This week in Shanghai, the Laureus World Sports Awards named legendary Springbok hardman Schalk Burger Jr as their Comeback Athlete for 2015.
Burger has made a series of comebacks, including cervical fusion in 2005 after winning IRB World Player of the Year in 2004, and having to lead his family through horrific suffering from the crime that is the scourge of South Africa.
The latest comeback was from a near-death bout of spinal meningitis in 2013, which took him from 120 kilograms to 90 kilograms in a matter of weeks, and necessitated his young wife calling all of Burger’s close friends and family to say their final farewells. He went to hospital for a minor calf injury, discovered a cyst, which was drained, and wound up with a life-threatening infection.
At the time, his son was only six months old. Burger fought from burning heartbeat to stabbing heartbeat in utter isolation. Months later, a skeletal Burger, once the picture of vigour, minced gingerly on to the Stormers’ practice field, looking like a frail former player. For the second time, he was told he would be lucky just to walk; the life of a breakdown-disrupting Test-level tackler was over.
Yet, in ten minutes of rugby at Newlands against the Wallabies in 2014, as he fulfilled Michael Hooper’s wish to become acquainted with the Paarl ruck-wrecker, we saw a slimmer, faster, and slick-handling 2.0 version of Schalk Burger. Single-handedly, he turned the game into a rout. And later, in November at Twickenham, he celebrated his 75th Springbok cap with a typically robust man of the match display.
Nothing in his youth suggested that Burger would have to dig deep and overcome adversity.
His father was a Springbok lock. His family farm near Wellington is a travel brochure. He was surrounded by a loving, connected family and network of friends. He was good at any sport he tried, including cricket. He attended Paarl Gimnasium, where 25 other Springboks went, including his good mate Jean de Villiers and wunderkind Handre Pollard.
Burger is naturally big and strong, and had the kind of 80-minute endurance reminiscent of the greatest Namibian Bok, Jan Ellis.
Ellis is the quintessential Bok loose forward. Like Burger, he was an uncompromising warrior who lacked any notion of self-protection. He was also a big, gifted athlete with an appreciation for linking play.
But unlike Burger, nothing came easy for Ellis. His family moved from South Africa to what was then South-West Africa (now Namibia) when Jan was an infant. They lived in a tiny cattle-farming town near the Botswana border, abutting the Kalahari Desert. Picture the Outback; a small trading depot town.
The red-headed Ellis grew into a rawboned specimen (6’2″ and 98kg) in high school, and captained the national schools team, not an honour usually won by any schoolboy outside the ‘big cities’ of Windhoek or Walvis Bay.
He moved to Windhoek to further his rugby career, and became an obsessive trainer. His legendary solo training included running with tyres in sand dunes, hopping up ravines, marathons in extreme heat in the mountains outside Windhoek, and carrying heavy rocks over rough terrain to toughen his amazing grip strength.
Even far from the power centres of Springbok rugby, like Paarl or Pretoria, Ellis was too good to ignore. He debuted at age 22 as a mobile lock (Burger debuted straight from captaincy of South Africa’s Under 21 team), but moved to flank.
Ellis won 38 Test caps from 1965 to 1970, at the time a record, and equivalent to Burger’s 75 in the modern era. He only missed one Test from age 22 to age 34, when he was controversially dropped. Fittingly, his last Test was a win over the All Blacks in Durban. He had a winning record against his favourite foe, New Zealand, as he did against all rivals except the British Lions (he was all square with them).
Like the younger version of Burger, Ellis had a terrible temper, earning him unsavoury nicknames, and he was dirty at times. But he also was a remarkable open field runner and skilled passer, with huge hands that he used to palm the ball and gain extra leverage. He was speedy, agile, and very hard to tackle.
Even long after he retired from rugby and became an auctioneer and garage proprietor, at age 58, living in Pretoria, when an armed robber shot Ellis in his home, the rangy old flanker could not be put down. Ellis, bleeding profusely, tackled the shooter, picked him up, and carried him to his garage, where he held him down until the police arrived. Ellis never really recovered from his serious wounds, and died in 2013 at hospice.
I can see Burger being a handful for any assailant when he’s old, too.
Both of these men thought of the rugby pitch as a refuge, but a place of dark fury. The consummate insider, the golden boy Burger, blessed by patronage and geography, almost died and has come back to life with glory in England beckoning. The red-headed outsider Ellis, from a cattle farm in the Kalahari Desert, battled until his quiet death, without complaint or fanfare.
Rugby is made by men such as these the world over. Long may we see them play, and learn from them to train, and play, and live, and die well.