John Ball was lying on a hospital bed with nothing to do but scroll through Twitter when he came across some welcome news. He'd been named as goalkeeper on the 2018 Minor Football Team of the Year. The teenager rang his parents, teammates, and friends. There was a sense of pride.
It was also a bittersweet moment. A week earlier, while playing in midfield for Clane against St Laurence's in the Kildare Minor Football Championship, the then 16-year-old had suffered a devastating leg injury. He was like a singer whose debut single had gone to number one and then lost their voice. Cruelly, it would be nearly three years before there would be a return to the recording studio.
"I was going for the ball and pushed off my left foot to reach in," explains Ball.
"Whatever way my opponent fell on my leg, he just landed on the pressure spot, and it snapped. The bone came out through the skin.
"I didn't feel any pain because I was just in so much shock. When I fell, I knew something had happened to the leg because I felt the trauma.
"I just remember I was holding my leg. I just had one look, and knew that it was bad. I just focused on something else.
"It reminded me of when Seamus Coleman broke his leg, and there's the picture of him, and the leg is like [90 degrees] - that's what I saw.
"Just lying there, you don't know what to think. You're in so much shock, waiting on an ambulance. The game is stopped, and no one really knows what's after happening.
"It was almost like a nightmare. The next morning, I was going to wake, and it was just something that wasn't true. In reality, it was something that was real, and was going to affect me greatly over the next few years."
29 September 2018; John Ball of Clane, Kildare, with his Minor Football Team of the Year Award at the 2018 Electric Ireland Minor Star Awards. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Ball's journey to becoming a goalkeeper took a classic route. Like many others who find themselves standing between the posts, it had not been his target destination.
When he started playing soccer at under-13, they were stuck for a goalkeeper and he was handed the gloves. By a stroke of serendipity, the manager of his first year football team at Clane's Scoil Mhuire happened to be Padraig Carbury, who was also involved with Kildare development squads at the time. Carbury needed a goalkeeper for the school, and Kildare. John Ball was his man.
In 2017, the Kildare under-16 team won the Fr Manning Cup for the first time. Ball was the goalkeeper and Carbury was the manager. Later that year, Carbury was appointed Kildare minor manager for 2018 - the first year of the grade being changed from under-18 to under-17.
"When it came to 2017, things were getting more competitive," says Ball.
"We were playing in actual competitions, not just little blitzes and friendlies, I was starting to get my eye in, and solidify the number one spot."
He started the Leinster MFC wins against Wexford, Carlow, Laois and Longford. With 47 minutes played in the Leinster semi-final replay against Wicklow, Ball pulled off a sensational save low to his right with his side up by a goal. They eventually won the game by two points, setting up a final against Meath.
In the decider, Ball saved pretty much every shot which came near him, but it wasn't enough. Meath won 1-15 to 1-7. Though, there was a consolation for Ball: His heroics in the final saw him named as Minor Footballer of the Week. Kildare were subsequently outclassed in an All-Ireland quarter-final by Monaghan.
Brilliant John Ball save Kildare vs Wicklow
— GAA 2021 (@GAA_2021_TG4) July 16, 2018
Shortly after winning the Minor Star award, Ball sent out a tweet thanking people for their messages wishing him well.
"I remember saying it was an injury that would have me out for a few months, the guts of a year," he says.
"I didn't know that it was going to be the guts of three years. I thought it was just going to be a normal leg break, and I'd be back on the pitch in seven or eight months. It took me seven or eight months to realise it was going to be an awful lot longer than I originally thought.
"There were so many different complications from it being compound. There was a risk of infection, so they had to remove a piece of bone.
"It was shattered and splintered as well. It wasn't just your normal break where it was straight across [the bone], put in a few pins, be in a cast and a boot for a few months, and you're alright.
"I had to go into an external fixator which moves the fracture back together. There are little dials, you move them so much every day, and it moves the bone back into alignment.
"I remember there was a stage where I was struggling to put the sock on my left foot over the cage. You're just thinking, 'How has it come to this? I was playing a game three nights ago, and now I'm struggling to put a sock'."
Much of the recovery process was a waiting game. There were no major setbacks, just time spent hanging around while the bone healed. It wasn't until November 2019 that he got the go-ahead to start running again, and he wasn't running pain free until February of this year. Three months ago, he got the nod for the return to full contact training.
