Edinburgh-bound Paul Roos centre Jordan Venter has opened up on how he overcame a tragedy that forever changed his life and career. JAMIE LYALL reports.
Signed straight out of school by Scottish club Edinburgh, Venter has already broken new ground.
Never before has Scottish Rugby signed a foreign schoolboy from overseas, but Venter wowed the coaches to such an extent on his week-long trial that they have given him a professional contract and helped him enrol at one of Edinburgh’s universities.
The union took an almighty pasting for snapping him up so young, the obvious inference that if they get him over at 18, he will be eligible to play for Scotland by 23.
It’s a remarkable story, and one that is brought into the poignant spotlight when one reflects on the tragedy that befell the Venter family just a few short years ago.
Fifteen-year-old Jordan Venter was dozing on the back seat when the car carrying his mother, stepfather and two stepbrothers was smashed by a careening coal truck, flinging him violently from the vehicle and on to the roadside in a maelstrom of debris, gore and unimaginable horror.
The family were meandering back across the South African border from the perfect holiday in Mozambique. The boys, Venter, 15-year-old Christian and 12-year-old Aldin Kiesen, had ridden jet skis, frolicked on the gorgeous sun-baked beaches and forged bonds they expected would lay the foundations for a lifetime of friendship.
In one desperate, wretched flash, their blossoming little clan was decimated. Of the five passengers, only Venter and his mother Gillian survived, each nursing heinous injuries. Gillian’s partner Hein and his sons were both killed on that arid stretch of the N4 highway.
The day after the crash, Venter woke up in intensive care with a fractured skull, a cracked pelvis and a punctured lung. Gillian’s condition was graver still, her liver leaking blood and body ravaged by scores of deep lesions. Her physical and emotional scars linger to this day.
‘It was 2am when we were driving back from Mozambique, helluva early,’ the Paul Roos centre told RugbyPass. ‘I sent my dad a message just before the accident happened – “I can’t wait to see you” – because I was flying back to his farm in George the next day.
‘I didn’t have a seatbelt on while I was sleeping and I flew out of the car. I woke up in the ICU the next day and I couldn’t really move my legs properly, I had a neck brace on and I thought I’d broken my neck – those thoughts were bloody scary. I was in there for almost a week and a half.’
Venter is known now as the gregarious prospect signed by Edinburgh straight out of school, a transfer that has been greeted in Scottish rugby circles as a gross affront to home-reared talent. To get here, to the point where people are writing disparaging things about his move almost a year before he arrives, the boy has had to chart a voyage of unfathomable sorrow, immense bravery and a ravenous thirst to succeed for himself and for those he has lost.
You cannot begin to quantify the grief visited on a child so young at the heart of such visceral trauma. Yet he talks about the ordeal with a quite astonishing maturity.
‘My first night after leaving the ICU for a normal ward, I thought, I’ve got two options – I can either hate the world, be depressed, stop everything and become a burden to myself, or I can use this situation to work my ass off to get back to rugby and reach my goals. I might as well choose the happy option, even though it was a tragic, tragic event.
‘The things I had to go through just to get my body ready for life, not even to play again. I said to myself, the moment I can get out of this bed, I am going to gym myself into a coma.’
Before he could even think about barbells, Venter first had to coax his aching frame out of the bed that had borne him for months on end. The next two years were an exercise in conquering demons, setting and smashing little targets, trusting the process and reaping the rewards.
He began to hoist himself around his father’s farm on crutches. Eventually, he could discard the sticks altogether and begin to lift weights again. He returned to Paul Roos, the school that has produced more Springboks than any in the land, knowing he had two months to catch up on his studies or fail the year.
‘I got up at 4:50am, went to the gym and did heavy weights, did my rehab, then I was grinding on the academic stuff, and then I’d do another gym session in the evening,’ he says.
‘For the next few months, I was in and out of physio, strengthening my hamstring, my cruciate, my legs, gaining weight. It wasn’t until the December I was allowed to run again and play touch rugby tournaments.
‘The whole thing sounds horrible, but I don’t think about it from that perspective, I just went through the process, did my rehab, got back to school, back to rugby, got my life back.
‘My whole high-school life has been me preparing myself for this opportunity to play pro. I want it. I bloody want it.’
In lockdown on the farm, he trains and studies as hard as ever. He thinks often of Hein, Christian and Aldin, and the budding family he lost that day on the dry asphalt of the N4. He lusts to forge a career in the game not purely for his own joy, but to honour their memory.
‘One of my big motivations is fulfilling my career for them, playing for them. Christian was one of the top golfers in South Africa for his age, and if he only knew I was coming to Scotland, he’d be loving it – loving it.
‘I have this chance now and I must get on with my life.’
The torment is over now, the wreckage and the suffering and the crutches are gone. But they remain an indelible memory and a compelling fuel as the promised land of professional rugby looms large.