Cornal Hendricks: Heart of a lion

Cornal Hendricks (Getty)
Cornal Hendricks (Getty)

Cape Town - His heart nearly ended his rugby career, but it is also the reason he refuses to lie down.

It’s been one heck of a year for Cornal Hendricks.

The Springbok wing, capped 12 times in the green and gold, had his world rocked at the start of 2016 when a contractual SA Rugby medical revealed a heart condition that seemingly ended his playing career.

Now, after a torturous few months, he is ready to get back onto the field.

It may seem risky business given the seriousness of Hendricks’ original diagnosis, but a second opinion from a “well-known cardiologist” has cleared Hendricks to play, according to his legal team.

That second opinion went before a panel of independent sports health experts, who have since given the 28-year-old the all-clear.

He is on a flight to France on Sunday, where he is a medical away from signing a short-term deal with Toulon until the end of the European season.

The medical will see the club conduct their own tests, which will serve as final reassurance that it is safe for Hendricks to take to the field again.

Hendricks had signed a two-year contract with the Stormers ahead of the 2016 Super Rugby season, but he never actually joined the franchise after his condition was discovered.

SA Rugby had no choice but to side-line a player who at the time was one of the form wings in world rugby. Hendricks was told that his playing days were over.

Retirement followed, but after a couple of months out Hendricks pushed for a second opinion.

The condition still exists, of that there is no doubt, but the new information suggests that Hendricks is not placed at any further risk through playing rugby.

A man of immense faith, he never gave up on a return.

“I believed strongly that there was nothing wrong with me,” Hendricks told Sport24 this week.

“I’ve been cleared to play rugby and there is nothing to worry about.”

He may know that now, but the weeks following the news were tough. Hendricks would not eat certain foods, was too scared to drink coffee and his condition was in the back of his mind whenever he exercised.

“I’m a rugby player and I’ve been fit all of my life, so to find out there was something wrong with me was a shock. It wasn’t easy for me,” he said.

“It was a bad year, but now I’ve got a second chance.”

As Hendricks began to accept his condition, he began to push himself more.

He joined a local and very social touch rugby group, ran, hit the gym and even helped out by coaching a local club in Wellington.

It was during a session at that club, Roses United, where Hendricks had a mental breakthrough.

“I went to Roses United to help out a bit with coaching. I had a defence session with the guys and I climbed right into it,” he recalls.

“There were a lot of big guys and I hadn’t done contact in a while. I grabbed a bag and hit the guys around and got stuck in.

“I decided then that there was nothing wrong with me, that I could take these bruises. We did fitness afterwards. My heart was pumping as normal and I didn’t feel anything funny. At that point I decided that there was nothing wrong with me.”

And so, Hendricks is on the verge of one of the most courageous comebacks that this country has seen.

It may seem like South Africa’s loss that he has joined a long list of players looking to take their business abroad, but playing for the Boks is not something he has given up on just yet.

“It was always a dream for me, since I was a little boy, to play for my country and I had the opportunity to do that 12 times,” he remembers.

“I would love to play for the Springboks again. I’m going to France for a new experience to start all over again and if the Boks need me I will definitely come back and play for my country. I would accept the offer every time.”

One step at a time, though.

The most immediate hurdle is passing his medical at Toulon and getting through to June unscathed.

Regardless of what happens from here, Hendricks’ courage can never be questioned. After the potentially life-altering reality he ran into at the start of the year, it would have been easy for him to throw in the towel.

But, despite everything, that was never an option.

“The day I retired, I had not given up on anything,” Hendricks said emphatically.

“I’m a man of faith, I believe in God and I knew I would be back on the field again.

“It was a dark time for me. I was devastated. I wasn’t in a good mental space … but I’m back and that’s what is important.”

Cornal Hendricks wishes to thank the following people for their support:

Rachell Hendricks (mother), Stephaney Cloete (girlfriend), his brothers and sisters, Franzil September and family, Jacquin, Willem Steyn and the CRC Homecell in Stellenbosch.

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