Saturday 21 October 2017

'Every day I wake up above ground is a good one'

Legendary All Blacks star Jonah Lomu has been through a violent childhood, global superstardom and an illness which nearly killed him. He tells David Kelly about his new lease of life

"I die! I die!

I live! I live!

I die! I die!

I live! I live!

This is the hairy man

Who fetched the sun causing it to shine!

One upward step! Another upward step!

One last upward step!

Then step forth!

Into the sun that shines!"

All Blacks Haka – Ka Mate, translation

JONAH LOMU wants to be really seen for who he is more than for what he has done. Jonah Lomu wants to be known for being more than a professional player and more than just a victim of a crippling illness.

Jonah Lomu wants the world to know his many roles in life – father, husband, son, professional rugby player.

He wants to be a better father than his own.

But he wants to tell us, too, that even though his father wasn't a good one, in fact, was quite the opposite, without him there would be nothing.

Life has given Jonah Lomu so much yet often it has seemed prepared to take in equal amounts.

Life created him differently from others, offering him a remarkable professional rugby career and creating a global superstar in the process.

Life could have steered a different path had he stayed in brutal South Auckland where his uncle and cousin were macheted for being different.

Life sundered his family apart, his mother wrenching him away from the grips of a violent, drunken abusive father, even though she struggled to escape.

Life prepared him for the grim realisation that he would never himself create life, would never have the chance to mould for himself the family that he had lost as a young child.

Life would give him a second chance, though, giving him everything that he once thought he never could have.

Now he has two children. He has health. He no longer has a father, but, at least, they reconciled before his death.

So much living.

But then, when one has been told that you yourself could die, when you yourself have seen death's door lie impatiently ajar, what else is there to do but live life?

* * * *

WHEN Jonah Lomu visits Ireland this weekend, he will stride his stage like a behemoth, rendering everyone he meets a Lilliputian in comparison.

Except his arena is now that of the theatre, not the sporting field. And his lessons are hewn from a wider canvas than that of the green sward.

His chosen subjects will still fall at his feet, except now it will be his words that will bludgeon them into submission, no longer his bulging biceps or tree-trunk thighs, though both remain unavoidably visible within the familiarly formidable frame.

It's just that he wants everyone to see everything of himself.

"It's just getting up close and personal with the fans, giving them the opportunity to ask whatever they want to ask and being candid and honest with them in return," he says in a soft, lilting voice.

"It's something I've always been asked for my by fans through social media, so I want to do it up close and personal, giving something back to the people who have supported me through the years. For me, it's a chance of a lifetime."

What do you get out of it?

"I get the fulfilment of seeing a kid asking a question that they never would have got a chance to."

It seems so profound, that you might never have had a chance to play rugby, yet became a star, that you lost your father and then found him again, then lost the chance to have your own family before finding out that you could?

"When I look back on my life, I've done a lot of living in a very short space of time," he says. "It's like the game of rugby, mate.

"But, at the same time, I think it's a great story to tell people, in terms of never being satisfied at where your life is at. You've got to learn to enjoy your life and stay true to yourself. It's a story I feel is worth telling."

And what a story it is.

But how does one determine the balance between always looking for satisfaction. What's wrong with being satisfied?

"Definitely, it's a tough balance. But you have to be true and honest with yourself. As long as you can remain in that space, everything should be fine. I've always been a believer of being true to yourself and the people that matter most to you."

Aside from his one-man shows, there is also a French-produced movie forthcoming. It is called 'Anger Within.'

Yet no anger seems to reside within this man now. One of his tattoos – 'Power Within' – seems more pertinent.

"That's the motto I live by and believe in. At the end of the day, when you're down in the dumps, mate, and you need to get out of the rut that you're in, there's only one person who can do that and that is yourself.

"And you need to look within yourself to find that power to get out of there. Until you make that decision it's never going to happen."

So, no religion can help?

"It's a bit of both, but ultimately it's you who has to make that decision. Nobody else is going to pick you up. Unless that happens, you're going to be in a long, hard battle."

* * * *

LOMU'S battles have been plentiful. At the age of one, he was sent to Tonga to be raised by his aunt for the next five years. All that time he called her "mum."

His father was a brutish man, inflicting violence of a physical nature on his wife and, when he returned to Auckland, on a mental and spiritual basis, on his son.

His mother would deflect much of the blows aimed at the child. But she couldn't protect him from the world.

Lomu tried to escape, but South Auckland may as well have been a feral jungle. His uncle was decapitated. His best friend was stabbed to death. A childhood punctured by indescribable awfulness.

He struggled to cope with his father's violence. At 14, he fled for good.

