From being diagnosed with a career-threatening heart condition at the end of 2015 and seeing his rugby opportunities disappear almost overnight, Cornal Hendricks has come back even stronger.
And when he was given the all-clear by his medical team, and the opportunity came from the Vodacom Bulls, he took his shot.
Hendricks remembers the night he went to bed crying, and the morning he woke up and cried again. He remembers that exact moment when he dropped to his knees and prayed.
“That was a dark time for me,” says Hendricks. And you almost cannot believe it is the same player who is currently playing some of the best rugby of his life at centre for the Vodacom Bulls, and who is even in the reckoning for Springbok selection once more.
He flashes that brilliant smile, because of the similarity of taking his shot at the Vodacom Bulls and “taking his shot” at being vaccinated against Covid-19. If ever there is a man who knows what it means to take an opportunity when it comes your way, then it’s Hendricks.
“I remember exactly how I felt when I received the news about my heart. It was pure disappointment. I felt like my biggest opportunity had been taken away from me, and I could see all the things I was going to miss out on.”
In much the same way that the Covid-19 battle is one best fought together and not alone, Hendricks says what carried him through his own battle is the people around him and his faith.
“It was such a dark time for me and it was good to have friends and family around me who supported me. I kept trying to stay positive and tell myself that whether it takes two months or two years, I will get back to playing rugby again. I was determined to keep thinking positive thoughts and to prepare myself for when my shot came again.”
But as positive as he tried to be, Hendricks admits that it was those times when he was alone with only his thoughts that he suffered the most.
“The biggest fight comes when you’re alone. Then, the most difficult part is to convince yourself not to give up. But I’ll be honest, sometimes you want to give up. You’ve got to beat those demons in your head. There were times when I went to bed crying and woke up and cried again. I just missed rugby so much.”
So, when that offer came from the Vodacom Bulls, Hendricks didn’t just see it as a lifeline or another shot at his rugby career. He saw it as nothing short of a miracle.
“You never know when you’ll get your chance, but you need to always be prepared for that day. Sure, I was nervous. I hadn’t played a full match at that level in years. The negativity and doubt creeps in. So, I found confidence in my preparation and build-up. And when that opportunity came, it was like I just fell right back into my natural talent.”
It was one particular moment in a match against the Lions that convinced Hendricks he was indeed back.
“People think being a wing is all about speed. But what made me a Springbok was my high ball catching and tackling. In that match against the Lions, I remember a kick went up and I caught that ball solid in the air. Right there, I knew I was back.”
And then came another moment of opportunity for Hendricks, but one which he wasn’t prepared for.
“The team list went up at Loftus and I saw I was at number 12. I thought it was a mistake. At practice, coach Jake said nothing. So, after practice I went to speak to him. I said, ‘Coach, I think you made a mistake. I’m 14, not 12’.
“Coach Jake looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to be a Springbok at 12’. I honestly thought he’d lost it. But he obviously saw something in me. And it’s worked out. He gave me so much confidence by showing that he trusted me in that number 12 jersey.
“Opportunity. It can come when you’re in tears on the floor. It can come in the heat of a match. It can come as the number 12 on a team sheet. Or, for all South Africans, it can come from a health worker with a life-saving vaccination.”
As Hendricks’s own career has shown, be ready for it, because you never know when it will ever come again.
To watch the Vodacom Bulls video encouraging rugby fans to “take their shot” and get vaccinated – click on this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6rGQpPufqCU