My father had a real passion for the game of rugby, but never forced it upon me. One day, he took me out of school and we want on a father-son trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town to watch the opening game of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, in which South Africa took on Australia.
There was so much hype around our country not just being in a World Cup, but hosting it after we were in isolation for a few years. Being a youngster, I didn’t really understand the apartheid regime, and my parents never really mentioned it as an issue. My parents brought us up with pink friends, blue friends, white friends and black friends, and there I was sitting in a stadium with black people and white people together, the South African colors painted on their faces and joining in this pride of a nation. It was a key time in our country’s history.
As a family, we went to the quarterfinal game against Samoa and then again to the semis against France, which some people say we should have lost after France missed a chance to score in the last minute. I then had the honour of going to the final with my dad. Sitting in that stadium and seeing Nelson Mandela walk up with that Springbok jersey on his back, and then watching Francois Pienaar accept that trophy, hold it aloft and say that this wasn’t for just the 60,000 in the stadium, but it was for the 43 million people in South Africa — it was an incredible watershed moment in my life.
I think I instilled that into my heart that day, so one day I would be able to do the same, and hopefully be a part of a team that inspired a new generation of people and players alike. I took up rugby the following year, and to be honest, the dream didn’t quite start off as well as I thought it would!
In my first ever game of rugby, I remember my coach calling me “the little runt” because of my small stature. I was this little boy playing scrum-half and it really wasn’t quite the start I was hoping for. But for me, it was just fun to be able to play the game I loved with 14 other friends. Using the God-given talents I had to the best of my ability was something unbelievable.
That poor start actually culminated in me eventually becoming a Springbok and being a part of the incredible 2007 side. To be able to go back to South Africa and hear the stories of how that team had inspired a younger generation was amazing. Stories of kids running two or three kilometres to catch a bus to hopefully get a glimpse of their heroes was quite special. All that effort, hard work and training was just amazing. I’m so thrilled I was able to have as many caps as I did for South Africa, and along the way break records and score tries. The dream has been one that I’m very grateful to have been a part of.
I just wanted to make people proud by what I could do for them on the pitch. I didn’t want to be a flash in the pan. Hopefully I brought joy to those who watched me play and I inspired people of all races, genders and walks of life.
Being a professional rugby player was not always easy. But no matter what the world throws at us, we have a way of living that makes it easier to deal with these pressures. It doesn’t mean it all goes away, but the fact that Jesus laid down His life to save the world from its sin, it puts things in perspective. Yes, there are a lot of things one has to encounter as a rugby player, but having God in your life does make it easier.
One of my favorite passages in the Bible is Psalm 139. It is quite a long psalm, but it strikes me as it talks about the fact that God knew us before we even came out of our mother’s womb. It says we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and that no matter where you go, God knows the desires of your heart and where you are.
He loves us so much and our walk with Him is so unique. We can’t hide from God.
—Bryan Habana, South African rugby player