"I spent most of life fighting with all that inside me. It has taken a long time, taken a real long time to be able to come to terms with what my dad was. I had disagreements with my dad. I didn't like the way he drank and the way he behaved when he drank. He got kicked out."

He grew up knowing he was different and the only thing that acknowledged the strength of that difference – rugby – saved him from both life and death.

When did you realise you were different and stood out?

"I've always known I was different, in the sense that I always had a big body. You can stand out. It can be a help sometimes, but not always. People can pick on you.

"But I also know if I needed to protect myself, I could. Or if I needed to run away, I knew I was quick enough to do that as well.

"But it was tough growing up, sticking out like a sore thumb. As I got older, I realised I was given a God-given talent and I was determined to do the most with it."

Everyone knows your body, skill and talent within this huge form. But when in life did you discover you had a powerful mind?

"It took a little while before that really developed. It wasn't really until the end of '94 when I developed the illness that everyone now knows about.

"It was a constant battle for me every day to get up, to be able to go to training. I didn't have the energy that everyone else had. I knew that the one thing that I did develop was the mental strength to pick myself up and go to training, prepare for myself for every single battle that was played out in a Test match."

Where once the anger had nowhere to go, now it had a valve.

"I have been angry," he says softly. "I bottled it up and bring it on to the rugby field and chuck it all out there. Rugby was my saviour in more ways than one."

The rare kidney disorder, nephrotic syndrome, struck him down in his prime and, remarkably, before he announced his luminous qualities on the global stage at the 1995 World Cup.

"I didn't want anyone else to know," said Lomu, whose illness was not revealed fully until after South Africa, after his exploits on the field and his epochal meeting with Nelson Mandela.

"I didn't want anyone else to give me special treatment. I went to the 1995 World Cup knowing about this.

"You're dealt cards in your life and you have to play the hand you've got. I did the best that I could with the hand that I was dealt."

Heaven knows what Jonah Lomu, who scored 17 tries in 63 caps during his eight-year career, might have been like had fate shuffled the cards differently.

"There was no other option, I wanted to play the game that I loved. I did everything I needed to do. I still go through those battles now.

"The difference now is that I have a family that I cherish and love. Everything I do now, I do for them. I want to make sure I live long enough to see my kids grow up."

* * * *

DOCTORS TOLD him he had about a 0.001pc chance of procreating. I ask him what it was like to be told that he could never have children of his own.

"That's the best question I've ever been asked," he replies haltingly.

"Disheartening more than anything else? Knowing that my genes weren't to be carried on by anybody. Everybody always talks about leaving a legacy or leaving a piece of yourself to live on in this world.

"For me, I was thinking about that and suddenly you realise that there will be nobody left to carry on the family name. It was tough to take on. But I had to deal with it.

"But when my wife (Nadrene) got pregnant with our first son, I was surprised. It was the first time I had no words to say in my life.

"We looked at each other and it took a day to sink in that we were going to have kids. All the prayers and everything came to fruition."

In many ways, hard as it was, he learned one thing from his father. He wanted to be a father himself. A better one.

Lomu wants the world to know his name to live more profoundly than for its attachment to sporting greatness.

His greatest achievement?

"By a mile."

Which is why he reconciled with his father, shortly before Semisi's death in 2010. He thought he'd lost him forever.

"It hit me that I was going to be a dad too."

He remembered when he was told that the possibility of having two beautiful boys, Dhyreille and Brayley, was an impossibility. He was forced to make the impossible reconciliation with his father a possibility.

"It was a double whammy," he says when it seemed as if he might lose the chance to recreate for himself a family he had lost once already.

"For me it was just life doing what it was doing. A lot of people don't have families.

"But we all survived that. I've got my own family now. And my goal now is to become a better father than my own dad."

Semisi died last year. Jonah nearly preceded him. During the 2011 World Cup, he rejected the transplanted kidney that had saved his life seven years earlier.

Now 38, his weakness co-exists with the strength inside him.

Is it too trite to say that your sickness has made you stronger?

"No, definitely. It has made me stronger. It has made me battle harder and become more focused on what I needed to do.

"Everybody has trials and tribulations. It's how you turn it into a strength. I just happened to find the strength within myself to be able to continue."

Through Dhyreille and Brayley, Lomu knows his journey will continue even without him. While he is here, he just wants to keep giving to a life that has threatened to take so much.

Sometimes it seems as if he is as close to death than life.

"My health is alright now," he demurs defiantly.

"Although I'm still on dialysis obviously. But that's what you have to deal with. I'm as good as I can be. I can't complain.

"Every day I wake up above ground is a good one."

* An audience with Jonah Lomu takes place in Dublin's Clyde Court tomorrow at 7.0 and Thomond Park, Limerick on Monday 8.0.

See jonahlomu.com for details

Irish Independent

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