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My father watched the very first rugby match I ever played in. It was also the last rugby match he watched me play, because he died soon thereafter.
He was the reason I fell in love with sport.
I was raised mainly by my mother in Grahamstown. My father was working in East London and I only saw him on weekends or during the holidays. He was also a rugby player, and some of my earliest memories are of watching him train. I was mesmerised as I watched him do push-ups or go for a run. He was my hero, and I was inspired to become a rugby player just like him.
When I turned 10, my parents decided I should move in with my dad in East London because the schools there were better. I remember being so excited because I would be able to spend more time with him. My parents applied at Selborne Primary School, and I’ll never forget my interview with the headmaster. He took one look at me and said, 'We’ll accept you on one condition – that you play rugby'. You see, I’d started to grow. When I was nine years old, I was 1.64 metres tall. By the age of 10 I was 1.77 metres. When I played Craven Week at the age of 13, I was 1.90 metres. I was the tallest kid at Craven Week. I’m now 1.94 metres tall. I was accepted into the school but before that I’d only played tennis and soccer.
Then came that first rugby match for my school. I remember it was raining terribly on the morning of it. My father said there was no way the game would go ahead, but I begged him to double check for me. Sure enough, it went ahead. I think we won that match and it was against Queen’s Primary School although I don’t even remember the score. I just remember how happy my dad was as we drove home. He looked so happy that I was playing rugby, and enjoying it just as much as he did. He was really happy for me. Unfortunately, he died of pneumonia shortly thereafter.
That had been the first year of my life that I spent just with him, and playing rugby like him. I was completely lost after his death and suffered from depression as I struggled to come to terms with it. I had no male role models in the house as I stayed with my mom and younger sister.
During that time I was still progressing well in rugby. From Selborne Primary I went to Selborne College High School for Grade 8, 9 and 10. Then, when I made the Border Craven Week Under-13 team and the Border Grant Khomo Week Under-16 team, I started to get my first offers from other schools and teams. I knew nothing about how offers in rugby worked, but fortunately I had some good people around me helping me make those decisions.
My mom and I were starting to clash quite a bit about my rugby as she didn’t want me playing anymore. I think because she’d already lost her husband, she was worried that the increasing physicality of the game could possibly see her lose her son as well. But she could also see how much I loved the game, and eventually agreed to let me continue playing.
When I was 16, I was approached by the Vodacom Bulls and also offered a scholarship at St Alban’s College in Pretoria which I accepted. It was tough for me to be away from home, and also for my mom to have her only son so far away. She didn’t doesn’t know much about rugby, and was also worried about all the offers. Luckily she reached a point where she said she was just happy to see me happy, even if she didn’t understand the game and everything around it.
I went pro at the age of 19, and haven’t looked back.
I often look back to that first rugby match in the rain, with my dad there. I feel sad that as soon as I started my rugby journey, I lost him. I lost the man who made me fall in love with rugby. To this day I play with his initials on my wrist tape – F.N. for Fuzile Nonkontwana. That’s how I #StayConnected to my hero. I console myself with the fact that at least I have memories of him, of how it felt to be around him and how he inspired me with his training. My younger sister didn’t even have that.
I’m so proud of my mom for raising me as a single mother, and sticking with me when I gave her a hard time. She’s always been positive and supported my dreams and decisions. She even bought me a pair of rugby boots when she agreed to let me continue playing. I hardly get to see her now because we’re so far apart but I know she’s always with me.
And I know my dad is watching over me and smiling, and is proud of me. I’ve always tried to find the positive in the worst situations.
For me, it’s that one game my dad was able to watch me play. I know it was only one game, and I would’ve loved him to have seen so many more. I know it would’ve made him so happy to see me playing professional rugby.
And even though I want to go all the way to the Vodacom Super Rugby finals and play for the Springboks one day, I don’t think there will ever be a more important game in my life than that first one. That’s the perfect example of Vodacom’s COVID-19 motto that, 'We can’t be close, but we can still be together'.
That one game I got with my dad. In the pouring rain.
Abongile Nonkontwana is a South African rugby union player for the Bulls in Super Rugby, having previously played for the Cheetahs from 2018 to 2019. His regular position is lock, but he occasionally plays as a flanker or eighth man