SA Rugby magazine brings you a classic read from 2015 when Schalk Burger detailed his battle with illness as well as his fight to revive his rugby career.
Talking to Schalk Burger about his brush with death is like taking a tour through a haunted house.
As we step tentatively into the entrance hall, we see the ghost of Burger writhing and clutching at torn knee ligaments. In the living room, we spot a slightly older version of the apparition. He shakes his big blond head as doctors reveal he has contracted life-threatening bacterial meningitis.
Our guide then directs us to a steep staircase. This time, the house shows us a vision of Burger on a hospital bed. We reach the landing, and then move down a hall that becomes narrower and darker with every step. There are no visions on this level, only disembodied voices that cry out from the void.
One voice is frightened and heartbroken. It’s the voice of Burger’s wife, Michele. She is on the phone, asking close friends and family to come say goodbye because Burger is at death’s door. The other voice is that of Burger. It is determined, but underscored by anger. Things cannot, and will not, end this way.
We all know how this story ends. There was a door at the end of that hallway, and that door opened on to a room filled with light. Burger didn’t just beat the odds to survive and resume his life as a husband and father. Burger beat the odds to return to rugby as an influential force.
It is a narrative that everybody in the rugby community has come to know over the past two years. And after what transpired this past April, Burger’s inspirational tale is well known to sports people around the world.
It was at the Laureus World Sports Awards, the most prestigious event in international sport, where Burger received the prize for Comeback of the Year. Upon collecting the accolade, he was asked to take his audience on a tour of that haunted house.
Some would consider it painful to revisit those memories in such vivid detail. Others would plead for people to move on, as rehashing the past can distract one from future goals. Not Burger. As he tells SA Rugby magazine, it is an experience he never wants to forget.
‘When you’re constantly playing rugby, you don’t get a chance to sit back and reflect on these things,’ Burger begins. ‘We as human beings are simply not programmed to remember the bad stuff. You just keep going. That Laureus award, these types of interviews, they keep reminding you of where you were in the dark times. And believe me when I say it wasn’t pretty.
‘I was fighting for every minute, just trying to beat whatever I was up against,’ he recalls. ‘Every heartbeat felt like a knife stabbing in my brain. There were times when I felt like stopping, but I could literally feel myself slipping away and would have to fight again.
‘That kind of experience gives you a big, big knock. But once you get through something like that, you see life in a different way. Before I got ill, rugby dominated my life. Now it’s only 30% of my life. Family and friends are more important.’
Nevertheless, it’s clear he still has a passion for the game and is dedicated to making his remaining time in the sport count. Even though he played his comeback match on 27 September 2013, and has since produced some memorable performances for the Stormers and Boks, Burger feels the comeback process is ongoing. He’s not back to his best just yet.
‘I remember when I was first discharged from hospital. At that point, rugby was out, and I had made peace with the fact. But then, over the next few months, I started to regain some of the weight I had lost [about 25kg] and I started doing things again, like walking on the mountain. I started going to Stormers training sessions, just to cycle and have a bit of banter with the boys.
‘When I went to the doctor for a check-up, I asked him if there was any chance I could play rugby again. He surprised me when he said, “Maybe, but not at the same level as before. There’s just no chance you can play for the Springboks again.” All I heard from that was that I could play again. My mind starting racing. I started training harder than ever. Then I had to ask my wife if I could play again.’
Eventually, Burger was given the all-clear. ‘It took some time,’ he says with a good-hearted chuckle. ‘At first her thoughts were, “Not again. This is round two.” And obviously at that stage it was tough for the whole family. Just to have me healthy and at home, and walking around and playing with the kids was enough. For me to say I wanted to get back into rugby was a bit cheeky. But I persisted and eventually I got the “yes”. One thing led to another. I got back into training, and then I got back on the playing field.’
Burger’s smile broadens when he talks about the buildup to that Currie Cup match against the Cheetahs. While he was desperate for another chance, there was some uncertainty as to whether he had made the right decision.
‘I didn’t sleep a minute the night before that game,’ he says with a laugh. ‘I was lying there, thinking, “Oh no, what have I done?” Then the game went past in a blur. I played 20-odd minutes and afterwards, when I was sitting in the change room with a beer, I realised I had done the right thing. It was the first step.
‘It’s been a long journey. Even now, I haven’t bounced back completely. What I realised in that match against the Cheetahs is that I could still play the game. Then I started getting a bit cheeky … you know, that was a big challenge that was thrown at me; you don’t ever think you will be back to playing at the same level, but then you start playing more and building confidence. All of a sudden you’re playing for the Barbarians at Twickenham [in December 2013], then you’re playing well in Super Rugby. You start getting greedy. You say, “let’s play one more Test”. And after a couple of Tests, you decide you want some more.
‘Whenever something gets taken away from you in life, you want it back,’ Burger says of the reasons behind his return to rugby. ‘The way I left the game in 2012 wasn’t on my terms. It got taken away. Now that I am back in rugby, I take nothing for granted. And what’s more important is the enjoyment I get out of the game.’
Burger often uses the phrase ‘nothing comes for free’ in his interviews on this subject. It says a lot about his attitude towards the Boks as well as his chances of representing South Africa at this year’s World Cup.
Indeed, while his story is an inspirational one and could be used to galvanise a Super Rugby or even a Springbok team, Burger has earned his place via a series of strong performances. Nobody should forget his game-shaping contributions for the Boks against Australia and New Zealand in the last two games of the 2014 Rugby Championship, or the titanic Man of the Match performance against England at Twickenham last November.
Some might say he has already proved a point, that the player of 2012 and the player of 2015 are one and the same. Burger, however, disagrees. He is still fighting to find that form of old, and it could be that the 2015 World Cup witnesses Burger at his best.
‘It’s certainly one of my goals, competing with myself and trying to get back to where I was before,’ he says. ‘I realise there’s limited space for loose forwards in that World Cup squad, but this is the last World Cup I can possibly go to. I won’t be around for the 2019 tournament, so this is it. I will be giving it my best shot.’
– This article first appeared in the June 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine
Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images for Laureus