To understand Cornal Hendricks’ insatiable desire to succeed, to prevail in the face of desperate poverty and crime, a heart problem and the loss of his livelihood and purpose, months of blackness that drove him into a deep depression, hours of solo training and rejection after rejection, you have to go back to a little house on the cruel streets of South Africa’s Western Cape.
Under its frayed and leaking roof lived five siblings and their astonishing mother. Rachel Hendricks and her husband had four children when they separated. Ten-year-old Cornal was their youngest.
A retired cleaner and charity volunteer, Rachel had been working at a shelter feeding the destitute and the homeless of Wellington when she found a baby girl abandoned under a bridge. She took the infant in as her own, despite barely being able to keep the lights on, patch the roof and feed hungry mouths as it was.
She could not give her family riches or lavish them with presents. Often, providing hot meals was trouble enough. But she could teach them respect, love, and above all, to chase their dreams with raging passion.
The baby under the bridge is 19 now and in training to be a chef. Alida, the eldest Hendricks, is 40 and a qualified teacher whose first paycheques helped haul the family through their most austere days. And of course, 31-year-old Cornal is the Springbok winger who refused to accept his career was over after a routine medical examination revealed an issue with his heart.
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There followed four years of hideous turmoil and superhuman resilience, but we’ll get to that. First, to Wellington, where Hendricks saw the horrors that blighted his people and resolved to make a difference.
“Coming from that rural area, I wanted to become something, to play for the Springboks. I wanted to be that light in our dark communities,” said Hendricks to RugbyPass. “There are a lot of gangs, drug addicts – all the merchants that sell dope. They’re driving the fancy cars and our kids are growing up seeing that – and they are their role models.
“I wanted to be that light – you don’t have to follow that path; if I can make it, you can make it as well. I always went back to give back to the children or to elderly people. My mum taught us that when we were little and if you grow up with that, you will always go back to your community.”
Rachel was an inspiration and a colossus in the household. She was a constant, beaming presence at each of her son’s primary school matches, chaperoning the under-11s team on the long bus journey to Durban for games.
“One time in Durban, I went around one guy and ran straight down the touchline,” recalled Hendricks. “My mum ran all the way next to the field with me, sprinting, and dived next to me when I dived in the corner to score.”
Son achieving; mother treading each step and riding every tackle alongside him. It was the perfect metaphor for what was to come. Hendricks became a professional at 20 and a sevens international several years later, a brawny winger with obvious potential and a gregarious raconteur among his team-mates.
Hurricanes v Bulls | Super Rugby 2019 Quarter Final 2 Highlights
The @Hurricanesrugby seal a semi-final spot after edging a brave @BlueBullsRugby side 35-28 in a thrilling contest in Wellington. #SuperRugby #HURvBUL #SR19Finals pic.twitter.com/LrkkGs0RcM
— Super Rugby/TRC (@SuperRugby) June 22, 2019
One morning, he was about to leave for training when his mother grabbed him by the shoulders and began to weep, broken by the unrelenting cycle of financial hardship. “I can’t take it anymore,” she bawled. “We don’t have money, it’s getting really tough to get a pot on the stove, keep on food on the table.”
That day, the Blitzbokke boys saw another side of their jovial, hilarious mate. Hendricks tore into the session like a rabid buffalo, the sobs of his mother still burning on his shoulder. “Sorry for the language, but I f***ed everyone up. I tackled the s**t out of everyone,” he said. “Coach Paul Treu came to me and said, ‘That is the animal I was waiting to see in you. Why now?’
“I told him I didn’t want to see my mum cry and suffer to get food on the table. I want to give my all so I can be the best in the world; I want to do better in life so that my mum can have a better life.
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I started the year 2019 feeling like a child again. I was fresh and excited to be able to play the game I fell in love with. The Super Rugby season started off slowly for me personally but I gradually began to feel fitter, stronger and more hungry than ever before. Towards the end of the SR season it started to show when I started to score tries again. We couldn't get to the final in the end but I am grateful to everyone at the Bulls – Coach Pote and his management team, my team mates and off course the fans who stuck with us through our trials and tribulations. I also became a dad and I would like to thank my wife Stephanie and daughter Calsey for being true ysters and holding the fort whilst I am in Pretoria. To my family and friends thank you for the support through the good and the bad times. I know there are calls for me to don the Green and Gold again and naturally I'm keen but we are blessed with great wings at the moment. I will however keep dreaming and trust in our Creator as I have done through the good and bad times. For now I am focused on having a successful Currie Cup campaign with the Bulls. Baie dankie aan almal vir die ondersteuning. #CH14 #TheWellingtonExpress
“She gave us everything when we were small, she went out of her way to give us the best that she possibly could and I want to return the favour now. That was my motivation, my mum crying on my shoulder. “I told her, ‘You will never cry a day in your life again for food or money’.”
Within two years, Hendricks was a Commonwealth Games gold medallist and a Springbok. He missed out on the 2015 World Cup, but that meant more time to prepare for the Rio Olympics the following summer.
Before the Games, every player was put through a standard medical examination. Hendricks thought nothing of it. Why would he, at the peak of his physical powers?
But his electrocardiogram (ECG) showed something in his heart was badly wrong. He will not discuss the specifics of the problem in any detail, save that the condition had a “fancy name” and typically arises in patients after strenuous exercise.
The upshot was devastating – a doctor telling him that at 26, with a lucrative move to the Stormers already secured and plans to move abroad thereafter, he would never play again. The fat contract was gone, but worse than that, his passion had been snatched away overnight.
Those early months were torturous. Hendricks couldn’t bear the mention of rugby, never mind follow the Blitzbokke’s progress in Brazil. “Every time I put on the TV and rugby was on, tears just rolled down my cheeks. I was thinking, ‘That could have been me’.
