Imagine you're sprinting down a 160-yard field. As you run, you balance a tiny ball—small as a hockey puck, hard as a baseball—on the end of your stick, as in lacrosse. Except where the lacrosse stick has a woven pocket, your stick has a flat, wooden blade, and where lacrosse requires protective gear you wear neither pads nor gloves. Now imagine that your opponents are waving these same axe-like cudgels. They are coming at you from all sides, hoping to hook you from behind or block you from the front. You race down the gigantic field while considering your options. You could pass to a teammate, either with a slap of the bare hand or with a kick. No one is open, though, so you prepare to take a shot—never mind that you're still 100 yards out from the goal. You lean back and swing hard, like a baseball player at bat, feeling the satisfying reverb in your arms as you connect with the ball.
Now imagine you're the goalkeeper preparing to block this shot. Though it's coming from the far side of the field, that dense, little ball is a terrifying force, as hurling balls have been clocked at speeds nearing 100 miles per hour. * And there you are, standing in a giant goal without any padding, preparing to either catch this ball-turned-ordnance with one, ungloved hand, or deflect it with your stick. All the while, the goal-hungry opposition descends on you like a swarm of bees.
Such is the job of the goalkeeper in hurling, a sport famous for its speed and the bravery (or lunacy) of its participants. Known as the fastest field sport on earth, hurling predates Christianity and is native to Ireland, possibly originating with the Celts. Two teams of 15 players compete to score the most points by hitting the ball, called a sliotar, between the opposing team's goalposts. While rugby-style tackling is prohibited, hockey-style body checks and shoulder charges are common. As in soccer, a player can shoot from anywhere on the field, including directly in front of the goal, and directly at the goalkeeper. One point is earned for a ball that flies between the posts but over the crossbar, while three are awarded for a goal scored underneath the crossbar, where the goalkeeper stands, a kamikaze in shorts and a jersey.
Hurling is a thrilling and dangerous sport, and in Ireland the players are universally admired for their nerves. Within this pool, it is the goalkeepers who are most venerated. "A key requirement to be a goalkeeper in hurling is that you have to be mad," says Feargal McGill, head of games administration and player welfare for hurling's governing body, the Gaelic Athletic Association. * To wit: In 1997, goalkeeper Joe Quaid shattered one testicle, and had to have half of the second removed, when he took a ball to the crotch on a penalty shot. Upon recovery he returned to the sport, and continued playing as a goalie for three more seasons.
While I haven't seen any other documented cases of exploding testicles, mouth and eye injuries are common in hurling. (Interestingly, rates of concussion are extremely low. This could be because the game prohibits direct contact between players, or because hurlers are famously reticent to acknowledge injuries.) In 2005, researchers of Cork University Hospital and Waterford Regional Hospital published a paper stating that, at those two hospitals alone, 310 hurlers were treated for eye injuries during a nine-year period. Of these athletes, 14 ended up with permanently impaired vision and an additional six were left legally blind.
More-recent research shines additional light on the game's dangers. In a paper published last October, researchers at University College Dublin studied four elite, county-level teams during the 2007 season. Of the 127 players they followed, 82 percent suffered an injury. Though the majority of these injuries were muscle strains, the rundown included 15 fractures, three eye injuries, and one concussion, leading the researchers to conclude that injury incidence is "high compared to other sports." Another 2010 study published in the Irish Medical Journal revealed that 70 hurlers required treatment for facial injuries at a single hospital during the 2007 and 2008 seasons. Of those, 75 percent were playing helmetless, and their injuries included 10 facial fractures, five dental injuries, five soft tissue injuries, and 32 lacerations, primarily due to sticks to the face.
According to Colm Murphy, a researcher on the facial injuries study, goalkeepers do not necessarily experience a higher frequency of injuries. The injuries they sustain, however, are usually quite severe. These include fractured eye sockets or, in the 2007 case of famed goalkeeper David Fitzgerald, the loss of a portion of his ring finger. (Fitzgerald had the finger reattached. "I'm going back [into hurling], hopefully at the end of this month," he told Ireland's Independent, "even though the doctors think that I am mad to do so.")
On account of all of these risks, the GAA decided to phase in helmets—similar to those worn in ice hockey, with facemasks like those worn in lacrosse—starting in 2005. By 2009, all under-21 players were required to wear the gear. Last year, helmets and facemasks became mandatory for senior hurlers as well.
