returned to the team but something was missing. For the first time, the questions became overwhelming.

“I suppose the motivation was shaky early on. I questioned everything. I said to my mom this morning I think I just broke it down too much in my head.

“At the end of the day we’re kicking an airbag through some big sticks and most of the time it’s not even me kicking it. That must have slowed my motivation.

“I didn’t know what I was doing to myself. At that time I was probably only there for the boys, they were very happy that they won and ran well. That was all there was.”

afl cat training

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There was a scandal against Adelaide. He still remembers the game in the GMHBA Stadium well. A 42-point win. The cats felt comfortable all day. It wasn’t him.

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“I didn’t get involved and I didn’t care who wasn’t like me. I remember Tom Stewart had a Stormer and I felt like I was just watching. A viewer. We won, it was great, but unless you’re proud of your own achievement, you probably shouldn’t be on the team.

“I remember thinking after the game, honestly, if I keep going like this, I shouldn’t be on the team. To be fair to the trainers, they were just waiting for the gear to snap. That didn’t come back until I was the paramedic. I didn’t feel like I was in the zone.

“I remember in that game I got away with 15 minutes to go and we were going to win. I just said, ‘You guys can move on. Get your possessions, get your stats.’ I actually sat out the rest of the game. Looking back, I regret that. I take some of that with me.

“At the time … you look around and you see people who are really life-changing, nurses and doctors, that kind of thing. They spend their time really helping people. Saving lives with things like that, and you wonder… I don’t know. Could you do something productive for people?

“Just the value of the sport, I suppose. where i spent my time What I would and would not regret.”

He relied on the people around him and together they worked things through. Now he understands what sport really means. The game could be small. What people get out of it is still monumental.

“You want meaning in everything you do. The questions were there at the beginning of the year. If you’ve seen the events of the past few weeks and what it actually means to people, that’s actually the value of the sport.

“I probably overlooked that; it means the world to people. It changes lives. At parades you look down at children with tears in your eyes, then you look up and the adults are crying too. You just see what it actually means to people.

“Your teammates and friends are overjoyed. All of it. If that doesn’t make sense, nothing makes sense.

“It is a club for many people. It’s not what I previously described with the ball; it’s what people attach to it. That’s what I loved about the sport when I played at home and you see what the people who come to support you get out of it.

“They tie themselves to the profit and you can share it with them. That’s why it was so special that my brother was in the final.”

afl grand final

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Even today means a lot. In 2018 he played for Dingle against Austin Stacks without permission from Geelong and was reprimanded. In 2020 he was able to play for Kerry in the Championship but they were shocked by Cork while he was still in quarantine.

In 2021 it was a similar story. He underwent knee surgery and watched their campaign draw to a close from the sidelines.

Finally, O’Connor has his chance. He’s determined to enjoy it.

“Last year I could have played for Dingle and had to have an operation. I thought I was ok with that. It was a long season, I was pretty tired. Then I watched the game, we lost and I felt terrible. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

“I’m really looking forward to it, but I don’t know how it’s going to go. I’m just happy that I can play.”

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