I’ll Never Forget the Day or the Man

14 12 2013

1995 RWC flyover

The Time: 8AM – June 24, 1995
The Place: Rose & Crown Pub – Atlanta, Ga.
The Event: New Zealand vs South Africa (The Last Amateur International Rugby Match)

I didn’t normally spend Saturday morning in pubs but as an All Blacks fan I went to one to watch them win their second Rugby World Cup. The expectation was that they would be playing Australia but the Springboks defeated the Wallabies in the first match of the tournament and hadn’t lost a match since. No one had beaten the All Blacks. I was standing in a crowd of maybe 100 guys, mostly Kiwis and Afrikaners, watching one TV projection screen hanging from the ceiling. Sports pubs with HD screens weren’t yet popular hangouts in 1995.
Maybe their foreign bodies hadn’t gotten over the jet lag yet but most of the guys had beers-in-hand as they watched. I jest; it wasn’t jet lag. A beer at 8AM for a rugger or fan from the Southern Hemisphere is their normal petite dejeuner. I have to be honest it’s not just the rugby crowd in the Southern Hemisphere whose love for beer is around-the-clock. I played some matches for Philadelphia Rugby Club where my mates used beer as mouthwash to rinse out Friday night’s hangover before playing. Sometimes the smell of the scrum was worse than the kicks I received at the bottom trying to get possession of the ball. As a card-carrying ex-rugger I hate to admit my beverage of choice was Perrier after an eye-opening Bloody Mary.
I didn’t know much about South Africa at the time except that it had elected a black man president and overturned apartheid as the rule of the land. The fact that apartheid had ever been the rule of the land in SA gave me all the more reason to cheer on NZ’s rugby version of the NFL’s greatest RB Jim Brown. Jonah Lomu had scored 4 tries against England in the semifinal and in the pregame ceremony Nelson Mandela shook the Maori’s hand with wonder. He was 6’3, weighed 240 and ran like the wind devastating the opposition with the force of a tornado.



As has been documented elsewhere rugby was a white man’s sport in SA played in its all-white schools. Every now and then the TV cameras panned the stands and it was a mostly white audience. Chester Williams was the only black South African on the team. Ironically every now and then the mostly white audience chanted, “NELSON! NELSON! NELSON!” I was puzzled. Why the chant for a black man most of the crowd had voted against? I didn’t find out until later.

No one crossed the goal line during the game. A tryless affair that emphasized defense, stamina, determination and bone-crushing hits. The norm for rugby at the highest level. By the end of it all the exhaustion etched on the players’ faces reminded me of the faces of soldiers fighting real wars not make-believe ones. In 1995 there was no money earned by rugby players. They played for the love of the game. After the match a couple of South African players told of how they hitchhiked to a bar to celebrate and the look of awe on the face of the guy who picked them up. Better than the limo rides some American superstar jocks are fond of I’ll bet.
As most of the world knows SA won that day. A thirty-something white South African was standing next to me most of the game with a young boy. I’d say he was about 10 years-old. When it was over I watched them cheer and hug. The man turned to me with tears in his eyes and stuck out his hand as an introduction. “Great game, great day. This is my son. I just told him we can finally be proud to say we are South Africans. We left the country so he wouldn’t grow up there with all the hatred.”

The answer to the question of why the “NELSON!” chant…Mandela had promised that if elected he would bring the white man’s game – the Rugby World Cup – to South Africa. The chant was white South Africa’s “thank you” to a great man who had forgiven them for 27 years of his own incarceration and countless deaths to his friends and countrymen.
Since that unforgettable day I’ve learned a lot from film and books about the man I’ll never forget. I know he rests in peace. NELSON! NELSON! NELSON!



If you’d like to see and hear more about how Mandela healed the wounds you might watch “16th Man” on Netflix. It’s an ESPN “30 by 30” documentary.


My Odyssey to Boogie Wonderland

4 12 2013


Yesterday my antique body felt as though I spent 10 years on the weekend impersonating Ulysses making it back to Ithaca. I mean everything hurt. What had I done to deserve this?
Saturday we drove to Playa del Carmen for the Jazz Festival and returned on Monday. It used to be that to feel like I did yesterday I would have consumed considerable amounts of adult beverages but in this case it was just a little wine. The aging process is reminding me what the sane people of the 70’s told me, “You will pay for your insanity.” Rugby for 15 years has left its mark. It was worth it then and this weekend at Playa del Carmen was worth it too.
A slight drizzle welcomed us Saturday night. We checked-in at the hotel and headed for the beach and the concert. I commanded the heavens in Ulysses’ Spanish-Greek warrior fashion – “Lluvia alto!” – and they listened. We joined the crowd on the beach for Celsa Pina. We were about 200 yards from the stage. What can you expect when it’s free? At least we had binoculars and maybe after Celsa finished a good number of Mexicans would leave since the next 2 bands were from North of the Border. Didn’t happen, the crowd kept getting bigger as Celsa’s gig ended so I set out to find a better place to watch especially since the Penelope of my life had come to see the love of her life – EW&F; at 5 feet tall from 200 yards seeing EW&F wasn’t going to happen either. As usual I found what I was looking for and Ulysses dragged my Penelope to a spot with a sight line from Mamacita’s porch.


In the hour of free jazz with Matthew Garrison et al the heavens forgot my command and the rains came. EW&F should have begun at 10PM but the weather gods made their point. Don’t give us orders, human, or we’ll get even. There were times when, like Ulysses, I didn’t feel as though the promised arrival was going to take place but Penelope and I waited and waited for Zeus’ cancellation proclamation. It never came. Finally at 11 the heavens closed for the night and the crowd roared. They were worth the wait. The pics are from an earlier EW&F concert…


Most of the crowd danced the way Halle Berry did at the Hollywood Bowl in September. I didn’t see any baby bumps Saturday night but here’s how Halle Berry reacted to EW&F…


EW&F is not a retro band living off the past. Phillip Bailey is now the lead singer and in many ways takes them to musical spots they haven’t visited before. The man’s range is incredible and as Philip Johnson said about him on stage “he ages like fine wine getting better and better.” By the end of the night Ulysses and Penelope were home. No one can replace Maurice White from back in the day but this band is better in some ways. Check these out…



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