Introducing the Emerald Isle's roughest game.
Fitzgerald's reputation looms large in Ireland's sports circles: He's a celebrated 17-year veteran goalie used to playing regularly in front of 50,000 fans. Young kids proudly wear his jersey number, and he's the author of a best-selling autobiography (Passion and Pride). As with many children in the region, his dream of hurling began when he was 6 years old, as he watched Clare lose in a championship game. "I remember standing behind the goalkeeper, studying his every move and saying that someday I'm going to be him. It was my dream. It was all I ever wanted to do."
And he's not the only one. In Ireland, it's hurlers—not firemen or astronauts—whom every young boy grows up admiring. "The players who fill our leagues are our auctioneers, our postal workers, our bankers," says Fergal McGill, a spokesman for the Gaelic Athletic Association, which governs Irish hurling. "We're very proud of them." And they're proud to serve.
Despite day jobs, mortgages, and children, the guys on Ireland's hurling teams still find time to train just as hard as any pro. Fitzgerald recalls a training session in which their manager, Anthony Daly, handed the team over to four Irish Army Rangers, the Irish equivalent to Navy SEALs. The entire Clare squad—consisting primarily of teachers, cops, bankers, and electricians—was herded into a wooded area in Galway for three grueling days of team-building exercises. "Six guys on a team," says Fitzgerald, "and we had to carry these two guys on a stretcher around this course, stopping every so often to do 100 situps. When we were done with that, we had to climb into this river that was three feet deep, and we had to crawl through the water. It was just lashing rain, and we had to get down in it."
Then there was the time, late one night on an all-weather field near the town of Ballybake, when Daly pushed the team to run as snow piled around their ankles. Months later, in a locker room talk before another soggy Sunday game, the manager's logic finally became clear. "We know we can play in the rain," he told the team, "because we trained in snow." Enjoying the memory, Fitzgerald is suddenly jolted back to work—and reality—by a ringing phone and a new client looking to purchase a home.
Later that week, the Clare team once again comes together, ready for a long practice session in Cusack Park. Dozens of players are running drills, passing balls, and hitting pop flies—the sounds ricocheting through the region like rifle fire. Daly's practices stress skill, quickness, and especially stamina, echoing the notorious savagery of practices when he was captain of the Clare squad during the championship years.
The pinnacle of accomplishment in hurling is winning the All-Ireland Final, an elimination tournament in which all 32 Irish county leagues compete. The powerhouses are Cork (30 titles), Kilkenny (29), and Tipperary (25). Clare has won only three times, the last one in 1997, consigning the squad to a sort of Boston Red Sox status. "It's the Atlantic Ocean between winning and losing," says Fitzgerald. The goalie claims he and his teammates were treated as heroes for months in Clare after their last All-Ireland victory. "We didn't pay for our meals for weeks," he says. "Some folks think that's the height of it — being on the Clare team. But it's nothing compared with winning."
And that's the fuel that drives Fitzgerald, his teammates, and every hurler who's ever taken the field. The Clare team will return to Cusack Park the next Sunday, and the weather promises another soggy day. But no matter—even with a misty veil over the field, there will be plenty of time-honored grunts plus the smack of hurley against hurley. From the stands, it'll be di?cult to identify the players through the bitch of a mist. But even in the fog two things remain clear, just as they have for thousands of years: the power and purity of sport played purely for sport's sake.