Sharing my storie on Fathersday ! I'm blessed. Thank you Jesus pic.twitter.com/XeeZZLdcmF
— Cornal Hendricks (@CornalHendricks) June 16, 2019
“I couldn’t watch sport anymore. I was so emotional. Every time I was with people and they talked about rugby, I’d walk to the side and just cry. When I went to bed, lying there and staring at the roof, tears would flow because the thing that you love the most is taken from you. I couldn’t accept it.
“If I wasn’t for God, I would have been an alcoholic, I would have been involved in strange things. I asked God to please take the emotional pain away because that is what hurt the most. If I could reach into my ribs and take it away myself, I would. That was me three or four years ago. Still thinking about it gives me goosebumps.”
Hendricks kept training, in the gym, on his own. He gave up a beautiful house in Stellenbosch and his sponsors took back their car. No sense in bestowing fancy wheels on a player who could no longer play.
He moved back in with his mother and sought second, third and fourth opinions from cardiologists, even going as far as the Cayman Islands to see one particularly eminent physician. The tests and the verdicts, he says, were all the same – he was fine, he could play again.
The problem was that no team was willing to risk taking him on. For almost three years, interest arose and invariably waned. Toulon, the Kings, the Bulls – deals were thrashed out and then fell through. “I started to train and back myself again. But the hardest thing for me was that no-one wanted to accept me. No-one wanted to put me on the field.”
To escape the festering malaise and the anguish that gnawed at him, he turned his attention back to home, back to the crime-ravaged neighbourhoods of Wellington. He poured effort into his foundation, set up in 2014 to support those in his community who need it most.
“If I’m not going to play rugby, what can I do to make a difference in someone else’s life? When I started to shift my energy and emotions to helping other people, helping a child achieve his goal, I found completeness,” he explained. “While doing that, I forgot about my emotions. I was focusing on other people, giving back to my community in a bigger way.
“Sometimes you lose track, it’s all about you as a professional, you get all the material things, and when they get taken from you, your back’s against the wall, then you start realising, listen, I don’t have those fancy things anymore, God is taking me through things that he wants you to do for him in order to give your talent back again.”
As his perspective shifted, things started to happen. Heyneke Meyer, the former Boks coach who gave him his Test debut, picked up the phone and invited him to play for the Asia Pacific Dragons 10s team he was putting together.
— Cornal Hendricks (@CornalHendricks) August 23, 2018
From there, he went to America and the Tiger Rugby Club, run by two South African businessmen. It was here that the Bulls came again, high-performance manager Xander Janse van Rensburg watching footage of his games and encouraging the franchise to make Hendricks an offer.
There were tests and more tests to satisfy the Bulls doctors but finally, last year, glorious salvation. “My agent phoned me and sung the Blue Bulls song in Afrikaans down the phone,” said Hendricks.
“He told me, ‘Listen, you’re getting a two-year Super Rugby contract’. I was like, ‘Get out of here, you’re joking! Let me see it.’ We went for coffee and he showed me the contract. I started to cry again.
“When I signed, the CEO of the Bulls called me and he said, ‘Welcome, you are part of the family’. If you could see me right now, my arms are so full of chills. I called my wife and mum immediately after that and they were just screaming and crying.
“It was very hard for the family when I went through a tough time, but now they are experiencing the enjoyable times as well and it was a huge relief for them.
“If I’d kept playing, I would have been at the Olympics, I would have 45 Springbok caps and close to 85 Super Rugby games, I would be playing at a big overseas club. It’s very hard for me to look back and think about what could have been, but I could make it a reality now.”
Almost four years after his last professional game, Hendricks’ comeback was complete. His Super Rugby season was a success; he grew as an attacking force as the rounds ticked by and his body readjusted to the rigors of the elite game, culminating in two typically powerful finishes in the Bulls’ quarter-final loss to the Hurricanes.
The World Cup is a tall order, but after all Hendricks has overcome, it is far from insurmountable. “While I’m training with the Bulls, while I’m doing my extra work, the dream is in the back of my head, I’m always thinking about the green and gold,” he said.
— Rugby Rocks (@rugby_rocks) June 23, 2019
“I’m actually preparing for the World Cup, as I should, but playing Currie Cup. My preparation is more than winning the Currie Cup. I want to win it and we’re going to win it because we have a strong squad, but my focus is more than that, because I still have a goal to play in the green and gold. That is pushing me to be a better player. I want to be a different animal in the Currie Cup.”
Back in Wellington, Rachel Hendricks’ roof doesn’t leak anymore. She has a new kitchen, a sparking tiled interior, safety gates on the driveway and a salary paid by her son each month for the rest of her days.
“You know you get those nice old farmhouses on the wine estates? My dream is to give my mum a house that she loves in a very nice, safe area where she can just enjoy growing old.
“I don’t want my mum to be struggling at 70 years old. She must enjoy her 10, 15, 20 years on this earth. If she wants to have a pizza at night, she can have a pizza. If she wants a burger, she can have a burger. Anything she wants to do, she must have it. Not to spoil her, but I don’t want to see my mum getting older and suffering.
“And the same for my wife’s parents – I’m not going to allow us to have all the best things in life and see them struggling. When I was out of rugby, I made sure my mum was taken care of. I will never repay her for what she did for us.”
From the rain sloshing through the leaky roof and the gangsters on the streets to the green and gold of the Bokke, from the cardiology offices and the twilight sobs to the sweet fervour of Loftus, and maybe, just maybe, onwards again to Japan. Whatever the doctors say, inside Hendricks’ chest there beats one hell of a heart.
WATCH: Episode three of the RugbyPass Rugby Explorer series where Jim Hamilton takes a trek through South African rugby
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