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Forty years of turning rugby tragedies into triumph

Forty years of turning rugby tragedies into triumph
Koben Hofmeyr. surveys Loftus. His promising career was cut short by catastrophic injury.

On 9 September, the Chris Burger/Petro Jackson Players’ Fund celebrates its 40th anniversary. Over the years, the organisation has helped turn a tragic event on a rugby field into small triumphs for many injured players.

Laying helpless on a hospital bed, hours after breaking his neck during a Currie Cup match against Free State in Bloemfontein on 30 August 1980, Western Province fullback Chris Burger spoke with his captain Morné du Plessis for the last time.

“He said, ‘Please look after my family and ask the guys to see that they’re okay,’” recalls Du Plessis 40 years later. “Even then, being a young man, I still didn’t fully realise the gravity of the situation and two hours later, he passed away. We were absolutely devastated.”

Moved to action by that last conversation, Burger’s teammates founded a fund in his honour on 9 September 1980. The true depth of rugby’s brotherhood had been cemented, the legacy of Rugby’s Caring Hands was born. On 11 April 1987, South African rugby was rocked to its core once more as Kylemore wing Petro Jackson passed away on the field after having suffered a broken neck during a zone club competition match against Excelsior. A similar fund was established in his memory, with the two merging in 1992.

“Rugby brings people together. Whether you play at school, club or professional level, there’s an undeniable bond between all who play the game and an unwritten rule that we look after each other,” says Springbok great and Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players’ Fund Chairman, Jean de Villiers.

“Rugby is more than what happens on the field – it’s a game where family values and camaraderie are strong,” said Jurie Roux, SA Rugby CEO. “That means also assisting those in need, which is why SA Rugby’s support is vitally important, and it was a great driver to ensure the Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players’ Fund became our official charity a few years ago.”

Amos Mzimeli was left a quadriplegic after breaking his neck at the age of 18 while playing for Moonlight Rugby Club on May 20, 1990.

With a Springbok spine, which includes De Villiers, Du Plessis, Hanyani Shimange (Deputy Chairman), John Smit, FC Smit, Jowa Abrahams, Tiaan Strauss and Wayne Fyvie on the current Board of Trustees, and the support of SA Rugby, the fund has helped over 500 players over the years.

This has come at a cost of R50-million, but ask any of the 107 recipients Rugby’s Caring Hands currently assists and they’d say the support is priceless. Hidden in its name lies the true power of the fund as for the past four decades, it has been a source of hope for those catastrophically injured playing the game they love. Hope of a life worth living, a second chance at happiness despite seemingly overwhelming obstacles.

“The fund plays a huge role in my life. If they weren’t part of my life, I would probably have passed away years ago,” says Amos Mzimeli. Left a quadriplegic after breaking his neck at the age of 18 while playing for Moonlight Rugby Club on 20 May 1990, the former loose forward “fell into a deep depression” – his will to live snuffed out by a cruel twist of fate.

Thirty years on, he’s a multi-award-winning pillar of strength, championing the Great Kei Disability Multipurpose Centre in Soto Village, where he’s now a beacon of hope. The happily married father of three insists he wouldn’t be where he is today without the fund.

“It’s so comforting to know you have their support and that support goes a long way to help you make something of your life,” Mzimeli says. “They’ve become family; [General Manager] Gail [Baerecke] is like my mother… she’s always there when I need her.”

Mzimeli is one of many success stories, of a recipient finding remarkable resolve and conquering cruel challenges on a daily basis with the support of family, both blood as well as rugby’s band of brothers and sisters. The fund epitomises what rugby is at its core, says founder and trustee Du Plessis, who served as chairman for 38 years.

“It’s about teamwork and passion,” says the Springbok icon. “There’s a sense of family among everyone linked by the fund. As much as we love it, there’s much more important things in life than the game, and the scoreboard.

“Witnessing the sheer bravery of the recipients and the unbelievable dedication of the families for 40 years has had an incredible impact on my life. I’ve learned so much from them and I’m so honoured to have had that privilege.”

Offering wide-ranging support based on each recipient’s individual needs, the fund is a lifelong companion for fallen heroes and their families. It’s also been at the forefront of further significant change.

Tackling injuries head-on, the fund and SA Rugby launched the BokSmart national rugby safety programme in 2009. The all-encompassing, scientific-based project has been game-changing, producing a 63% decrease in acute spinal cord injuries in schoolboy rugby and a 52% decrease in permanent catastrophic injuries in the club game.

Players who’ve suffered the misfortune of disabling despair are left with a daunting task. Amid the heartache and broken dreams, they’re forced to adapt to a “new normal”. For them, this term has been a way of life long before it was thrust into popular culture by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Similar to its recipients, the fund had to constantly adapt to adversity in terms of fundraising, which has become increasingly difficult every year. Inspired by the unbroken will of those it supports, the fund has gallantly crusaded against the grain to remain the lifeline it is, hosting marquee events like the telethons of old on SuperSport, formal banquets and other special events, all attended by the entire Springbok squad.

With its Springbok legends, as well as health and industry professionals, the fund family’s steely determination remains unshaken. However, the stark reality the non-profit organisation finds itself in is that it’s facing its gravest challenge yet in an invisible enemy that changed the world as we knew it, one that’s threatening to suffocate South African rugby’s greatest “impact players”.

“Fundraising for all charities has been hugely affected as a result of the pandemic. We are no exception as a result of no rugby being played, where much of our funding is generated. Corporate donors are also having to weather their own storm,” says Baerecke, the fund’s passionate general manager for the past 15 years.

“What hasn’t changed for us during this time is the support that our recipients have needed from us, be it monthly subsistence for those who are needy, replacement and/or repairs to their mobility equipment, or transport to and from vital clinic and hospital appointments.

“Our costs have also escalated during this time as a result of our recipients’ household economic situations having been impacted. We are therefore humbly appealing for financial help so that we can meet the essential needs of our particularly vulnerable group of recipients.”

Nelson Mandela famously said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.” DM

 

Injured on 15 April 2000, aged 16, while playing for Suid Natal High School, Quintin van Jaarsveld lives at his family home in KwaZulu-Natal and works as a sports editor. He has written a “Commemoration” ebook about the fund.

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