DONAL WARD, as always, started the season with optimism.
This would be the year Roscommon dethrones Mayo from Connacht and shows his true potential in the All-Ireland series.
After all, many of the squad had peaked on the last day across Ireland – when the Rossies won the Minor Championship in 2006.
Ward missed that one, boxing again, but he was the Under-21 Player of the Year in 2009 and by 2015 he had been a senior regular for four years.
Mayo had won every Connacht since, but what about? Roscommon believed.
They beat London in the opener, with Ward starting in the back.
He had been used to his other sporting love interfering with Gaelic football by this point, generally being able to handle both, to some extent.
But this time it was different.
This time his professional life had pulled him out of his dream.
Warden in Cloverhill prison, Ward was injured in stopping a fight between two inmates.
Eventually it changed the course of her life.
Ward joined News Ireland’s The Rocky Road podcast this week where he recalled, âIt was probably the worst time.
âIt was in the middle of the football championship. We had just been in London to play them two weeks ago.
âThere were two boys fighting. Obviously, you can’t let them keep fighting, so you have to intervene.
âI damaged my shoulder a bit. I didn’t think about it.
COVERAGE HAS BEEN TOO HIGH
âThen when everything calmed down and we were doing our papers or whatever, the shoulder didn’t feel right, so I went to the hospital for an x-ray.
Luckily there was nothing serious, but it just blew up. It was all over the media.
âIt was Sunday morning, I didn’t train with Roscommon on Tuesday, I trained the following Thursday, ten days before playing Sligo in a championship game.
âBut no, I wasn’t. . . the injury was not as serious as the media made it appear. The fallout was not really pleasant.
Roscommon lost to Sligo, who was beaten by Mayo in the final. Their fifth Nestor Cup in a row.
The defender didn’t play – and also missed the next two games, a qualifying win over Cavan before a loss to Fermanagh.
And that was indeed the case with the county. Thank you for everything.
Ward was a four-time All-Ireland boxing champion. He won the Connacht title ‘most years’.
But football was not to be and ultimately the Cloverhill incident caused him to quit his job and the country as well.
He said: âThere was a lot of commotion. You pull and drag a bit.
âI hurt my shoulder a bit, but obviously I wasn’t sure if someone had done it or if I had done it myself.
âIn the heat of the moment, it’s hard to understand. It’s not an easy job.
DIDN’T SUIT ME
âPeople think, ‘Oh yeah, it’s handy, it’s awesome,’ but there’s a lot to deal with. I ended up quitting work.
âIt wasn’t good for you mentally. For me anyway, I thought I was not ready for this. It was probably a better decision for me to leave.
âYou often hear this at home: ‘Oh, it’s safe work, it’s safe work.’
âThere’s a pension and different things. It wasn’t for me anyway.
âI did almost five years. I started at the end of 2012 and finished in 2016.
âIt was difficult because I was based in Dublin and going to practice.
âYou are up all day at work and sitting in a car going down, recovering from an injury and not fully resting and sleeping completely.
âIt’s hard work because it’s 12 hour shifts and you have to try to make your way out of work and rush down the road to Roscommon.
âI did it for three years like this and something had to give.
âIn 2015 I actually joined Kilmacud Crokes in Dublin for a year and it relieved the pressure a bit once Roscommon was done.
âI enjoyed it because I wasn’t racing on the road for club football.
“I thought I would leave him for two years and in 2016, I just made the trip.”
PRINTED FROM HIM
Ward played club football for Western Gaels but he boxed for Loughglynn. It was a family affair.
He said: âI have always been involved in boxing.
âMy dad and grandfather would have been the coaches at local Roscommon club Loughglynn so I’ve been there for as long as I can remember.
âI started competing at 11 like all young boys, but I should have trained and done spars and show pieces at seven, eight and nine.
“It’s been in the family since day one.
âI really enjoyed the competitive side. I played a lot of team sports on the way up, but I enjoyed the individual side.
“It’s just you and if you don’t work it won’t work.”
He was successful enough to win titles âat the Boy, Youth, Junior and Intermediate levelâ, adding, âThey all have a little different names now!
But when the Gaels were doing well, he chose the camaraderie of team sports over the solo pursuit.
Five of them were part of Fergal O’Donnell’s panel around 2009.
It was convincing enough that he mainly focused on football.
Mayo, however, was still on the way.
They beat the Rossies 4-14 to 2-15 in a 2009 Under-21 Connacht semi-final thriller and Ward saw the potential of Aidan O’Shea, Lee Keegan, Kevin McLoughlin, Tom up close. Parsons, Jason Doherty and Donal Vaughan.
