Johannesburg - When Siya Kolisi was in Grade 8, the Springbok team came to practice on the fields at Grey High School in Port Elizabeth.
A young Kolisi walked up to Schalk Burger and asked for his signature. Somebody took a photo of the moment, which would circulate on Twitter many years later.
But what Kolisi remembers best from that day no camera could have captured. To this day, the emotions that swept through him when he first saw the Springbok emblem and those who bear it, remain with him.
“I remember my heart became so hot and I wanted to burst from excitement. I wasn’t aware of anything around me, just the Springboks. From the first time I picked up a rugby ball and ran with it, I wanted to wear that green jersey. And on that day I really started to believe I could,” he said on Saturday.
But what Siyamthanda Kolisi could never have guessed - not on that day or on any other - was that he would eventually be the leader of the green and gold.
When Rassie Erasmus made the announcement in a team meeting, Kolisi was flabbergasted.
But, he quickly adds, he was not overwhelmed by the responsibility it brings.
“No, I’m quite a relaxed guy and the captaincy of the Stormers has prepared me well. This is a different team and it’s at a much higher level. Now I’m representing the whole country and all of its people, but I know what to expect,” he says.
“The coach hasn’t put any pressure on me. All that he asks of us is that we play our best rugby and that we do the best we can for our team. That’s more important than anything else.”
Still, Kolisi realises the Springbok captaincy gives him the opportunity to inspire people.
“I’ve always wanted to play for the Boks, but I didn’t want to be famous. I’m not crazy about the attention, I never wanted it.
“I started playing rugby because I loved it. In the beginning I also didn’t think too much of the whole idea of being a role model. I thought we were just players - it’s all about how well you play.
“But the older I got, the more I realised that everything we do affects people out there. You put pressure on yourself because you want to inspire people. You know that kids look up to you and want to be like you.
“I know it’s even more so in the position that I’m now in, but I think I can give a lot of kids hope that they can accomplish anything. Not just people from the Eastern Cape, where I come from, but people from all over the country and people of all races.
“I want to inspire every single South African because it’s not just children of one race who want to talk to me and get my signature, it’s children of all races. I have a responsibility to all of them.
“We are the rainbow nation and I see the whole rainbow, not just some parts of it.”
In Kolisi’s case, the ability to inspire lies not just in his considerable talent as a rugby player, but also in his background.
His mother Phakama was 16 when he was born, and his father Fezakele just a little older. He was raised by his grandmother, who sometimes went to bed hungry to make sure he had something to eat.
When Kolisi was a teenager, his grandmother died in his arms. Years later, in an interview with Men’s Health magazine, he said he was glad she wasn’t alone in her last moments.
Kolisi’s mother, who has since had two other children, as well as her second husband, have also died.
He was 23, in his home town of Zwide and busy making a name for himself as a rugby player when he heard that the two children had been orphaned.
For Kolisi, there was no question about it. They would go home with him. With their big brother, the two children, aged 16 and 10, had a new dawn. Now, Kolisi proudly says, the eldest is in boarding school at Grey High School and is taking to it like a fish in water.
What this short summary of Kolisi’s life makes clear is that he doesn’t make anything about himself. Even a question about his first week as Springbok captain gets answered selflessly: “This week we helped the new guys to find their feet.
“The team is the most important. I haven’t really focused on the captaincy.”
A question about his best qualities as a person initially catches him off guard, but then he answers with a simple sentence: “I think I can make people smile.
“I always just try to be myself and be better. It’s not just about me. I look at how I can help and who I can help. That’s how I was raised, to look beyond myself. The love and support that I’ve always received from my family made me who I am today and showed me what a positive influence we can have on each other,” he says.
As the country’s first black Springbok Test captain, Kolisi is no stranger to the political realities of South Africa. But, he says, people shouldn’t just see him as that.
“All that I really want is to be seen as a rugby player that plays for the whole country. I really want everyone to support me. I understand the country we’re living in and I understand why people focus on the firsts that I achieve as a black player and I don’t want to silence people, but I’m more than that.”
The “more” is also more than rugby. He is a man, a father, a brother, a son, a friend and a team-mate ... it’s a long list of titles and he wouldn’t want it any other way.
His relationship and later marriage with Rachel, the mother of his children Nicholas (3) and Keziah (6 months), has exposed them to much bitterness on social media over the years, because they come from different races.
But Kolisi refuses to get worked up about that.
“I actually just feel sorry for people who have something to say about that.
“It’s sad that there are still people who think like that and who view the world through racial lenses. I wish I could invite those people into my home and say, look at us, we’re no different to your family. We’re happy and we love each other and we’re normal.”
Of course, normal is a relative term in the pressure-cooker of Springbok rugby, where nobody will now be subject to more scrutiny than Kolisi.
His name, Siyamthanda, means “We love you” in his home language, isiXhosa. And yes, he says, over the past few days it has felt as if country’s people want to tell him that.
The feeling is mutual.