Heroes and heroics come in all shapes and sizes in sport. But sometimes it comes where and when we least expect it, like the dying days long after the final whistle has blown, writes Ewan MacKenna
This is the story of two very different men from very different sports who played at very different levels with very different degrees of success. But what they now share is a very similar fate.
The year is 1995 and Anto Finnegan is still pinching himself that he’s made the Antrim team for a second consecutive summer although in places like his, reality jostles in. They train hard and convince themselves that it’s 15-on-15 only to do what the county always does and bow out in their opening match. Around that same time, Joost van der Westhuizen is a scrum-half with a complete game. He can wriggle through the smallest gap and can tackle too as shown as he fells Jonah Lomu during the World Cup final. He feeds the pass that sees South Africa win it so soon after apartheid, meets Nelson Mandela, sees his sport somehow try to heal.
The year is 2000 and Finnegan is still labouring away, occasionally wondering why he hadn’t chosen hurling as he preferred it for starters. He’s that definition of commitment that the GAA likes to harp on about as he’s still never won a game. But he’s about to become the definition of that one special day as they beat Down. A lifetime in the dark, an afternoon out of the shadows. By then, rugby is professional while Van der Westhuizen is stellar and knows no shadows. Within a handful of seasons, both would retire to what should have been very different worlds.
Then again, it is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves. And sometimes in ourselves is the most horrific death that makes your brain watch your body rapidly burn out and fade away. Remember that ice-bucket challenge? Finnegan and Van der Westhuizen are two of the reasons you did it. The science behind motor neuron disease says the chords that carry messages from brain to body stop working, muscles die, limbs fail and you are left in paralysis before you go. But as shocking as that is, seeing it is more terrifying still.
Last Saturday on the same Ellis Park pitch he once ruled, Van der Westhuizen hobbled to the centre in a skeleton suit made by the American army that will allow him movement through his final days. He’s only 43 but flanked by his eight-year-old son and six-year-old daughter, he won over each of the toughest inches yet. Anto Finnegan at 41 was on a rugby pitch too – Ravenhill to be exact as he put the finishing touches on a November charity football game between Ulster and Dublin at the ground. He hasn’t deteriorated as fast but his right arm struggles where his left arm has given up although his own son and daughter are a major reason why he’ll try to live every minute he has left.
And to think that it starts as an inconvenience. For the South African it was no more than a twitch in his wrist in 2008 that he put down to too many big days whipping an oval ball about. A year on and Finnegan felt a soreness in his hand that he blamed on driving on the wrong side while on holidays in France. But confirmation is slow and the former only got worried when he noticed further weakness when play-fighting in a swimming pool while for the latter it was an inability to raise his arm when packing up a camping trip. Soon after, they were told their time was nearly up.
“You’ve motor neurone disease,” neurologist Paul McGonigle informed Finnegan. “Okay, what next?” he replied. Van der Westhuizen’s reaction was to ask, merely irritated, what pills he’d need. Both were told they’d a 20 per cent chance of living more than five years although Van der Westhuizen asked about quality time left while the victory march of Finnegan’s sickness is slower to the point he’s still coaching the under-14s in St Paul’s.
“It’s funny, but in the early days you ask yourself ‘Will I ever be happy again?” Finnegan said earlier this year. “But you look around and your life is filled with happy people and happy memories and nobody can take them away from you, except you. Don’t get me wrong, every time I go to do something I can’t do, is a reminder that I’ve a terminal illness, but the important thing is knowing that if I can’t do it, somebody is there to help me do it. I have that love and support.”
“It hits you that you’ll never get to see your kids grow up, see their sporting successes, you’ll never walk your daughter down the aisle,” recalled Van der Westhuizen. “When something goes wrong in somebody’s life you say, ‘Why me?’ But it’s quite simple, why not me? You have a choice, either sit at home and deteriorate and die. Or you stand up, you’re still alive. You find a positive and I realised I’ve got the opportunity to fix my life before I go. If I’ve to go through this to save future generations from this, then why not. Maybe that was my goal in life. That’s why I’m in life, to help raise funds.” And that’s what they’ve done across their dying days through the J9 foundation and DeterMND.
So how would you face death each and every morning as less and less of you works? Like these two? There’ll be no happy ending here, but what both men have given is two remarkable stories of positivity and a sliver of hope. It even brings the slightest smile knowing that after all they did in their very different sports, it turns out the real men were hidden behind those once-ferocious physical shells all along.
12 October, 2014
Sunday Business Post