Bok hardman’s greatest battle

While a rare neurological disorder has put André Venter in a wheelchair, SA Rugby magazine discovers he has not lost hope.

In the late-90s, the local newspapers ran a full-page advertisement. Below an action shot of a player was a step-by-step guide on how to experience the Currie Cup. Step 1: Stick the picture on a wall. Step 2: Run into it. Step 3: Repeat Step 2.

The man in picture was André Venter, the toughest player of that era, according to England’s Lawrence Dallaglio. A generation of schoolboy aspirants grew up with posters of Venter on their walls. Some went on to become bankers or businessmen, but a select few went on to be Springboks. Incumbent blindside Juan Smith idolised Venter and, like many of his team-mates, took it personally when the Bok hardman, who played 66 Tests from 1996 to 2001 and was part of the 1998 side that won the Tri-Nations, was diagnosed with a rare disease five years after he’d retired from the game.

‘It started with a twinge in my back but the doctor told me it was probably kidney stones, so I didn’t give it much thought until the pain hit me again four months later,’ he explains. ‘I then went to the hospital three times in a three-week period, and on the second occasion my feet felt numb.’

The following day, a Sunday, Venter had no feeling in one of his legs and by the Monday both had given up on him. After 11 MRI scans, the doctors told him he had transverse myelitis – a rare neurological disorder caused by an inflammatory process of the grey and white matter of the spinal cord, which affects one in five million people.

It’s frightening to think even the toughest of us could be robbed of the ability to walk. It’s a sad story considering the prognosis for those afflicted by the disease is bleak. Venter stands next to no chance of walking again. For many people, even demi-gods and rugby players, there’s no way back from this kind of setback.

‘I haven’t given up,’ Venter says. His simple words are accompanied by a heartening laugh. ‘Once a Springbok, always a Springbok, right?’

It’s not a matter of denial. Venter hasn’t put on a brave face for the sake of this interview. Life, as he says, has gone on since the painful days of 2006 when he struggled with the physical and mental side-effects of his debilitating illness.

Six painful weeks followed the initial diagnosis, and after nine months in rehab, Venter had to deal with the frustration and depression that strikes the newly paraplegic. Through his unwavering faith, the support of his family and friends, and an unbeatable love for life, he has embraced the challenge.

Along with former Springbok and close friend Chris Badenhorst, Venter runs Itec, a high-tech computer and telephone systems business in Bloemfontein. He’s still on the phone when I first enter his office, the receiver pressed against the flanker’s badge of pride: a cauliflower ear. He hangs up and crushes my metacarpals in a consuming handshake, and I start to believe his situation isn’t really so bad. But as he wheels out from behind his desk, it’s obvious André Venter has changed. He tells the story of his struggle, but tempers the tale with an upbeat attitude.

‘I try to do rehab four to five times a week, starting at 6am and finishing at around 8:30am before heading to the office. My rehab is about maintaining my muscle bulk. My upper body gets more than enough exercise because of the wheelchair, but I have to exercise the muscles in my legs using a Powerplate, which helps with the circulation. It’s good for me from a physical and mental point of view.’

Venter used to exercise at a private hospital but is in the process of building a new gym at his home. Apart from the necessary equipment needed to maintain his muscle mass, his wife Lizelle will benefit from the new gym as will his children André-Hugo (9) and Annabel (4) when they are old enough to train. Ultimately, Venter wants to stay in shape for when his moment of opportunity arrives. With advances in modern medicine, what’s impossible today may not be insurmountable five or 10 years in the future.

‘There’s quite a lot of research in terms of stem cells, but we will all have to wait and see how it’s developed. I want to make sure I do the right thing. I must get myself into a position to get well, and I’m hoping for a medical breakthrough or a miracle. I’m a believer; I have a lot of faith. I must be ready and not miss my chance.’

Religion has helped Venter cope, but he’s quick to credit the people close to him. There are, he admits, some friends who couldn’t handle it when he was initially diagnosed, but among those who have stuck by Venter are a number of former Boks. Importantly, they share his dream and hope of a full recovery.

