09 Sep 2020
For four decades, the Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players' Fund has helped turned tragedy into triumph.
Laying helpless in a hospital bed, hours after breaking his neck during a Currie Cup match against Free State in Bloemfontein on 30 August 1980, Western Province fullback Chris Burger spoke with his captain Morné du Plessis for the final time.
'He said, "Please look after my family and ask the guys to see that they’re OK,"' recalls Du Plessis 40 years on. “Even then, being a young man, I still didn’t fully realise the gravity of the situation and two hours later, he passed. We were absolutely devastated.'
Moved to action by that last conversation, Burger’s teammates founded a fund in his honour on 9 September. The true depth of rugby’s brotherhood had been cemented, the legacy of Rugby’s Caring Hands born.
On 11 April 1987, South African rugby was rocked to its core once more as Kylemore wing Petro Jackson passed away on the field after having suffered a broken neck during a zone club competition match against Excelsior. A similar fund was established in his memory, with the two merging in 1992.
With a Springbok spine, which includes Jean de Villiers (chairman), Du Plessis, Hanyani Shimange (Deputy Chairman), John Smit, FC Smit, Jowa Abrahams, Tiaan Strauss and Wayne Fyvie on the current board of trustees, and the support of SA Rugby, the fund has aided over 500 fallen heroes over the years.
This has come at a cost of R50-million, but ask any of the 107 recipients the fund currently assists and they’d say the support is priceless. For hidden in its name lies the true power of the fund as for the past four decades, it has been a source of hope for those catastrophically injured playing the game they love. Hope of a life worth living, a second chance at happiness despite seemingly overwhelming obstacles.
Offering wide-ranging support based on each recipient’s individual needs, the fund is a lifelong companion for fallen heroes and their families. It’s also been at the forefront of further significant change.
Tackling injuries head-on, the fund and SA Rugby launched the BokSmart national rugby safety programme in 2009. The all-encompassing, scientific-based project has been game-changing, producing a 63% decrease in acute spinal cord injuries in schoolboy rugby and a 52% decrease in permanent catastrophic injuries in the club game.
Players who’ve suffered the misfortune of disabling despair are left with a daunting task. Amidst the heartache and broken dreams, they’re forced to adapt to a 'new normal'. For them, this term has been a way of life long before it was thrust into popular culture by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Similar to its recipients, the fund has had to constantly adapt to adversity in terms of fundraising, which has become increasingly difficult every year. Inspired by the unbroken will of those it supports, the fund has gallantly crusaded against the grain to remain the lifeline it is, hosting marquee events like the telethons of old on SuperSport, formal banquets and other special events, all attended by the entire Springbok squad.
With its Springbok legends, as well as health and industry professionals, the fund family’s steely determination remains unshaken. However, the stark reality the non-profit organisation finds itself in is that it’s facing its gravest challenge yet in an invisible enemy that changed the world as we knew it, one that’s threatening to suffocate South African rugby’s greatest ‘impact players’.
'Our costs have also escalated during this time as a result of our recipients’ household economic situations having been impacted,' says Gail Baerecke, the fund’s passionate general manager for the past 15 years.
'We are, therefore, humbly appealing for financial help so that we can meet the essential needs of our particularly vulnerable group of recipients.'
Now, more than ever, there’s a dire need for rugby-loving South Africans to rally behind the sport’s most meaningful cause and prove, like the world-beating Springboks reminded the Rainbow Nation in Japan last year, that we are indeed #StrongerTogether.
– Van Jaarsveld is the sports editor at eHowzit.co.za and a recipient of the Players’ Fund. For more information on the fund and to make a donation, please visit www.playersfund.org.za.