By Pierce O’Reilly
A young County Antrim footballer has lost his fight for life almost a week after being swept out to sea in San Francisco.
Barry Neeson, 21, from Toomebridge, Co. Antrim, was rescued from the Pacific on Jan. 2. Two passersby pulled him and a female friend from the ocean after they were apparently swept from the shore by a wave.
On Jan. 9, Neeson’s family told doctors to disconnect him from the life-support machine. He had never regained consciousness.
The tragedy occurred when Neeson and his friend, an unidentified County Down native, were walking along the seafront. It appears that a strong wave swept them out to sea and submerged the footballer, who was said to be a strong swimmer, in several feet of water. It is believed that two passing joggers pulled both from the sea. Neeson failed to regain consciousness. His friend recovered shortly afterward.
Neeson, a former minor footballer for his native county, had been earmarked as a potential senior star. He arrived in San Francisco 18 months ago. He worked as a joiner for a construction company.
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Joe Duffy, the chairman of the local Ulster club, said that Neeson was an outstanding individual.
"Barry played all season for us at full back," Duffy said. "He loved the game and we’re shocked and gutted by what has happened. We all prayed that he’d pull through, but there was severe brain damage and there was nothing anyone could do."
Club officials, players and GAA supporters in the Bay area paid their final tributes to Neeson at a special Mass in St. Phillip’s church before his body was flown home to Ireland by Aer Lingus last Wednesday. A guard of honor stood silently outside the church as Neeson’s coffin was carried by his closest friends.
Fr. Brendan McBride, a chaplain to San Francisco’s young Irish community, said the entire parish was numbed by the tragedy. McBride met with Neeson’s parents at the hospital during the week and helped them come to terms with the latest fatal incident in the area involving Irish immigrants.
"His mother and father are heartbroken and devastated," McBride, who formerly served in Woodside, Queens, said. "They arrived the day after it happened and they never left his side. The hearts of the Irish community here in San Francisco, and indeed all over the U.S., are with all his relatives and friends right now."
Neeson, who hailed from the St. Ergnat’s club in the parish of Moneyglass, was a former Player of the Year with the club. He had played at all underage levels for the county and, according to Duffy, was a player who would have made the senior grade with ease.
"Barry had the build of a footballer," Duffy said. "He was 6-foot-3, (had) plenty of pace and (was) a great reader of the game.
"Not alone was he a good footballer, but he was also one of the lads, who enjoyed the social aspect after all the games."
Neeson would have turned 22 on Feb. 10. The seafront area where the incident occurred is notorious for its undertow and riptides. Two weeks earlier, a child was swept out to sea at the same spot.
Neeson is survived by his parents, his two brothers and one sister. He was buried Saturday in Moneyglass cemetery after a funeral Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church.
The Ulster club in San Francisco has said it will dedicate a tournament to Neeson’s memory later in the year.
"Barry was liked by everyone he met around here, so it’s only right that we sponsor a special memorial trophy in his memory," Duffy said.
Neeson is the fifth Irish person to be killed in tragic circumstances in San Francisco in the last two years. Mickey Traynor, 21, from Armagh, died after a car accident in 1999. Caroline McGarr, from Kildare, died in December ’99 from injuries she received following a hit-and-run accident in the Irish neighborhood of Sunset. Peter Brady, 24, from Tyrone, also died in a car accident, while Chris Doherty, from Strabane, died of a brain hemorrhage last June.