In October 2018 local GAA legend Colum Rocks passed away after a battle with illness.  ‘Super’, as he was known, was the driving force behind Loup’s journey from underage obscurity to Ulster minor champions.  Michael McMullan caught up with members of his family and some of the players who idolised him.

THE giddy mood and laughter of a bustling bar fell silent in an instant.  That’s the impact Colum Rocks still had.  The room just stopped.

In May last year, he walked into Cookstown’s Time Bar.  Loup’s 1993 winning minor team, who had already arrived, were fixated on someone who was more than a manager.  A father figure almost.

Just as they did when he walked into the dressing room all those years ago.  Total respect.

The reunion marked 25 years of the title that Colum had masterminded since their U12 days.  He mingled with the players he idolised almost as much as they idolised him.

The squad he ferried around Derry and Ulster.  Along with the club’s second Ulster minor winning side two years later, they backboned Loup’s rise from intermediate ranks to the top of senior football in Ulster.

All but two of the 1993 crop, who were in America and Australia, where there.  The night of nostalgia had been initially planned over the Christmas period, but with Colum’s deteriorating health, it was decided to reschedule.

Colum had successfully come through treatment for prostate cancer in 2014 and was deemed to be cancer free.

On December 21, 2017 a pain in the back he described as a ‘different kind of pain’ saw the family seek a scan privately the following week.

On January, 4 a consultant revealed an aggressive cancer which had spread from his bladder.  Colum didn’t lament not being diagnosed earlier.

“If it was meant to have been found, it would have been found, life was a journey and this was the one laid out for him.  That was his take on it.  He had tremendous faith,” stressed his daughter Claire.

Colum was advised by the consultant that life expectancy was between 6 and 12 weeks and he would ultimately require palliative care. Thankfully Colum was able to remain at home, determined not to go into hospital. He was a ‘super’ patient and was able to be cared for by his own family.

But having worked all his life, he was determined to see his 65th birthday on May 10. In his words, he had much more to see. He received radiotherapy and multiple sessions of chemotherapy which he tolerated well despite his slight build.

Reaching his milestone he celebrated his birthday with family and friends, got to see his grandson Luca playing in the green and white of his beloved Loup and experienced the arrival of Rory – the youngest of his six grandchildren – born six weeks before Colum passed away at home peacefully on October 26.

Colum is survived by his wife Marian, daughters Katrina, Claire, Julie and son Aidan.

Despite his failing health, Colum continued to walk three laps of the Loup pitch every day, until two weeks before his untimely death. The place where he channelled much of his energy into over a golden seven year period.

“He put his heart and soul into everything he done,” said his daughter Claire.  “The GAA was a massive part of his life and the Loup club was his heartbeat.  To us he just wasn’t daddy, he was our best friend too. He was an absolute inspiration to everyone who knew him.”

After leaving the pitch, he would make his way to the chapel to light a candle.  Something he had done at home every morning of his life.

He had tremendous faith, saying the rosary daily.  He never missed mass, something he passed down the generations.  If a game was on a Sunday, his players were encouraged to attend on Saturday.

Working full time as a site manager, caring for his family and wife Marian, he answered the call to anyone who needed.  Nothing was ever too much trouble.

And when he wasn’t coaching teams, he was in the front seat of Paddy Rocks’ Audi.  Heading to and from football matches - anywhere in Ulster.  Or the pair of them where doing their family visits. You rarely saw one without the other and both always with a smile.

Faith, family, friends and football. That was Colum’s motto, one quoted by the priest at his funeral.

***
PRIDE of place on the wall of Johnny Fox’s pub in Ballyronan is a signed Loup jersey.  A replica of their 1993 minor kit sourced by Fintan Martin and presented to proprietor Aidan Rocks.

On the top right hand corner of the frame sits his father Colum’s memorial card.

It’s December 30, the original date of the reunion, and five of the signatories of the jersey come together to for a festive pint and to mark their success.

The sort of conversations that never happen often enough.

Ronan Rocks places five of his uncle Colum’s scrap books on the table.

They are priceless.  A GAA enthusiast’s dream.  Packed with photos, poems and cuttings from ‘seven golden years of An Lúb’ as termed on the cover of one of them.

“Guard them with your life,” Ronan warns me, as he places them on the table.

The level of detail is staggering.  Each year is broken down by age group, the coaches involved, results and progress report.  Even down to the committee officers.  All annotated in Colum's handwriting.

