The death of a sportsman or woman often hits us at the very core of our souls. No other people in this world have the ability to set hearts racing, make eyes glisten, unite communities and nations to the extent that a sportsman can. No other people have the ability to bring so much joy to others in a realm in which those others will have no control. Former chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, Earl Warren once said: “I always turn to the sports section of a newspaper first. The sports page records people’s accomplishments; the front page nothing but man’s failures.” In a modern world rife with terrorism, war, crime and poverty, sport is not just a form of escapism but a joy giver and a reminder that there are less trivial things to worry about.
That old adage about sport acting as the playground of life is full of truth and yet also fails to take account of the fact that sport often transcends sport itself and the acts of sportsmen and women often represent so much more than the mere playing of a game, in the lives of others. The loss then of a sporting hero, joy giver to many, is a cause of heart break to those who never even knew that hero personally.
When such a loss comes in the form of a tragedy, our sorrow knows no bounds. The thought that Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes died while doing what he loved, at the hands of a sport giving so much joy in life, is a thought that is difficult to comprehend. They often take the best of us so young. My heart goes out to the friends, family and teammates of Phillip Hughes, but also to the thousands of people who got their joy from watching him play cricket. While Hughes was a national hero, at local level such tragedy has also been felt. A little closer to home, in my local club in Co. Leitrim a bright and brave young Gaelic footballer Philly McGuinness passed away after receiving a blow to the head in the course of a game. Just like Phil Hughes, he died doing what he loved. Just like Phil Hughes, he died having brought so much joy to the lives of the local people, through the medium of sport. His death devastated and all but shattered the community. Tragically, these men never got the chance to hang up their boots at the end of fulfilling sporting career that should have been theirs.
It is a wonderful thing that Mr. Jack Kyle did have such a chance. And yet his death, after what was a long and illustrious life still too hits us at the very core. In the wake of his death, Tony Ward described Jack Kyle as to rugby and Ireland what Pele is to Brazil and football. Jack Kyle was to my mind the gentlemen whose character personifies the values of the game we adore- a paradox, considering its playing style perhaps. Despite his many laudable achievements as a rugby player and his admirable work as a surgeon however, he is said to have told his daughter that he simply wished to be remembered as a decent human being. A glimpse into the mind and integrity of such a man and an example of why a sportsman such as he should be celebrated so. Because he was so much more than a sportsman. As a rugby player however, he inspired awe and admiration with his deft footwork and brought joy to the nation in helping Ireland to a grand slam win in 1948. In 1977 he described rugby as having been a moveable feast all of his life. Perhaps rugby and more generally sport, is a moveable feast to all of us- even to those of us who don’t play. The joy of watching our home team win will always be with us. To many of our parents and grandparents they have Mr. Jack Kyle to thank for such a joy. My own dad had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of years ago and spent an interesting few hours listening to some of his tales of rugby in the amateur era. It is difficult to imagine nowadays that the only training undertaken by Kyle and his teammates for the Lions tour was a couple of laps around the ship. Or that before an Irish international, the only team training was a 40 minute session in Trinity before heading to Lansdowne Road.
Despite his experience as a rugby player coming from the amateur era, in latter years he has also offered wondrous insight into the state of the modern game. He often highlighted the current issue with concussions, a worthy cause no doubt. Evidence of his being a doctor first and rugby player second perhaps. Yet he never wished to disparage the modern game: “It is still the sport I love”. An Ulster man and a true gentlemen in every sense of the word, Mr. Kyle always said that he was proud to represent the whole of Ireland. While he played rugby in a time long before myself and my peers were born, it is unlikely that any of us have witnessed him play. Yet every Irish rugby fan knows the story of Jack Kyle- through this, the story of his sporting exploits, he will remain immortal . He was inducted into the IRB hall of fame in 2007. We should celebrate him not just for his rugby prowess however, but as a great Irish man. We will remember him as he wished – as a decent human being. I truly hope that his legacy of decency and kindness will live on and I will also hope that we see many more rugby players with his talent playing for this island, playing to give us as much joy as he gave to others back in his day. While thinking of the passing of a man such as Mr. Jack Kyle, there is a line from the Irish poem Oiche Nollag na mBan that comes to my mind: “Ag filleadh abhaile o rince an tsaoil”. I can’t help but think that this is exactly what he is doing: returning home from the dance of life. And what a dance it was.