Best known as a centre half forward, his versatility saw him used in virtually all outfield positions throughout an illustrious career. He was recognised by many football enthusiasts as the greatest player of all time.
Born in Tuam, County Galway, Purcell is widely regarded as Gaelic football's greatest centre-half forward. His affinty with the game began at an early age. In 1934, Galway played Cavan in Tuam. It was the first big occasion Purcell remembered "The crowd was exceptional for the time because it was at that time that the papers began to write it up and they brought a great crowd" Galway won their second All-Ireland that year. He was five going on six and was already "Mad About It".
He played colleges football with St. Jarlath's College of Tuam. The teenage star of 1947 was destined to become a star at ever level as he made his prodigious talent available to club, county, province, university and country over fifteen years. ’The Master,’ as he was known far and wide from his days as a teacher at Strawberry Hill National School in the parish of Dunmore, had earlier been labelled ’The Boy Wonder’ when he gave a stirring midfield performance to inspire St. Jarlath’s College to their first Hogan Stand success in 1947 beating St. Patrick’s, Armagh, in the All-Ireland at Croke Park.
His footballing career spanned three decades - the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s - but he was surely in his peak in the summer of 1956 when he inspired Galway to their fourth ever All-Ireland success with a powerful display of footballing power in the final remembered for scoring exploits of Frank Stockwell.His on-field partnership with fellow Galway & Tuam Stars great Stockwell saw the pair earn the sobriquet of the "The Terrible Twins" - a name borne of their almost telepathic understanding when playing together, the two men tore many defences to shreds.
As well as the All-Ireland triumph in 56, there was a League title in 1957, three Railway Cups, one of which he captained , the Hogan Cup success of ’47, a Sigerson Cup success in 1950, a string of appearances with the Combined Universities side and a quite incredible ten county titles with his native Tuam Stars, including a seven-in-a-row from 1954 to 1960. There are ’Old timers’ to this day in Tuam who bemoan the fact that there wasn’t an All-Ireland club championship at the time, for the Stars had a side of truly exceptional ability, hubbed around the talent and versatility of Purcell.
His involvement in the GAA continued long after his playing days as he served in a number of positions as team mentor and administrator in Galway.
Purcell's skill as a player was recognised when he was named on the Gaelic Athletic Association's "Team of the Century" in 1984, and the organisations Gaelic football Team of the Millennium in 1999. Also in 1984,when the Sunday Independent launched their Team of the Century selected by readers by personal choice, the Tuam maestro won more votes for the vital centre half forward position than any player for any other position. It was Ireland’s salute to the greatest of them all. In 1991 he was inducted into the All-Stars All-Time Hall of Fame. In 2003, he was named on the St. Jarlath’s All Stars team.
In 1999, a new road in Tuam was named after both Purcell and Stockwell. Shortly before his death Purcell was the recipient of an honorary degree at a ceremony at NUI Galway.
Seán Purcell died at the age of 76 on August 27, 2005. His funeral was by far the biggest ever to take place in Tuam, There was a huge outpouring of emotion, the most that was ever experienced, in the area. The town came to a standstill on Monday 29th August for the arrival of the remains of GAA legend Sean Purcell to his home town. 2,000 mourners lined the streets of Tuam as his cortege passed through. GAA President Sean Kelly along with Director General of the GAA Liam Mulvihill were present along with a number of former Presidents like Sean McCague from Monaghan, Paddy Buggy from Kilkenny and Jack Boothman from Wicklow while incoming President Nickey Brennan from Kilkenny was also there. Kelly paid tribute to Purcell for his work off the field of play as well as the joy he brought to the masses by his skill as a player. "An extremely likeable man, he was very modest and always sought to play down his achievements rather than dwell on them.It was always a pleasure to meet him and the entire GAA community, both inside and outside Galway, will miss him deeply". Legendary football stars were in plentiful supply at both the removal and funeral and these included former Dubs manager and player Kevin Heffernan, Kerry stars Mick O'Connell, Mick O'Dwyer and Tom Long. Jack Mahon, friend and former team-mate paid tribute to him, describing him as a"A kind and gentle man ... so modest and unassuming", during an emotional eulogy at Tuam Cathedral during his funeral. Galway County Board Chairman Frank Burke described Sean Purcell as the greatest exponent ever of the skills of Gaelic football while Football Board Chairman Pat Egan said that the was an icon of the game.
In April 2007, special plaques honouring three legendary Tuam GAA figures were unveiled at Tuam Stadium. The plaques were erected to mark the lifetime of dedicated service to the stadium by the late Miko Kelly, and the honour and glory brought to the famous venue, and to their town and county by the "Terrible Twins", Frank Stockwell and the great Sean Purcell.