Dotted through the pages are Loup players who graduated to various county and college teams.  From a photo of Ronan kicking the winning point for Derry minors against Down to labelling Johnny McBride as the ‘second king’ beside a photo of him receiving the McLarnon Cup.

Every Loup medal winner is charted.  Two words pop up with regularity.  Congratulations and thanks.

A conversation starts in a quaint corner of the bar.  Football, Loup and Colum Rocks are the topics of choice.

It lasts just north of an hour and a half.  Their late manager’s memory hangs on every syllable.

His son Aidan is younger than the players his father coached, but there is a glint in his eye, at the glaringly obvious esteem in which his father was held.

He speaks of ‘many a night’ when there would have been ‘at least 20’ of the lads packed into their living room.  There didn’t need to be a reason, Colum’s players were an extension of the family.

“It’s a bit vague,” he recalls of Colum’s fascination with going to games.  “But I remember going to watch Geoffrey (McGonigle) playing for Maghera in the MacRory down in Derrylaughan.

“Daddy wanted to watch anybody that was special.  It didn’t matter if it was Loup boys.”

By the time Loup were on course for the Ulster minor title, Geoffrey – now Colum’s ‘sidekick’ - was on the bus and present at the club’s presentation dinner.

That was Colum’s infectious personality.

Across from him is Enda McQuillan, who Colum collected at the border to take him home from a family holiday in Sligo to play in the 1988 U12 championship semi-final defeat against Greenlough.

Around the corner is Ciaran Hegarty who played midfield under ‘Super’, as Colum was named by friend and bowling mate Brendan Conway.

One of Hegarty’s memories is going to games where Loup weren’t even playing in.  Bang in the middle of a cluster of green tracksuit tops would be Colum, he remembers.

Like the ‘Pied Piper’ almost.

“God rest him, but Colum had that thing about him, people were just attracted to him,” Ronan commented.

“I think even if we had never won any medals, we’d still be here talking about him,” stated Noel Doyle who played corner back.

“Growing up there were only ever two numbers you would remember, your own and Colum’s.”

Fintan Martin arrives later and when quizzed on Colum’s number, he instantly recited it.

Enda McQuillan pulls out his phone and reads Loup's Gary Coleman’s tribute message from the group chat.  Only for Rocks, Coleman feels he would never have worn the Loup jersey and stressed how he influenced his life beyond football.

As well as Loup, Colum coached the Ardtrea ladies team – which included his daughter Claire – to junior and intermediate championship success.

At the same time he steered Moneymore to back to back promotions.  He also managed Rasharkin and Desertmartin for a time.

Alongside Damien O’Connor, Colum got Foreglen to an intermediate championship final in 2004 – before being awarded the title when the final with Greenlough was unplayed.

He struck up a great relationship with Pascal McFeely and guided Foreglen on how to structure their underage.  No better source of advice.

Nothing was ever too much.  A constant giving of himself.

***

FOR all the success be brought to Loup, Colum Rocks’ involvement began unexpectedly in 1986.

“My first involvement with underage in the 1980s came by accident,” read the first entry in his scrapbooks.

“A primary school tournament in Brocagh on Saturday, July 18.  Mr (Hugh) Brady was unable to attend and he asked me to take the school team to the tournament,” he noted.

Captained by Ronan, they were beaten by ‘a good’ Derrychrin team before going on to win the shield.

Also in 1986, Dublin stars John O’Leary and Noel McCaffrey were brought up for a once off coaching session and ‘word got about’ that wheels were beginning to turn.

“Cubs from 14 years old, down to seven came to the pitch and they even taught us how to tie our own laces,” Noel Doyle recalled.

“And I can remember Noel McCaffrey teaching the dirt,” added Enda McQuillan, as he stood up to demonstrate stepping into the tackle.

It transpired into an internal league within the club, as interest grew.

Underage in the Loup had been ‘non-existent’ but that was the beginning, of a seven year journey to the pinnacle of minor football.

“Loup were playing intermediate, got relegated in 1988 to junior football and then won the junior in 1989,” Ciaran Hegarty explained.

“It all started with a meeting up at the hall, when Sean Corey came in and the idea was a youth development programme.” McQuillan recalled of the start of the underage rise.

“It was about days out and for seven years after that, we went to the All-Ireland semi-final with the Ulster team.”

