By Zaheer Clarke
Published July 3, 2017
Oftentimes, your love for sports can make the difficult moments in your life a little easier. For several individuals battling cancer, it’s this love and the love from their family that transform them into superheroes.
Last week, the entire Jamaican football fraternity paid respects to a man, Captain Horace Burrell, whose dream united a people and made a nation proud. In 1994, Burrell marched into the presidency of the Jamaica Football Federation. His immediate dream at the time was for Jamaica to attain qualification for the 1998 World Cup in France by 1997. It was a daunting task to be achieved in three years, but it was a task that required an enchanting and stomping leader, and that he was.
The Captain, with Rene Simoes at his hip, transformed Jamaica’s outlook on its place in world football with steely performances in match after match ‘at the office’ and overseas. Surprisingly for many outside of Jamaica, Jamaica qualified for the 1998 World Cup and went on to finish 22nd out of the 32 teams that participated. Amazingly, Jamaica finished ahead of teams like the USA, Cameroon, South Africa, Scotland and others. Many will forget that in 1994, Jamaica was ranked as low as 75th in the world by FIFA. However, it was under Burrell’s tenure that Jamaica rose to its highest ranking of 27th in 1998.
The influence of the Captain on Jamaica’s football was like Santiago Bernabeu’s own influence on Real Madrid Football Club. Real Madrid was once a fledgeling club in Spain, with the big clubs – Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao – dominating proceedings. Bernabeu had a dream of Real Madrid one day rivalling the big clubs in Spain and Europe. He first started off with building the largest stadium in all of Europe. He and Real Madrid were mocked bitterly, with many at the time declaring that it was “too much of a stadium for so little a club”.
Today, the club has gone on to win the most Champions League titles in Europe. And the stadium, which bears his name, the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, is the perennial home of Real Madrid Football Club and the Spanish national football team.
In a similar manner, something significant, which will be mentioned each time Jamaica steps out to play, must be named in Captain Horace Burrell’s honour. Burrell took a small English-speaking Caribbean country to a World Cup tournament, which many had said was ‘too big a tournament for such a small country like Jamaica’ back in 1994.
Burrell’s contribution to local football and the national program warrants such recognition and not just a passing breath at his funeral service. His impact and legacy on Jamaica football must never be forgotten or diminished. When several corporations looked away from Jamaica’s football and its viability, Burrell, through his own business, Captain’s Bakery, pumped money and resources into the parish and local football programs to ensure their feasibility and continuity.
Unfortunately, last month, Burrell died of cancer. I recall during the Copa America tournament last year when he was ill and I heard of the magnitude of his illness, I too was sombre as to the direction of Jamaica’s football program after Burrell. He gloriously returned for the final game of the tournament after receiving treatment, even though Jamaica were mathematically out of the tournament. It was a sign of defiance in my eyes. It was a sign of him wanting to be there for his boys – the Reggae Boyz – as always, despite his illness.
A good friend of mine from Trinidad, Marsha, who is a perennial supporter of West Indies cricket, was diagnosed with cancer last year. When healthy, Marsha can be found near the Trini Posse stands at the Queens Park Oval, cheering on West Indies through thick and often thin.
Unfortunately, in order to save her life and try to beat cancer, she had to do surgery, several rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It was a difficult time for her and her family. However, win, lose or draw; sick, well, or maim; you couldn’t get her away from her West Indies’ team. When the West Indies won three global titles last year, with the under-19 boys winning the ODI World Cup and the senior men’s and women’s teams winning the T20 World Cup, no amount of carcinogenic pain could damper Marsha’s joy, even when lying on a hospital bed or on her own bed at home.
Novlene Williams-Mills, a four-time Olympic medallist and a six-time World Championship medallist, was diagnosed with cancer in 2012. She won the national 400m title in 2012 and 2013 and anchored Jamaica’s 4 x 400m team to gold at the 2015 World Championships. Just recently, she posed nude for ESPN’s Body magazine similar to other popular athletes with surnames Williams: Serena and Venus. However, Williams-Mills has the supreme distinction of being the first breast cancer survivor to pose for the ESPN Body Issue. Battling cancer is never easy and the scars, both mental and physical, after and during the cancer fight can be debilitating. Oftentimes, sports and your love for it can make the difficult moments easier.
‘Some experiences, when you get to the other side, you get back to the person you want to be. You look in the mirror and you see all these scars. This is a body that you’re used to so much and then one day you have all these scars on your body,’ Williams-Mills remarked.
‘And, you know, that’s your story. I had to be like, “This is who I am now. These are the scars that make me up.”
“Cancer just wants to take control of everything. It didn’t ask permission.”
– Novlene Williams-Mills
‘Before cancer, I would think, “OK, to make me a lady, you have to have your breasts. You have to have this, you have to have that,’” Williams-Mills said. ‘Now I realise that what makes me a lady is this strong person that I look at every single day in the mirror.
‘It’s the courage; it’s the strength; it’s the fighter that I have in me that when I wake up every single day, I live to fight another day.’
My friend Victoria, affectionately called Vickie found out last year she had cancer. Just last week she had surgery, this after doing extensive chemotherapy and radiotheraphy over the past year to become cancer-free.
Today, I want to salute all those who valiantly fight cancer and love sports. You guys are the true superstars and heroes. The famous basketball coach Jimmy Valvano, who too battled cancer, once said, “Don’t Give Up, Don’t Ever Give Up.”
Please watch Jimmy Valvano’s Inspiring Speech on Cancer – 1993 ESPY Awards
(click on video below)
Keep fighting my friends…
Zaheer E. Clarke is an award-winning opinion journalist, blogger and author of the award-winning blog, Zaheer’s Facts, Lies and Statistics.
This blog article was republished in the Western Mirror on July 3, 2017.