On 22 July 2006, a week before his 17th birthday, tragedy struck when a cluster of players clattered into the then-HTS Louis Botha first XV lock and a player from Hoërskool Bloemfontein he’d tackled at a ruck.
“I could audibly hear my neck breaking. It sounded like three gunshots going off in my head,” recalled Nel.
The injury left him a C4/5 incomplete quadriplegic having to operate a powered hand-controlled wheelchair. The mental toll of such a life-changing incident is just as severe as the physical, if not more so, and requires remarkable resolve to overcome. For Nel, his lowest low was also his turning point, which came at home, about a year after his arduous rehabilitation at Life Pasteur.
“I was sitting outside, just tired of the same monotonous routine every day," he remembered.
"I was feeling especially ‘gatvol’ that day; all my peers had just finished school, were moving on with their lives and doing the most amazing stuff, and here I was. I felt forgotten, unwanted and dejected. For the first time, I asked myself, ‘Is this the sum of your existence? Is this really how it has to be for the rest of your life? You haven’t finished school, you’re disconnected from everything you ever knew or wanted, so what is it you want now?’
“I wondered if it was even worth wanting anything since I probably couldn’t achieve anything worthwhile ever again. But then, an epiphany of sorts hit me - this deep, dark ocean of sadness has no bottom.
"If I wanted to breathe again, I’d have to start swimming.
"Even if I didn’t know which way was up, I’d have to start doing something to stop sinking. The very moment I decided to demand more good things from life, life started giving them. There were many shut doors, but so many open ones started to be revealed.”
With his newfound motivation, he finished school from home and set out to knock down the door of law. His road was littered with more challenges than any of that of his fellow aspiring attorneys but he graduated with an LL.B degree at the University of the Free State in 2018 and added an LL.M degree from Australia’s Bond University as well as an Executive Leadership diploma from Oxford University (both online). From there, he did his one-year internship with the Law Society of South Africa and this year joined JVK Attorneys as a Candidate Legal Practitioner at the age of 33.
“JVK have gone out of their way to make it possible for me to do my articles," he said.
"Whilst other law firms have this outdated mindset that ‘if you can’t adapt to us, you don't belong here’ and ‘if you can’t climb the stairs to our offices that don’t have a lift, too bad’ and that happened more than once, JVK’s directors said, ‘If you can meet our high standards and keep up with the pace, we’ll make everything else accessible to you. If we go to see clients in another city, we’ll make sure your hotel is always wheelchair-friendly etc.’ That forward-thinking has opened a world of opportunities to me denied to so many others.”
Many who suffer such a severe setback as he did doesn’t have the strength or belief that they can go on to live a meaningful life, let alone strive for such a massive goal he managed to achieve.
Asked where he got that strength from, Bloemfontein-based Nel said:, “Firstly, from God. Before my accident, I was not particularly religious, but once you’ve stared death in the eyes, you realise that nothing good is possible without God. Secondly, failure in my view hurts much less than not trying.
“The nature of our goals doesn’t matter, seeing them through does. Whether it’s exercising a bit more each day, or getting a degree, as long as you can see it through, life will slowly start to feel meaningful again. Achieving one goal gives you the momentum to go for the next one.”
Support is crucial, Nel emphasized: “My pillars of strength have been God, my family, the Chris Burger Petro Jackson Players’ Fund and the South African Rugby Legends Association (SARLA). This is a lonely journey; people come and go and you somehow get lost in the fray. The Players’ Fund helps you get back on your feet and is like that one friend who never left and when my medical aid ran out, SARLA threw me a lifeline. Without their joint support, I wouldn’t be the man I am today.”
In his ‘closing statement,’ Nel said: “Just because it looks like the end of the road doesn’t mean it actually is. Life doesn’t always work out as we imagined it would, but that’s okay. No matter what I or others say, though, it’s up to the individual to use what God gave them to get out of a hole.”
By Quintin van Jaarsveld
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