The league has 100 percent compliance with the new helmet regulations, says Alan Milton, the GAA's communications manager, though he admits that the goalkeepers have been resistant to the new rule. Why would goalkeepers hesitate to don equipment that could keep them from going blind? Because it makes it harder to do their jobs. Goalies feel the headgear obstructs their vision and reduces reaction times, a bad combination in a game that can be won or lost by a goalkeeper's single movement. Gary Maguire, a respected goalkeeper in Dublin who opted to play without a helmet prior to the GAA mandate, says he doesn't feel like he has the "same freedom of movement" when he is wearing headgear. He says the facemask—specifically the two horizontal bars that run the length of the face, one over the nose and the other near the eyes—simply makes it hard to see.
Hurling goalkeepers are not the first athletes who have found it difficult to adjust to protective headgear. For eight seasons in the 1930s, NFL Hall of Famer Bill Hewitt refused to wear a helmet because it "handicapped his play." (He conceded only once the league forced him to in 1939.) Similarly, ice hockey great Craig MacTavish, the last NHL player to take the ice with a bare noggin, found helmets so burdensome that he played without one from the late 1970s until he retired in 1997. "It was just a comfort thing for me," he told reporters. "I got used to not wearing it."
What sets hurlers apart from their hockey counterparts is their ingenuity in dealing with helmet hatred. Using a hacksaw and filer, Maguire has removed the two problematic horizontal bars from his helmet while keeping a third, vertical bar that runs from his forehead to his chin. Maguire is not the only goalkeeper who has taken to redesigning his facemask. According to Christy O'Connor, who played 20 seasons in goal and wrote about the culture of hurling in The Club, the majority of today's best goalkeepers "are definitely playing without some of the bars."
According to O'Connor, this is primarily a generational issue. Players in their mid-20s likely grew up playing in helmets and haven't had problems with the new regulation. By contrast, the older players—still generally the top goalies in the league—are experiencing an "utter culture shock," O'Connor says. In an attempt to acclimate to the new gear, one reserve goalkeeper in County Cork took to wearing his helmet around the house while doing the dishes or watching television. If even that doesn't help them get used to the protective gear, the goalies believe their only choice is to cut the bars.
It's ironic that the players most vulnerableto injury are the ones resistant to provisions designed to ensure their safety. These are hurlers, though, and they've survived in the game because of their high tolerance for risk. Participants in any dangerous sport are taking a calculated gamble every time they suit up for a game. Sure, it's possible that they'll get smacked in the face. But it's also possible they won't. Goalkeepers would rather run the risk and deal with the consequences later than preemptively bow to obstructed vision. At least, that's how Maguire explains it. Then again, Maguire has a different take on risk and consequences than most people. "I got my nose split and had to get it glued back," he says, recounting some of his on-field wounds. "I got stitches on my eye, and played on, and stitches on my ear another time and played on. Some of the injuries are just little nicks."
The decision to alter a facemask isn't one hurlers take lightly. As soon as they modify their helmets, players become ineligible for insurance coverage. This is a bigger deal than it would be for top American athletes: Since hurling remains an amateur sport in Ireland, none of its star players have a lot of money to burn. (The very few players that have endorsement deals earn roughly 5,000 euros per season, O'Connor estimates.) While the GAA maintains a small fund to help defray healthcare costs, players with serious injuries are likely to be responsible for at least some portion of the cost of treatment.
This all leaves players wondering what's better, playing with unobstructed vision or paying heed to the data indicating that protective headgear reduces injuries. Last year's study in the Irish Medical Journal simplifies the analysis somewhat. Of the 18 players who suffered facial injuries despite wearing a helmet, three wore standard faceguards, three wore helmets without faceguards, and 12 had modified faceguards. (Researchers speculate that the low injury incidence among players without faceguards is due to the fact that these types of helmets are uncommon.)To drive home the point, the researchers included an image of a helmet with a modified facemask. The attending caption explains that the player who wore this helmet fractured his cheek and jaw bones and required surgical implants, adding that these injuries occurred in "two successive seasons while wearing this helmet." It's a cautionary tale, and one that reveals the stubbornness of the hurler. The player wore that helmet, got his face rearranged, and then, the following season, did it all over again.
Corrections, April 13, 2011: This article originally described the ball as gaining momentum as it travels across the field. The ball would actually lose speed gradually as it travels. (Return to the corrected sentence.) This article also originally misspelled the first name of an administrator for the Gaelic Athletic Association. He is Feargal McGill, not Feral McGill. (Return to the corrected sentence.)