Nenagh’s Shane Hennessy still going despite fourth knee surgery
By Paul Carroll
It is rare a hurler gets through a career unscathed. Broken fingers, wrists, collar bones and scars are part and parcel of the game, and most players accept that faith before they cross the white line. However, there is one injury that acts as a pothole in the minds of hurlers and sportspeople alike, to be avoided at all costs… “the cruciate”.
Most players, fortunately, never have to worry about their cruciate ligament, but some aren’t as lucky.
Nenagh Eire Og’s Shane Hennessy is 23-years-old and recently he returned to the field following his fourth cruciate surgery.
“I know I probably should be giving up like I’ve done four ACLs by my 22nd birthday, I probably shouldn’t be playing,” he admitted.
Many people around Tipperary are aware of the limitless potential Shane had coming through the age grades, notably scoring 4-14 on his own in a losing effort for Nenagh CBS in 2012. With pace, power, hurling ability, and IQ, he seemed to be the prototype for a future county star.
However, Shane suffered his first ACL injury at the age of 16 in April 2013 whilst playing an U17 schools’ game for Nenagh CBS.
“The ten days coming up to that game (the first ACL injury), I trained 10 times in those 10 days which looking back is crazy,” he said.
“I remember sometimes I was actually training twice a day which is madness.
“When you’re that age, I was u16 and I was playing club under 16, club minor, I was playing for a few school teams, I’d given up rugby the year beforehand, but I was playing minor with Tipp.
“Them lads don’t care if you had a school’s match during the week you had to train the day after. Looking back on it, I was probably young, I probably didn’t really have the balls to say I’m tired, I’m not training tonight.”
A member of the Tipp Minor hurling panel from the age of 15, Shane had his surgery in Santry and recovered in time to play his first game back just seven months following the surgery. Twelve months on, Shane was playing for the Tipperary minors in a game against Cork when history repeated itself. Contesting a high ball, he landed and twisted and heard a pop. He had torn his right ACL again.
“I probably did comeback about four weeks too soon,” he admitted.
“I played my first challenge game after seven months (post-surgery) then I played my first championship match against Limerick after eight and a half months and I tore it at nine months so I probably did put a bit of pressure on myself to comeback early.”
So, it was down the familiar road again, surgery in Santry followed by months of rehab. This time, Shane waited over ten months before playing his first game, to ensure he was fully fit. However, he never felt his knee recovered properly after the second surgery. With physios and surgeons telling him his knee was structurally perfect, he went back playing. However, his doubts about the success of the second surgery unfortunately proved to be true as five months after he returned to play, he tore his ACL for a third time. This time in an U21 championship game against Kiladangan in Dolla, the venue of his first injury.
“I went back playing in August and I tore it in January,” he recalls.
“I played the last-16 up to the county final with Nenagh in the senior and I played a few minor championship games with Nenagh and a few under 21 championship games with Nenagh, it was really only four months that I played for but after the second one (surgery) it never felt solid, it never felt strong or anything whereas after the first one it felt as solid as a rock. I wasn’t really happy with the surgery.”
Reflecting back on that time, Shane fell out of love with the game and needed a break. “When you’re playing sport as a young lad, you’re enjoying it at 15/16 years old, three years after, sport was the worst thing in the world, sport was an awful thing for me. I’d gone from absolutely loving it to absolutely hating it in 3 years.”
A turn of fortune?
With 3 ACL surgeries behind him, the then 19-year-old used his time off to open up new horizons and spent a summer in New York. Upon returning home, Shane decided that he was going to give hurling another chance but this time he would be playing in goals.
Coming back from three ACL injuries requires elite levels of motivation and dedication, the same traits that saw him become the NUIG Fitzgibbon Cup goalkeeper upon his return.
“I’d no intentions of playing Fitzgibbon but I went to a few trainings and there was no other goalie really so I played Fitzgibbon for NUIG that year, that was 2017/18 and I kind of got hooked on it again,” he said.
“I went back then and said I’d try and get in goals for Nenagh and I played in goals for Nenagh then in 2018 and I was delighted, I’d a right year.
“I was called up to the Tipp under 21 panel then for the All-Ireland final. I had a right year in 2018, I was back enjoying it, the knee felt solid, I was able to train away no problem, I wasn’t worrying about my knee. I was still tipping away with my rehab and that kind of stuff, but the knee felt solid as a rock, it wasn’t giving away on me or anything and I was back enjoying it then.”
After a great 2018, Shane’s luck seemed to be in his favour and he was excited to get back at it for the 2019 season with Nenagh. They were scheduled to play Burgess in the first round of the North Championship in Dolla, the same field in which Shane had torn his ACL twice before. Coincidentally, it was fixed for the third week in April, the same week as his first two tears. Playing in goals, a wet day in Dolla proved to be an even worse day for Shane.
“We were playing Burgess out in Dolla and just a pure innocuous challenge, their full forward was running in and whatever way we collided I kind of went back on my left knee and sure same again I felt a pop. It was weird, it didn’t actually swell up or anything. I felt a pop but I said I’m grand I’ll play on here and I hit the next puckout and my knee just caved in on me, it was like someone went at it with a sledgehammer, it completely collapsed like.