With Ward as the senior starting, they met in the 2011 Connacht final when a teenager Cillian O’Connor threw eight free kicks as Mayo won 0-13 to 0-11 on a nasty day at Dr Hyde Park.
COULD SEE THEIR CLASS
Ward said, âThey would all have been in my age group. I think it was Cillian O’Connor’s first year.
âHe was in free play that day and he couldn’t miss.
âYou have to hand it over to these boys, the dedication and commitment they’ve put in over the last few years, they haven’t had a chance not to win an All-Ireland.
âThere’s a reason they’re still on top. They have done a tremendous job.
“I played with Roscommon from 2010 to 2015 and in 2013 I joined the prison service and got back to boxing there.”
RETURN ON THE RING
His return to action was instant success, winning gold at the World Police and Fire Games in Belfast.
John Evans was Roscommon’s manager at the time and Ward didn’t mind having both, a black eye or a swollen nose just a sign he was working away from the training ground.
Ward entered the elite national championships at 81kg in 2014 – the domain of fellow Ward, Joe – but in a three-way division he lost the semi-final to Matthew Tinker and returned to focus on football.
Then came the prison incident the following year, which caused him to reassess his life.
His partner Katie is the daughter of Roscommon’s parents who grew up in New York.
LEARN THE BASICS
Having lived together in Dublin, they traveled during the summer and, after the West Gaels were knocked out of the Club Championship, Ward returned full time.
Soon he made the county for the second time.
Ward said, âKatie’s dad owns a bar here, Sissy McGinty in Astoria, so I said it wouldn’t hurt to learn what to do.
âI had no idea the difference between vodka and gin, I started from the bottom. And I’m still there!
âWhen I arrived in 2017, I played with Kerry here. Because I intended to stay, New York invited me for training in November.
âThere was a bit of a hype because we had a lot of top guys.
“No offense to Leitrim, but it wasn’t Galway or Mayo or Roscommon who were coming. There were expectations there.”
Tom Cunniffe de Mayo was in the gang. Vinny Cadden from Sligo, another Rossie in Neil Collins.
But when Jamie Clarke from Armagh joined the setup, people started supporting New York City to beat visitors Leitrim in the 2018 SFC Connacht.
Ward said: “When Jamie came around everyone thought, ‘That’s it, if we’re going to do it someday, this is the year.’
âThe way the game went couldn’t be much closer.
âWe brought it down and got a couple of points in overtime. The crowd was amazing that day.
âGaelic Park, I think it has 6,000 or 7,000, but there were almost 10,000 that day.
âIt was bananas. I remember the last kick of the game, we couldn’t stop them, they shot us from the back line, straddled us and blew him up.
âJustin O’Halloran was a manager, it was his last year so he put everything in place.
“With Jamie and the other top boys here, everyone agreed.”
A reunion with Tinker – who had moved to New York and qualified for the Golden Gloves final – inspired him to return to the ring.
Ward qualified for the Gloves himself in 2019, fighting at Madison Square Garden where he was replaced by Famous Wilson in the middleweight decider – previously won by “Sugar” Ray Robinson, arguably the tallest. fighter of all.
He added, âThe boxing scene here is huge. So much history and so many professionals.
âAfter football in 2018 I wanted to take a break. I hadn’t stopped.
âI moved to October and the gloves started in February so I trained in the winter and was happy to do it.
âA friend of mine works at The Garden and made a bulk reservation for us, so we started selling tickets at the bar.
âMy poor partner Katie was under pressure that week!
HAD AN EXPLOSION
âWe had everyone seated together – 200 people from the bar and probably 200 other people from GAA circles.
âA few boys had come from Ireland. They had arrived at 5 or 6 in the morning and it was still 1 in the morning and they were still hanging on.
âThey also had the best time of their lives. They often call me: “When are we coming home?”
âThe atmosphere was great, it was a tough fight and I thought I had done enough.
âThe first round I started too slow, the second I really thought I had won it, and the third round – it turned into a wrestling match and the referee lost control of it.
âLook, it was a close fight and it could have gone one way or the other. Fighting there was amazing.
I HOPE TO RETURN
The plan is to go back there as a pro boxer.
Ward plans to debut in January or February and has Irish boxing royalty in his corner, with John Duddy and James Moore involved.
The football is parked again, for now. But never say never.
He recently played with the Longford club and due to the pandemic they have to play older guys just to make a 15.
At 33, Ward wants to get into boxing and knows the time is right.
He has a three month old baby girl and fights to make her proud, adding, âIt’s an amazing time.
âThings are very hectic at the moment.
“But I hope for a busy 2022 and the dream would be to return to The Garden at some point.”