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ADRIAN EPHRAIM: Chester Williams earns his place among the greats

I interviewed Chester Williams just over a month before he died. At his office in the University of the Western Cape sports centre, he was the picture of health, with a smile so warm it could melt ice. Chester and I had crossed paths briefly only once before that, at a shopping mall while he was with his family at a children’s movie event. I saw Chester the family man and regular guy in track pants and golf shirt. He was warm and friendly.

In my mind, it was hard to reconcile how a rugby superstar for a precious time in our country’s history remained so rooted in God and family, so humble and so authentic. He was untainted by time and the excesses of public life, and still gave so much back to the game that made him famous.

Now it’s difficult to accept that a hero I had just met is no longer with us.

If Nelson Mandela played rugby in 1995, he would have played it like Chester Williams - with heart, passion and a spring in his step. He was tough when he needed to be but always did things with a smile on his face. “Chessie” was rugby’s physical representation of the Madiba magic. The sense of pride sweeping the nation had a focal point, in the flesh, wearing green and gold, and scoring tries all over the place.

As a teenager growing up in the mid-90s, coming from a working-class home in unsavoury neighbourhoods I saw someone I could relate to, admire and cheer for. Chester gave us someone to cling to in a Springbok team that looked nothing like the majority of South Africans. But he was never a token. No, Williams was (and is) an icon.

To understand the Paarl-born Chester, you must first understand the Williams family’s role in South African rugby itself. Breaking barriers is in the genes.

Chester’s father, Wilfred played for the then Proteas rugby team, representing the South African Rugby Federation, an organisation for black and coloured players, during the apartheid years. His mother’s brother captained that side in 1971.

In 1984, Avril Williams, another uncle of Chester’s became only the second player of colour to be chosen for the Springboks, after Errol Tobias in 1974.

At the age of 17, Chester played in a match for Albions Rugby Club with his father. A rare occurrence, it also signaled the end of Wilfred’s playing career and the beginning of Chester’s. He assumed the mantle and wrote his own Springbok history when he made his debut in 1993 against Argentina - and scored a try.

As South Africa pivoted to democracy, and the 1995 Rugby World Cup beckoned, Chester’s standout performances on the field thrust him into the political spotlight. The country needed a hero for the moment that was upon us. The fresh scent of freedom was in the air and we were intoxicated by it. We were euphoric in the warmth of Mandela’s charm - and now we were able to watch a black player excel on the rugby field of all places – the hallowed playground of the Afrikaner.

But Chester rejected the stage-managed, public relations “unity” campaign that played out on billboards and bus shelters across the country in the build-up to the Rugby World Cup. His face was plastered all over town, and on every TV and newspaper advert for the rugby showpiece. But he was no one’s window dressing. The lair of rugby’s elite white players was not a welcoming place at first for players like Chester.

“The marketing men branded me as a product of development and a sign of change,” Chester said after he retired from playing. “Nothing could have been more of a lie. I wasn’t a pioneer.”

Chester was also not the most physically gifted winger at the time. Pieter Hendriks, his rival for the number 11, had strength, power and speed, and there were others. But what Chester lacked in physicality, he made up for in bravery, belief and work ethic. To come back after being forced out of the World Cup squad due to injury, and to break a try-scoring record in the process, took courage and hope.

Chester played rugby with a higher purpose. He dedicated his first Springbok try and jersey to his dad, and already a year before the World Cup, was briefed by Mandela himself about the importance of his presence on that field to an entire nation.

Chester took it in his stride and stuck to the task at hand – which meant scoring try after try. He preached the message of unity and inclusion by breaking boundaries on the field and breaking the ice between race groups. Chester gained so much more than points in the annals of South African history and a once-torn nation. He earned respect for millions of people and left the door open enough for others to follow. We needed him to stay with us for much longer, but he has earned his place among the greats of sport - with a smile and a legacy that lives forever.

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