Chester Williams may not have had the ‘biggest calves’ in the world, but he was definitely a larger-than-life figure during his time at the University of the Western Cape, writes JOHN GOLIATH.
There weren’t a lot of dry eyes in the Main Hall during Chester Williams’ memorial service at the University of the Western Cape on Wednesday afternoon. Most of the speakers were overcome with emotion during their turn at the podium, regularly taking a few seconds to compose themselves before sharing tales of the late icon.
It still feels rather unreal that the ‘Black Pearl’ has passed on, but it hit home for many on Wednesday, especially for those who had worked with him at UWC over the last four years, in which he took the university from Varsity Shield minnows to competing in the Cup with the big boys in 2019.
There wasn’t the normal buzz at the university because of exams, while many students are already on holiday. But the mood remains somber following Williams’ untimely passing last Friday, as well the senseless killing of student Jesse Hess not too long ago.
Last week UWC had a memorial for Hess in the very same hall. The anti gender-based violence posters are still up on the pillars and walls outside the hall. On Wednesday it was their beloved rugby coach who was remembered.
UWC is hurting. Badly.
But they are finding strength in each other. And, for a brief moment when Williams’ favourite, the legendary PJ Powers, took the stage during the memorial, the dark cloud enveloping the university lifted and there was happiness and laughter. There was even some dancing in between the tears, as ‘World in Union’ and ‘Jabulani’ were performed with so much grace and energy by a South African music icon.
Willams was fondly remembered on Wednesday by his friends and colleagues from the university. It’s hard to imagine how they are going to replace the 1995 Rugby World Cup legend, who clearly made a massive impact on and off the field.
‘He was a simple guy with a big heart,’ UWC head of sport Mandla Gagayi told the mourners while holing back the tears a few times during his speech.
‘UWC lost a good man, a role model and a hero. Personally, I lost a friend, a brother and a confidant. But he left a great legacy. It will live on.’
Minister of Public Works Patricia de Lille was a close of friend of Williams and thanked UWC for giving the former Springbok wing a chance to coach in South Africa, which allowed him to be with his wife, Maria, and their kids following two years coaching away from home in Romania.
She also spoke of the former president Nelson Mandela’s love for Williams and how Madiba used the left wing to help unify a nation in 1995 following a half century of Apartheid.
‘Madiba loved Chester, he even met the kids before me!’ De Lille joked.
‘What happened at the 1995 World Cup, what the event did for country, was priceless. Sport is a unifier. It brings people together. I don’t even know the rules of rugby, but it was clear for all to see.’
Maria Williams was emotional when speaking about Williams’ time at UWC and thanked Gagayi for allowing her husband to spend the last four years of his life at home with his family, who was a big part of Williams’ life following coaching stints abroad.
‘Every door closed to him, but Mandla kindly opened the door. It allowed him to spend the last years of his life with us, and for that we are very thankful,’ Williams said.
But there were also lighter moments during the memorial, especially when former Western Province teammate and close friend of Williams, Jerome Paarwater, took the stage.
Paarwater reminded the audience about the time when former Province coach Dawie Snyman told Williams to ‘pull up his socks’ in a match against Namibia.
‘He was surprised and told coach that he is doing his best out there. But coach pointed to his socks, which were on his ankles,’ Paarwater said.
‘During the second half we reminded Chester that his calves were too small and that’s why his socks kept falling down!’
Years later, though, Williams reminded everyone that a racehorse doesn’t have calves …