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DARREN FULLERTON: A get well wish to the silver haired man with the mic.

Byline: DARREN FULLERTON

JACKIE Fullerton - or my dad, as I've often called him - has always softened his experiences of life with humour and laughter.

Even the most difficult, testing of circumstances or vulnerable situations are quietly subdued with a wry smile, dead-pan line or warming cackle.

It is what sustains him. It is also, essentially, what drives him.

It is a release valve and he has needed to call on that laughter during the past three weeks as he has confronted a persistent heart problem in coronary care wards at both Antrim Area Hospital and the Royal Victoria in Belfast.

They have been worrying times as he awaits a bypass operation in the weeks ahead, and yet his personality remains intact.

It survives as I have always known it for the past 30-odd years.It continues to suppress his fears for the sake of others and appears ever ready to cajole a smile or laugh from those around him.

One day last week he told me he had been warned "not to be joining a Christmas club". The next day he added: "It's got worse Darren, I've been told not to buy fireworks."

When asked if he was comfortable, he smiled before replying: "Not really. It's never comfortable lying in bed with a dark suit and shoes on - but at least I'm ready."

Ten days ago he laughed aloud when a well meaning relative presented him with a novel by his favourite author Jack Higgins.

Unknown to the visitor, the title of the book read: "A Good Night For Dying".

"You've seen my medical files, haven't you?" he said.

No-one can lay claim to being beyond criticism or reproach - we all have our pros and cons - and yet I have been astounded by the warmth and numbers of well wishers who have enquired of his condition in recent days.

I answered my mobile last week to hear the unmistakable voice and accent of former Northern Ireland defender Jimmy Nicholl at the other end. "How's your father, son?" he asked.

I'd never spoken to Nicholl before, and yet there I was speaking to a former Manchester United hero through the haze of surprise.

Sir Alex Ferguson - surely, he has a club to run - has also been on the phone to ask of my dad's wellbeing.

The list goes on and on

Suffice to say the man himself has been deeply touched by the messages of support. Not least the comical ones. Like that of Liam Beckett - a friend and former team mate at Crusaders in the 1970s - who told the recent launch of the Irish League: "I always knew Jackie was tight - I just didn't think it was across the chest."

Guests at the Bar Seven venue at The Odyssey laughed loudly. It sparked a similar response at The Royal when the victim of the gag was told less than an hour later.

There have been moments of light relief, and yet it has been a surreal and unnerving experience for someone who first hit the public conscience here when he took his opening tentative steps onto our screens 31 years ago.

It has also been ironic. Why is it that we only truly know the depth of feeling people have for us when they are confronted by our enforced absence?

Perhaps that is a question that even the greatest philosophers and academics will forever struggle to address.

But if there is a silver lining to the cloud that has hovered above my family in the past 21 days, it is that a 61-year-old from Ballymena has realised the true esteem in which he is held.

Not only by those who know him, but by those who don't.

People who recognise him only from a television screen blurring in the corner of their own hectic lives still offer best wishes as they would to a distant friend.

"I don't know your dad, but tell him I was asking for him," is a stock phrase I have heard so many times in recent days.

It says much of the man and yet he has still been taken aback by the wealth of generosity flooding his way.

Like everyone else, he enjoys the well wishes and plaudits - who wouldn't? - but he has still been surprised by the level of kindness.

"I suppose I must have done something right," he said quietly at one point last week.

I'm biased beyond words, but it is increasingly clear that he has.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 5, 2004
Words:745
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