Gqoboka’s journey of hope to 100 caps for the Bulls
The giant prop with a big heart is fit again and good to go after his dream of being a pro rugby player was almost extinguished during some very tough times
It was 9.40pm and Lizo Gqoboka had given up all hope of finding a meal. A few days before, he had boiled a pot of water and threw in some flour and sugar to keep him going.
Now it was finished. And he was hungry. On that evening in a flat in Durban, as he sat in darkness with no money for electricity or food, we will never know just how close Gqoboka came to giving up on his dream of becoming a professional rugby player.
A dream that this weekend will see the giant prop with the big heart run out for his 100th game for the Bulls.
“I never ever thought I’d reach this point. My heart is just filled with gratitude,” says Gqoboka, who on Saturday will join his Bulls teammates as they open their Heineken Champions Cup campaign against French Top 14 side Lyon at Loftus Versfeld.
“It just shows that everything is possible for him who believes.”
Gqoboka is understandably overwhelmed by the thought of reaching this milestone in a career where he’s been capped as a Springbok and moved with this Bulls team into the new rugby era of the United Rugby Championship and now the Heineken Champions Cup.
It’s a vastly different world from his home village of Ntabankulu in the rural Eastern Cape, where he went through high school working at a funeral home and loading and unloading sand off trucks.
And it seems a lifetime away from the darkness of that flat in Durban, where Gqoboka had arrived on what little money his parents could scrape together to try and begin his studies. It was in Durban that he had his first slice of pizza in his life and started playing club rugby on the advice of a friend.
But as the money ran out, his studies ended and with his rugby career going nowhere, Gqoboka found himself sitting in that flat wondering where his next meal would come from.
“That’s when a friend of mine drove far out of his way, knocked on the door and asked if I’d like to join him on a drive to the local garage to buy a pie. I couldn’t understand it. The garage was much closer to where he lived than where my flat was. He actually drove past it to get to me. When I asked him why, he said he just felt like a pie and didn’t want to eat alone. And I got a meal,” says Gqoboka as he sums up how his life, at its lowest moments, has often taken unexpected turns.
A few days later, Gqoboka found a job with a construction company. This gave him access to the internet, and with no clear rugby prospects in Durban, he spent three weeks phoning the offices of the EP Kings daily, begging them for a trial.
Eventually, they gave up on turning him down and agreed to fly him out for one trial. The trial was a good one, but Gqoboka wasn’t offered a contract. And now, having resigned from his job in Durban, he was stuck in Port Elizabeth with no income.
But still, Gqoboka pushed on with his dream. He was chased out of a local gym because he didn’t have shoes, which he couldn’t afford. Eventually, he managed to scrape together R70 to buy the most basic pair of trainers. And that’s what he wore to training.
He was the big man with the R70 pair of trainers, no contract and no obvious career, running around the field with players wearing branded Puma and Adidas trainers. And while he tried to focus on moves and scrum technique, there was always the thought that he would return that evening to a single bedroom which he now shared with three other people who would look to him for a meal, and which he didn’t know whether he could provide.
This went on for months before his breakthrough came and the Kings agreed to sign Gqoboka on a one-year contract. It was short-lived though as the franchise was thrown into financial turmoil. But again came that unexpected moment — an offer from the Bulls. He signed with the Bulls in 2016, and clearly remembers his first match for this historic team.
“It was against the Stormers in Cape Town and it was an amazing day. It was so special. It felt like a reward for all the sacrifices, and for my family as well who supported me and prayed for me. It was so massive for us to see that what we’d all been working towards and believed in had now happened.
"My career was now taking a direction. I’m just so grateful to everyone who has supported me. My heart is filled with gratitude,” says the father of three boys aged two months, four and 14 who now works tirelessly to help young people in his home village through his own foundation.
Most recently, Gqoboka has battled through injury. But it’s nothing compared with where he’s come from.
“In your worst season there is always something beautiful as well. I was chatting to my wife the other day. It was a beautiful day and then it stormed, and that’s life. On a beautiful summer day there can come rain and lightning. Or a cold winter’s day and the sun is out. You get both.
“It was sad for me to be injured, but my baby was also born in this time. I wouldn’t have had this much time with my family if I wasn’t injured. Things happen for a reason. But if you believe in something and then follow through with hard work, discipline, sacrifice and consistency, anything is possible. And now I’m fit again and good to go.”
When the lights went out in his Durban flat all those years ago, the light of Gqoboka’s rugby dream clearly wasn’t extinguished.
“I am reflecting now. For a guy who worked in that funeral home in high school loading and offloading sand from a truck for R10, to now be playing my 100th game for the Bulls is truly special. I hope it destroys the barriers in the minds of boys and girls in rural areas that the village where you are born is not your limit, it’s your starting point. All things are possible. Just believe.”
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