James Small Photo: BackpagePix
James Small Photo: BackpagePix

How Madiba got James Small back on his feet

By Mark Keohane Time of article published Jul 12, 2019

Share this article:

Just a fortnight ago, I dedicated this column to the celebration of those rainbow warriors who famously won South Africa the Rugby World Cup on June 24, 1995.

The guts of the piece was that we never forget these players and their heroics in beating the All Blacks 15-12 in a 100-minute thriller; that we always remain thankful for the memories they created on that glorious day. Two of those warriors had passed in Ruben Kruger and Joost van der Westhuizen. Now a third is gone with the death of James Small; the man who was tasked with marking the (late) giant All Blacks left winger Jonah Lomu.

Small, just 50 years old, died of a heart attack on Wednesday. The news shocked the rugby community, whose visual image is of a primed athlete at the peak of his powers in 1995.

Social media was saturated with tributes to Small, who played 47 Tests for the Springboks and over 100 matches for the Sharks, Western Province, the (Western) Stormers and the Lions in a career that spanned a decade. One deserves to be retold in mainstream print. It comes from @Oom_Rugby, one of my favourites when it comes to who I follow on Twitter.

@Oom_Rugby posted the following (sic): “Here is a story James told me just after he had the suicide attempt in 2001. He went to stay at his mother’s home to get away from the media and the glaring. Nobody could get hold of him and most people didn’t even know where he was. Then the phone rings and his mother answers it.

“The person on the line says it is the Office of the President and Mr Mandela wants to talk to James, who doesn’t believe it and tells his mom to put down the phone. The phone rings again and the same person says the president wants to talk to James, who this time (very suspicious of the call) takes the call.

“It is indeed President Mandela and he asks James how he is. James couldn’t believe that it was in fact Mr Mandela. The president was concerned in what he had heard and read in the media. He wanted to know if everything was okay.

“He wanted to know what was going on. James was struggling with things at that stage and told the president that a big issue was his battle to adapt to life outside of rugby. He had been in the spotlight for the best part of a decade and thrived in that environment. Now he was at such a low and not sure of his identity.

“President Mandela listened to him and then said something along the lines of: ‘I know what if feels like if you think people have forgotten about you. I went through it as well in my time in prison.’ In that moment James says he swallows hard and he got instant perspective. 

"How big were his problems really compared to what the president had to endure? The president tells James that he (James) still has a responsibility, as he was from the history-making Springbok World Cup class of 1995. He tells James that even if you think people have forgotten about you, they haven’t.

“President Mandela says: ‘You still have much to give and you are still a hero to many. That is your identity.’

“James says it was the moment that changed his life. The fact that Mandela bothered to have a concern about him and then somehow got his people to track him down so he could deliver such a perspective - a guy who went through much worse. That is when James stood up again.”

Thank you @Oom_Rugby for sharing and thank you James Small for the on-field memories. RIP.

Keohane is an award-winning sports journalist and the head of sport at Independent Media

Share this article: