Dean Rock talks about going from kicking frees in the back garden to becoming a six-time GAA All-Ireland Senior Football Championship winner, the influence of his father, Barney, and the inspiration that he draws from working with people with intellectual disabilities at Stewarts Care.

Playing football in the back garden as a kid, I was always the guy taking the free to win the All-Ireland for Dublin. It’s been amazing for me that I got to live out that dream that I had as a young lad.

You appreciate moments like that in the winter months, when you look back on a championship. In the moment itself, all the focus is on the job in front of you. Trusting in your routine. Being clear in your mind. Executing the strike. Taking your score. Plenty of time in the months after to reflect on childhood dreams coming true.

There is a humility amongst the group at Dublin GAA. There’s an understanding among the players of the privileged position we are in. While we wear the jersey now, we do so with respect to the great players of the past. Our job is to do our best to leave the jersey in a better place for the younger players coming through.

With the privilege of being a Dublin footballer comes responsibility as to how you’re perceived by the younger footballers and fans. Every action you take on or off the pitch has consequences and influence on a younger generation. That’s why humility is so vital. I feel like it’s something we’ve managed to keep intact through all of our success in recent years. It’s a key part of what makes us who we are as a group.

As an individual player, you can always be better, you never truly reach your full potential.

Each year you reflect, and you can see those areas for improvement. That’s the challenge, and that’s what keeps you coming back every year. You’re always chasing something.

I’m a free taker, so I’ve a responsibility to hone that mindset. A lot of it comes with practice and experience of being in certain situations. You listen to coaches. You take nuggets of information where you can find them to give you an edge. The truth is though, that every free kick is a new scenario. No two are the same. There’s always a variable, the conditions, the crowd, and the pitch. You just have to trust the process and get that ball over the bar.

I often get asked about records and such, but ultimately that is not a motivator. For me, it’s all about performing for the team. Records are for reflection in retirement.

I was well aware from a very young age that my dad, Barney, was a player that was special to the Dublin fans, someone who’d had a great career in football, an All-Ireland winner, someone who was a bit of a GAA celebrity.

Going to Croke Park as a kid, there was always someone who wanted to stop and chat to him on Jones’ Road or get a photo.

I’d get to be up in the commentary box with Dad meeting people like Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh and getting to see the game from a unique perspective. That privilege was never lost on me growing up.

I grew up in Garristown, North County Dublin, but the original family home is in the shadow of Croke Park. My great-great grandfather, great-grandfather, grandfather and granduncle all worked at Croke Park in some capacity. GAA is a big part of the Rock family tradition.

Dad was playing club football into his early forties, so I got to see him in action.

I didn’t need to look outside my own home for a sporting hero. Everything Dad did, I wanted to do.

He’s the reason I play football. He’s the reason I wanted to be a free taker. He’s the reason I dreamed of playing for Dublin one day.

My mam is from Garristown. Her family were also steeped in Gaelic football. Her dad would have been very involved in the GAA, and all her brothers played for the club. Marrying my dad, she was well aware of how Gaelic football can be a huge part of your life, and the commitment and sacrifice that comes with playing the sport at the top levels. She was dad’s biggest supporter when he was playing. She’s the same for me.

It’s not always plane sailing in sport. It’s a mixed bag of emotions and ups and downs which can be hard for a parent to see, but my parents always had belief in me. It makes it mean so much more when you achieve success in the game. That success goes beyond the group with Dublin. It’s shared with your family and the people of Dublin who believe in what we’re doing and support us all the way. I think it’s important to remember that as a player.

Gaelic football is a hobby. Stewarts Care has provided me with my career. I’m a fundraiser with the organisation which aims to provide a nurturing, caring environment for all of our service users – people with intellectual disabilities.

I graduated from Sports Science and Health in DCU. As part of that, I did a six-month placement in Stewarts Care prescribing physical activity programmes for Special Olympics athletes and other service users. I loved it. As soon as I got my degree, I got a full-time job there as an adapted physical activity co-ordinator. I’ve done various roles there over the last number of years, which led me to my current role as a fundraiser.

Dublin GAA has a huge number of supporters among the service users in Stewarts Care. They see me play on the weekends on TV, or at a game, and on a Monday morning they’ll dissect my performance let me know how I got on, good, bad or indifferent.

It’s a good way for me to get back down to earth. Get a sense of true reality.

Working with people with intellectual disabilities might be a bit different to your average daily working communication but, for me, it’s perfectly normal. From time to time, I get to visit schools and talk about what I do, introduce kids to some of our service users and try to increase understanding of intellectual disability. The more we can do that, the better it will be for society, in my view.

It doesn’t feel like work to me. It’s an incredible environment. You’re greeted with love and affection every day you walk in.

I’m fortunate to be able to help them achieve their fundraising goals and for all the other roles I’ve had there over the last five years.

Players like us are the lucky ones who have our full health and get to do what we do. I see it every day that certain service users I work with can’t do the things we do. You have to stay humble and to always remember that Gaelic football is a hobby. There are far more important things in life.

I bring those learnings from the day job to the Dublin set up, not the other way around.

You’re going to come unstuck at stages throughout your career. It’s not always going to go your way. Resilience is one of the most valuable things you can have as a player. If you put in the hard work, you have to believe you’ll get where you’re going despite what challenges you meet along the way. You can’t fake that. You have to have that honesty of effort and that work ethic.

I see it in the people I work with at Stewarts Care, the Special Olympians, and the service users. Resilience is second nature to them. Everyone wants to win, but it’s not always going to work out for you. You have to meet that head on and stay positive.

That way, you can’t go too far wrong.



April 2020.


Dean Rock was speaking at the GAA Super Games in partnership with Sky Sports.

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To find out more about Stewarts Care, visit their website here.

If you enjoyed Dean’s piece you might like to read Philly McMahon’s – “A Culture Can Change.”

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