‘Wahl Bartmann, Chris Badenhorst and Kobus Wiese have backed me, big time. The SA Rugby Legends – with [CEO] John Allan and [president] Gavin Varejes at the helm – are doing fantastic work, not only with the money they raise, but also through the emotional support they provide former players like myself. Rob Louw has been there for me, as has Gary Teichmann, Wayne Fyvie and Joel Stransky.  There’s also been a lot of support from the Boks, Sharks and Bulls. I was also very close to Ruben Kruger who passed away recently. From the current crowd, I chat to Juan Smith quite a bit.

‘These people make the situation easier to handle. Rugby also plays a big part in preparing you for these difficult situations. Rugby is like life, everything’s dependent on teamwork. You need the help of your friends and family, just like you need the help of your team-mates on the rugby field. You’ve got highs and lows in rugby, and it’s the same with life. You do have to take some responsibility and have faith, but it’s easier with the help of your loved ones.’

Venter still follows the Cheetahs in the Super 14, and speaks passionately about the young rugby talent in the Free State. He prefers to watch the Cheetahs’ home matches on TV rather than battle his way around the Free State Stadium in his wheelchair.

On special occasions, he does watch the Cheetahs and Boks live, and states with some pride that the Boks have never lost a match in Bloemfontein when he’s handed them their team jerseys. When you meet Venter, it’s not hard to understand why the Boks would be so inspired.

‘I handed them out in Jake White’s first game in charge [2004], and also for Peter de Villiers’s first game in charge [2008]. It was a huge honour for me.

‘I think it was a shock for them to see me in the wheelchair when I visited them the second time. I told them to make the most of what they’ve got. When you’re in the pound seats and you’re still the No 1 Springbok, you don’t seem to appreciate it that much, so it’s important to have someone from the outside there to remind you. As any former Springbok will tell you, if they could turn back time, they would find one game where they could have done better. Every moment counts, so don’t waste it.

‘I’ve had my time with the Boks and it’s up to the next generation to take us forward. I retired on my terms in 2001; I was never asked to retire, so I do draw some satisfaction from that. It’s great to go back and hand out jerseys. It’s good to see them doing well, and I enjoy supporting them as much as I enjoyed playing for them.’

At 5pm, Venter goes home to his wife and two children, making a point of leaving his work at the office. Rugby was an important part of his life, but it’s never been the top priority.

‘Lizelle and my kids make life worth living. Whatever I do, I try to do as much as I can. It’s not just for me, but also for them.’

Despite his condition, he’s remained an outdoors person and took part in a Qasa (QuadPara Association of South Africa) Boksburg to Ballito quad-bike race to raise money for charity. Out of 500 participants, he was one of five paraplegics to finish.

Venter also enjoys hunting, and he and Badenhorst own a farm outside Bloemfontein where they often go to hunt. It’s here where he’s able to spend quality time with his son. André-Hugo captained the Grey College U9C team last year, and Venter couldn’t be prouder. Like his old man, André-Hugo plays loose forward, but Venter isn’t one to pressure his son to excel.

‘I want him to play because he enjoys it. He only needs to become a Springbok in his heart, in other words, he only needs to do his best to be a winner. I’ve told him to never give up. If he can do that, he will become a Springbok in his own way.’

There aren’t any rugby medals or trophies in Venter’s office, but on the wall is a crocheted Bok emblem made by his mother, as well as a picture of a younger Venter in his playing days shaking the hand of former president Nelson Mandela. Underneath a photograph of the 1998 Bok team that equalled the world record of 17 consecutive wins and captured the Tri-Nations is the Springbok code of conduct.

Venter’s wall is no shrine to the good old days. He’s kept the things that inspire him close, as while there’s no point in taking solace in days gone past, there is value in remembering what you stand for.

The maxim applied to his son’s burgeoning rugby career is one he adheres to. Venter is first and foremost a Springbok in his heart and he’ll never stop fighting. That’s why you can believe his battle will be fought with the perseverance and tenacity he once displayed on the rugby pitch. With Venter’s unbeatable attitude, the impossible is within reach.

‘I still believe and hope,’ he says. ‘That can never be taken away from me.’

By Jon Cardinelli

– This article first appeared in the April issue of SA Rugby magazine. The May issue is on sale now.