In the time between the break and recovery, Ball missed out on the steps a young footballer who'd just won a Minor Star award would expect to take. He didn't get to play in fifth or sixth year with his school, or at U20 level with Kildare.
He had been involved with the Kildare U20s from last November - doing some light gym and ball work - but the approval from his doctor came too late for him to be named in the panel.
21 July 2018; Kildare goalkeeper John Ball makes a save on the goal line during the Leinster Minor Football Championship final match against Meath at Bord na Móna O’Connor Park in Tullamore, Co. Offaly. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
"I look at lads who would have been on the [Minor Stars] team with me: Aaron Mulligan in Monaghan is starting senior football," says Ball.
"There were times when you think of what could have been.
"Not just football, a lot of people would say, 'Look at the amount of football you lost' but I missed out on two months of school that set me back. I probably would have had a scholarship in college, which is worth 60-odd points [in the Leaving Cert], you have money towards accommodation.
"The toughest moment was our club winning the U21 Championship in [November] 2018. I was involved with the team throughout the year. I was at training and all the matches. They kept me involved as much as possible.
"The match went to extra-time, it was nip and tuck the whole way though, and we ended up winning by a point. The subs and the management flooded onto the pitch.
"That emotion you get after the final whistle... being stuck on the sideline in a frame on a crutch, knowing that I should have played a big part in the championship... Your club is after winning a championship, you should be happy and be on the pitch celebrating with your close friends.
"It was just that feeling of emptiness that I'd missed out when I should have been involved, that was probably the toughest part because I had no real setbacks.
"I didn't feel involved enough to accept the medal. You have people coming up after the game, and they're like, 'There's always next year'. I couldn't accept it because I didn't feel that I warranted it.
"From my point of view, and it might be a small bit selfish, I should have been playing. I should have been in goals, and one of the first names on the teamsheet. The fact that it was taken away from me two months before that, it was just that feeling of sadness and emptiness, whereas it should have been joy and happiness."
2 years 9 months later. A journey in which took a lot longer than expected. One in which took hard work and a mentality in which has helped me grow. Sadness, frustration, heartbreak and now happiness. To pull that @ClaneGAA jersey back on again was magical. It’s good to be back? pic.twitter.com/FwCcCBIMpA
— _johnball_11 (@11Johnball) June 7, 2021
In early June, Ball finally returned to action. He started in goal for the Clane seniors in a challenge game against Roscommon club St Brigid's in Kiltoom.
"Just to finally get back out there, and cross that white line again, pull on the Clane jersey, playing with lads I would have been watching, and growing up with - it was a good feeling," says Ball.
"I had some nerves up until the first water break. There were one or two mistakes. I think that came with the new territory and the pressure that comes with playing senior football.
"You can do as much as you want in training, but nothing compares to when you have six forwards and two midfielders pressed up when you're kicking a ball out.
"When I was playing before the injury, I was always playing with lads my age, a year below me or, at the max, a year older than me. I never really played 26 - 27-year-olds, fully built senior footballers, and even inter-county footballers as well.
"Other than that, in the second half, I would have played very well. I didn't concede [a goal], thought I dealt well with anything that came my way."
8 July 2018; Kildare goalkeeper John Ball after the game ended in a draw after extra-time in the Leinster Minor Football Championship semi-final against Wicklow at St Conleth's Park in Newbridge, Co. Kildare. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Ball spent the last year doing a pre-physiotherapy post Leaving Cert course at Coláiste Íde in Finglas, and hopes to study Sports Rehabilitation and Athletic Therapy at IT Carlow. Becoming a physiotherapist had always been a goal.
While the last three years have undoubtedly been frustrating, they will also make him a more empathetic practitioner. He knows the time and sacrifice required to make a comeback from serious injury.
"I feel like I appreciate the small things a lot more," he says.
"Struggling to put on my sock, no one in their life should be struggling to do the basics. I know now that there's always someone worse off.
"I heard a story where someone had much the same injury as me, it got infected, and he had to have his leg amputated. Straight away, I was like, 'Sure, I'm fine'.
"I saw a tweet from someone. I think she's from Ballinderry. Her mother was going in to get her fixators off. She had one on each leg. I had one on my leg, and it was absolute torture. I couldn't imagine what it's like to have two.
"I reached out and said, 'If there's anything I can do, any advice I can give, I'd be more than happy to help'."
Featured image: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile