Hailing a hero

In coming back from a life-threatening illness Schalk Burger has underlined his status as a national treasure, writes RYAN VREDE.

On Wednesday night in Shanghai at the prestigious Laureus World Sports Awards, Burger was honoured with the organisation's Comeback of the Year Award. The Springbok flanker has rebuilt his body, then his career. Just over a year ago Burger was battling for his life after developing bacterial meningitis. He was advised to say goodbye to his family. He refused.

Of course he did. Burger, as a player, has developed a reputation for being a hard man. In refusing to succumb to the illness he exposed himself as one when it counted most.

I've always been more interested in the mental constitution of players and the life experiences that have shaped that constitution, than I have in their technical and physical prowess. Those technical and physical qualities are shared by many players but the really special ones have a degree of mental strength that is rare and that you cannot coach. It, more than any other quality, sets them apart.

That quality owes very little to rugby. It has been forged in them over the course of their personal lives and then shows itself to the benefit of the player and, by extension, the team during the course of matches. Burger is the embodiment of this. When the game of life demanded he show himself as mentally strong, he wasn't found wanting. 

Rugby would probably have been the furthest thing from his mind as he stared death in the face. But having come out of that period, he turned his attention to making a comeback. A lesser player would have settled for simply playing once again, accepting that they would never again be able to attain the level of performance they once did. That Burger is turning in performances that, at present, makes him a Springbok certainty speaks volumes about the quality of the player.

On Monday evening in a Premier League fixture at Anfield, Liverpool supporters gave Newcastle United midfielder Jonas Gutierrez a standing ovation as he prepared to come as a substitute. Gutierrez is in his first full season back after missing 17 months of play while battling testicular cancer. It was a touching moment and a stark reminder that a game is just that, a game. The ordeals of athletes like Gutierrez and Burger (among others) force that perspective on us.

I'm ashamed to say it took Burger's Laureus award for me to really appreciate the magnitude of what he has achieved in returning to play. Of course I respected what it required for him to get back on the field, but only in writing this do I fully appreciate just how special a man and athlete he is. Perhaps these words help others appreciate that too.

Burger has never lacked for admirers. He is a world-class player who has sustained an incredibly high level of performance for the duration of his career. But through his brave battle back from the brink of death he has exposed himself as more than an incredibly gifted rugby player. He is a real life Superman and a national treasure.

Burger: 'I wasn't ready to say goodbye'

Photo: Ian Watson/Getty Images 

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