In 1987, under Colum and his late brother Eamon’s leadership, Loup won Swatragh’s blitz and romped their way to the club’s first U12 B league.  Despite 2-8 from Ronan Rocks, a ‘very disputable penalty’ saw them fall in the championship to Ballinderry.

“It was the best thing that ever happened us,” McQuillan admitted.

“The tears in that changing room was something else,” Noel Doyle added. “I always remember Colum saying, ‘it was the best thing for you’”.

It was the same in the garden when Colum would race against the grandchildren. He would never give them a head start. It was up to them to catch him.

“They have to learn how to lose, modest in victory and gracious in defeat.  To be a good sportsperson you can’t win all the time,” Claire recalls him saying.

In 1988 Colum once again had Eamon by his side. This time with both the U12 and U14 teams, as they built for the following year when they would win the treble – Féile, league and championship.

Kevin Ryan scored a wonder goal in a 1-4 tally to win the club’s first grade A title.  A Ballinderry shot came off the bar and Ryan ran virtually the entire pitch before crashing to the net.

Féile glory in 1989 meant a trip to Galway, a bus journey and a chance to bond even tighter.  Not that they needed it.  In the years before that, it was carloads to games all over Ulster.

Colum previously went on holiday to Bundoran and on discovering the pitch, he sourced the number of the U12 manager and the following weekend the Loup cavalcade of cars were down for a challenge game.

On a different occasion they were Dungannon bound for a game and Colum’s car was packed to the straps with youngsters.

“He spied the police checkpoint on Cookstown street,” Ronan remembers.  “He signalled for us in the back to get out and whoever was in the front got into the back.”

Half of Colum’s crew walked up the footpath, past the checkpoint, over the crest of the hill and back into the car, before heading on.

The 1989 U14 South Derry championship final was another date with Ballinderry, which ended in a 0-4 all draw to set up a replay at a packed Ballymaguigan. It took extra time to separate them before

Loup edged it, 0-9 to 0-7. The craic was mighty then

“I remember mammy taking me to the game and us being locked in a mini and the Ballinderry ones rocking it from side to side,” Aidan recalled.

Harmless fun in those days, innocent banter.

“Frank Scullion hit wee Kevin Collins with an umbrella standing along the sideline,” Noel Doyle added.

Five of the Ballinderry team would win All-Ireland Club medals 13 years later, with five of the Loup side leading them to Derry and Ulster glory in 2003.

Loup eased their way to their first county title with a 3-7 to 0-1 victory over Dungiven, with the rest of the county starting to sit up and take notice.

“Someone had predicted after the Féile final that within seven years we’d be in a (senior) county final,” Ciaran Hegarty stated.  “It was based on what Glenullin had done.  They won the final at 21 (years of age) and obviously had Dermot McNicholl.”

Two years later Loup’s progress continued to spiral, this time at U16 level.  There was more of a balance between the teams at this point but with seven league wins under their belt only Bellaghy stood in Loup’s way on an unbeaten run.

The Tones were leading but a John McVey goal, a penalty from Ronan Rocks and Alec McBride saving two Bellaghy penalties secured a three point win.

Wins over Glen, Greenlough and Bellaghy, set up a final with Castledawson, who had INXS singer Kieran Gribbin within their ranks.   The ‘Dawson scored an early goal but another Rocks penalty set Loup on their way to a 1-12 to 2-3 victory, under captain Ciaran Hegarty who Colum described as a ‘great choice’ as leader.

In the All-County Final, Dungiven were again the opponents who this time didn’t register a single score, as Loup eased to the title on a 3-9 to 0-0 scoreline.

Five of the team started an 11-a-side minor final the following week, but were beaten by Ballinderry by a point.

“I’m as proud of you boys today in defeat as I was last Sunday,” Colum noted.

It was the beginning of the finest chapter of all.

***

LOUP'S major success had arrived every second year, so 1992 was a ‘year early’ for their assault on the minor championship.

Only team captain Thomas Rocks was in his final year.

“Everybody sort of laughed at us as Bellaghy and Magherafelt were the two strong teams, but we beat them both,” Enda McQuillan recalled.

They still needed to come back from seven points down to secure a draw away at Dungiven in the last game to win the league.

“We could’ve won that championship,” Noel Doyle admitted.

Thomas Rocks got sent off with 12 minutes to go with the sides level at 0-7 each.  Magherafelt ran out three point winners and on their way to the championship, with a win over Dungiven.

