Cape Town - A fourth high profile South African rugby player, former Natal wing Danny Delport, has been struck down by the devastating Motor Neuron Disease (MND).
Delport played for Natal from 1973-75 while studying at Maritzburg Varsity before returning to his home in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and representing the national team for eight years.
Delport and his family settled in Perth in 2008, but late last year he was diagnosed with MND.
The disease attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord which control voluntary muscle activity including speaking, breathing, walking and swallowing. It causes progressive weakness and increasing disability, muscle wasting and, eventually, death.
Three other well-known former South African rugby players have recently been diagnosed with the disease.
The highest profile sufferer is the 43-year-old Joost van der Westhuizen, who captained the Springboks and, in his prime, was widely regarded as the world’s leading scrumhalf. He was diagnosed with MND in 2011 and has since travelled the world - “a prisoner of my own body” - raising awareness of the debilitating disease. He has also founded his J9 Foundation which helps other MND sufferers.
Another ex-Springbok, Western Province centre Tinus Linee, died in November last year after losing his battle with MND. He was 45.
Ryan Walker, a product of Hilton College and a Mooi River farmer who played scrumhalf for the Sharks in 2002 and 2003, first fell ill in April 2012. After 15 months of treatment and tests – and at the age of 34 – a neurologist finally told Walker that he had MND.
The 62-year-old Delport is now facing his own struggles with this remorseless disease. Tragically, it is not the only mountain he has to climb.
A close friend in Perth, former team-mate Brian “Stroppy” Boyes, this week spoke of the massive challenges facing the Delport family – Danny and his wife Sue have three children - and of plans being made to help his old team-mate in Australia.
“There is no standard course for this disease as to how fast or how slow it will go but it is progressive and terminal,” said Boyes.
Delport has been forced to stop work and, to compound the family’s problems, his wife is struggling with severe osteoporosis, a progressive bone disease, said Boyes.
“Sue has two badly fractured vertebrae and fractured ribs which cause chronic pain, but she is continuing to work.”
Boyes, a feisty hooker who played alongside Delport for Maritzburg Varsity and Natal – and was known for his cheeky exploits on and off the field – said that huge financial challenges lay ahead.
“Danny is not eligible for a government pension or disability pension as he has not been in Australia long enough. We are now making plans to help our old team-mate in Australia.”
Boyes said that a formal committee has been established under the name “Danny’s Support Initiative” with the key aim of providing financial and moral support to Delport in the testing months ahead.
“The immediate priority is for the committee to try and secure sufficient funds to maintain Dan’s current fortnightly salary. This will remove the major worry that the family has in meeting current commitments, and will allow Dan and Sue to focus on managing the illness. The committee will also be investigating government support initiatives.”
Delport’s rugby career in Natal was short and sweet but he made an indelible impression. He started at scrumhalf in the Maritzburg Varsity U20B team in 1971 and was then rushed into the first team in 1972 and played on the wing. Just a season later he made his provincial debut and had three years (1973-75) in the Natal team. He returned to the family farm in Rhodesia in 1976 and played for the national team until 1983.
An exciting, wholehearted player, he possessed exceptional pace. He also had long flowing locks which proved popular with crowds, particularly the more conservative ones at Loftus and on the platteland where spectators made fun of his hairstyle but applauded his committed, brave running and tackling.
Delport left Zimbabwe in 2000 – when Robert Mugabe’s supporters confiscated his farm – and settled in Cape Town where he was involved in accounting, construction and farming. The family moved to Australia in October 2008 and, until last week, Delport worked as a general labourer in the construction industry.
And now the Delport's Australian dream is suddenly a nightmare. Joost van der Westhuizen has spoken of the choice he faced after being diagnosed with MND in 2011:
“Either I stayed at home and died or I lived my life. The doctors tell MND sufferers they have two to five years to live. And that’s bull. You live as long as you want, as long as you are positive. I was given 24 months and it is now past 50.”
Danny Delport wants to remain positive and is determined to follow Joost’s example. But he does need all the help he can get.
Anyone who may be able to help Danny is asked to contact Brian "Stroppy" Boyes at email@example.com or Pierre de Lange, the former Natal centre and Delport’s Maritzburg Varsity captain, at firstname.lastname@example.org