CAPE TOWN – Birthdays are often an opportunity for reflection. But, more than that, it is also an occasion when a mist of nostalgia descends and that museum of memory inside my head is unlocked.
I was thrust headlong into such a space when Shaun Bartlett celebrated his 46th birthday last Wednesday, as well as realising that later this month (November 12) Benni McCarthy turns 41 years old.
Time, where does it go? You blink and it’s gone.
I knew Bartlett and McCarthy as kids, and watched them grow and develop into world football stars. Now they are giving back as coaches. But, man, they are in their 40s already. When did that happen? (During the time I blinked, I guess). And, more importantly, how ancient does that make me?
But, as the train of time whips relentlessly, unsympathetically, through yet another station, one thing remains ever constant: memory. We grasp the moments and hold them tightly to our bosoms.
For me, with Bartlett and McCarthy, as time speeds inexorably forward, the snapshots of the past still loom large.
McCarthy’s big brother, Jerome, was a teammate of mine at Santos. I remember a young McCarthy coming into the dressing-room before and after games. Back then, he was a spindly teen, but already touted for big things in the sport. Boy, did he fulfil his promise and potential. Bartlett I know a lot better. We are from the same area: Factreton.
His uncles were close friends of mine - and, back in the early 1980s, he was an energetic kid, very small for his age (the growth spurt would come later).
He used to dash up and down Skepe Plein in his haste to get to 14th Avenue, where the football field in the area is situated.
We were also at the same community amateur club - Factreton FC - and I even remember coaching him for a brief period at U12 level.
But, stuck in this time warp, I recall a quote by American academic Mason Cooley that “nostalgia paints a smile on the stony face of the past”. When I consider what these two kids went on to achieve, how they never allowed their background or circumstances to derail them from their dreams, it most certainly brings a smile to my face.
The 1980s rank as one of the most oppressive and brutal periods of the cruel apartheid regime, but Bartlett and McCarthy refused to be victims. They used their hardships, and the difficulties of their environment, as fuel to forge a better life.
We all know what the duo accomplished as players. Today, McCarthy is showing great promise as coach of Cape Town City, while Bartlett is inspiring the next generation as a member of Stuart Baxter’s Bafana Bafana technical staff.
They always say that time offers good advice.
Bartlett and McCarthy may be getting on in years - but they are prime examples of the need, especially in modern-day South Africa, to shake off this prevailing culture of victimhood.
In the words of American writer Carl Sandburg: “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.”
In an era with little opportunity, these two kids I know, who I appreciate, respect and remember so well, grabbed their destiny.
Today, in an age deluged with aspiration and opportunity, surely we need more attitudes like Bartlett and McCarthy.
Because we are never, ever, the product of someone else’s design. We are who we choose to be.