“To the youth committee and all the underage managers for 1992, I say thank you for your time and commitment and look forward to another enjoyable years football for An Lúb in 1993, Colum Rocks,” read the last entry in the record books for that season.

The team he said would ‘always be my no1’ again reached the top of the tree the following year.

Wins over Dungiven, Ballinderry and Castledawson set up a championship final clash with Bellaghy.

Fintan Martin’s wizardry and Ciaran Hegarty’s goal were vital, but Ronan Rocks grabbed the headlines with 0-6

Ronan’s great friend Joe Cassidy did likewise for Bellaghy and would ironically travel – along with Geoffrey McGonigle – on the bus for their Ulster campaign.

But that was Colum.  He had time for everyone.

Three years later, Ronan and James Mulholland – who played at full forward that day for Bellaghy – were socialising in Letterkenny.

Following a misdemeanour involving a broken tree on the town’s Port Road the pair were apprehended by the gardai.

Colum Rocks’ phone rang, assuming he was Ronan’s father.  It was Seamus Haran, father of John who Ronan marked in the minor final win over St Eunan’s.  It was going to take £1,000 each to bail them out.

“At half eight the next morning, Colum was in Letterkenny and bailed me out – me and James.”

Colum went home and lifted Ronan’s father Hugh and took him watch Derry defeat Armagh at Celtic Park.  The Letterkenny trip wasn’t mentioned until later in the evening when Colum helped break the news.

That was him.  He never let his team down and the respect was a two way street.  Rarely did he ever have to raise his voice, his daughter Claire commented about her time playing under him with Ardtrea.

When quizzed about Colum’s training back then, attacking football featured highly and his knowledge of the game was immense.

“The lines,” bellowed all of the lads around the table, in unison.  “You have to mention the lines.”

From the end line, out to the 14, to the 21, the 45, to the other 45, to the 21 and to the 14.

“Daddy was a whippet,” Aidan added.  “He took part in the sprints.”

And, as Ciaran Hegarty stressed, there was no ego.

“He wasn’t scared to bring people in.  He brought in Philip Kerr, Collie McGurk and Dessie Ryan that year when we won the minors.”

“As Ciaran says, he knew his own limitations and plugged the holes when he needed to,” Noel added.

Under Colum’s leadership, Loup saw off Clonduff, Crossmaglen and St Eunan’s to land the Ulster title on New Year’s Day, all without having a player booked.

After the final whistle was his proudest moment.  As the tournament organisers called for the players to pick up their medals, Colum took the microphone.

From goalkeeper Michael Scullion, all the way to the last name on the panel he called them forward – using nicknames when required.

At the club’s annual dinner dance, Colum was presented with a mirror which encapsulated a photo of his prize team – the Ulster champions.

“Thank you for the marvellous present,” he wrote in his scrapbook.  “I will cherish it always.  For the 1st time in 7 years I ended up a wee boy instead of you boys.  Thank you.”

***

BY the time the 1995 Ulster minor success arrived, Colum had stepped away.  It was time for someone else to shine and it was Martin Gallagher who managed the team to Ulster glory.

When Loup won the Derry senior title in 2003, the players made a pact that they would form a circle in the middle of Celtic Park with the John McLaughlin Cup.

Standing arm in arm amongst them was Colum Rocks.

Many of the players still feel he had similar man management qualities to Malachy O’Rourke who took them to Ulster senior success later that year.

“That man laid the foundations, my job was the easy bit,” O’Rourke told Ronan in a text message after attending the month’s mind.

“Once we had Colum’s trust, that was it,” Hegarty stressed.  “I remember a league game against Bellaghy and half the team was having a stinker.  It wasn’t a matter of taking boys off.  He kept moving them around until they got into the game.”

Fintan Martin, who also played under Colum paid the following tribute.

“It still brings a tear to my eye and a lump in my throat.  The man just wasn’t a football manager - he was a like a father to all of us, a life coach, a guardian on and off the field.

“He give us all direction in life growing up.  He said to me ‘big Adrian (McGuckin) was asking about you.  You should go to Maghera son and get yourself a good education and play MacRory Cup football’.

“I owe the ‘Super’ so much. What a man, there will never be his likes again,” Martin concluded.

From answering the call from Hugh Brady in July 1986, Colum Rocks put together a blueprint that raised the club off its knees.

But his greatest legacy is how the players still idolise him.

Faith, family, friends and football.  That was the life of Colum Rocks.

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