“So, I went again, got the scan and I was hoping it was only cartilage, but it came back that the ACL was torn so after that then I was like f*ck this. You could go up for that challenge a thousand times and 999 times it would be perfect but whatever way I landed the knee just gave away on me.”
This was Shane’s first injury on his left knee but following three consecutive rehabilitation programs, he had built up strong muscle in both legs. A week after receiving the news, Shane was able to puck around and even play some basketball with his friends as his knee felt stable. With this in mind and after some talk with his physio, Shane pondered over the idea of going down a different route of recovery. This time with no surgery.
Through work, Shane was able to get into contact with Dublin footballers Eoghan O’Gara and Michael Dara McAuley who recovered from ACL tears without surgery. After playing around with this idea, Hennessy decided to do things differently this time around.
“So, I actually went about rehabbing it without the surgery. I did about eight weeks of rehab and built up my legs like tree trunks and played most of last summer then, played 3 or 4 months with the ACL torn and I was just basically saying I have nothing to lose here really. I was saying if I could play the championship with Nenagh I’d be happy enough with that like. So, I actually played six or seven matches with it torn and it actually felt 95% perfect.”
Later in the year, Nenagh played Eire Og Annacarty in the county championship knockout stage at The Ragg. 25 minutes into the game an all too familiar scenario played out.
“I knew myself the knee was probably going to give away at some stage but there was no more damage that could be done in the knee really.
“So I played that game anyway and after about 25 minutes the knee just gave away on me again. That was it, I had to get the surgery then after that,” he said.
So, at just 22 years of age, Shane was undergoing his fourth ACL surgery, and a total of nine surgeries repairing his knees. But what impact does this have on a young man’s mind?
Recovering from an ACL injury is a lonely process. A player spends months away from the team, away from the dressing room, rehabbing on their own and that takes its toll mentally. Shane would not be blamed for hating the game after completing this long recovery process four times.
“The third one was definitely the one I found hardest because at that stage all the enjoyment was gone really,” he said.
“I never really got back right after the second one. My knee was giving away on me so I wasn’t really enjoying hurling, it was more of a chore.
“If you ask any young lad why they play hurling and why they play sport is to enjoy it and I wasn’t enjoying it at all. my head was f*cked really from sport, all the enjoyment really was gone out of it.”
Shane compared the life of an injured player to the life most players experienced this year during lockdown. Training in isolation doing your bit but missing the craic in the dressing room, the chats after training and the overall feeling of being in a team. A long-term injury strips these simple joys from a player in much the same way Covid-19 has done to every player this year.
With Shane being one of the top players in his age group all the way up to minor for Tipp, seeing his former teammates and peers now perform for Tipp on the senior stage is something that Shane has found difficult to watch from the stands and not be a part of. He was on the Tipperary minor team that contained Brian Hogan, Ronan Maher, Willie Connors and Eire Og clubmate Barry Heffernan.
“Yeah it was hard, it was very hard,” he said.
“You’re seeing lads passing you out as well. You’re seeing lads the same age as you playing well with Tipp so I found that hard, but I actually found not being able to play with the club harder. When I was under 16, Nenagh won the county final in 2013 and the minor county final and I missed that. I found that very hard because the boys in the club would be some of my best friends and when you’re playing minor you are playing with lads you grew up with and I found that very hard.”
Four ACL tears by the age of 22 is relatively unheard of, however, in Shane’s family, an ACL tear is not an uncommon occurrence. Shane’s father, Phil, was an inter-county hurler with Tipperary and had no knee injuries of note but it is on Shane’s mother’s side that a pattern can be seen.
Shane’s mother was playing senior camogie with Limerick at the age of 16 when she too tore her ACL, an occurrence she shared with most of her siblings as Shane explains: “7 out of 8 of my aunties and uncles have torn their cruciate. The majority of their kids would all play sport and play hurling and football but six of my first cousins have done it from that side too.
“So, from the cousins on that side, I’ve done 4, my two cousins from Nenagh have done theirs, first cousin in Waterford done his and I’ve two cousins in Limerick who’ve done theirs. It’s crazy stuff.
“It is 100% genetic because even my granddad who passed away a couple of years ago, he used to give out that he hurt his knee playing whenever he was hurling back in the 40s or 50s but it wouldn’t have been diagnosed in those times.”
So where too from here for Shane? In the past he has been told by surgeons to pack it in and not return to the field in fear of what the future might hold but Shane has accepted his faith, expecting a knee replacement later in life.
With this in mind, the courage to continue is extraordinary and the 23-year-old is motivated to get back to his best this year.
“Obviously, I know I probably should be giving up like I’ve done 4 ACLs by my 22nd birthday, I probably shouldn’t be playing but the lure of winning something big with Nenagh that’s probably why I’m going back and trying to have a good year with Nenagh and if we won something big, then it will all be worth it.”