South African rugby legend Joost van der Westhuizen died on Monday, losing his battle to ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
A statement from the J9 Foundation, a charity set up by the 1995 World Cup winner after he’d been diagnosed with ALS, confirmed that he died in his home surrounded by loved ones.
ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, attacks nerve cells forcing the muscles that these nerves control to weaken and wither away. Sufferers of the disease see their ability to walk, speak, swallow and breathe significantly worsen.
It is no secret that he was one of the greatest South African rugby players of all time. Mark Alexander, South Africa Rugby president, believes van der Westhuizen will be remembered as one of the greatest Springboks of all time.
“He also became an inspiration and hero to many fellow sufferers of this terrible disease, as well as to those unaffected,” said Alexander in a statement. “We all marveled at his bravery, his fortitude and his uncomplaining acceptance of this terrible burden.”
A father of two, van der Westhuizen played scrumhalf for the Springboks. He helped his nation to their first World Cup trophy in 1995 when the tournament itself took place in South Africa. Despite breaking a rib in the semi-final, van der Westhuizen played in the final match against New Zealand and was crucial in helping his nation to a 15-12 extra time victory. It was an incredible feat and meant so much for a country that had just ended Apartheid.
Van der Westhuizen and the Springbok’s victory in the 1995 World Cup was the inspiration behind the 2009 American film “Invictus.”
Between 1993 and 2003 van der Westhuizen scored 38 tries in a total 89 appearances for the Springboks. In 2015 he was honored for his time with the Springboks when he was inducted into the rugby Hall of Fame.
There will be a public memorial service held for the Springboks legend on Friday at Loftus Versveld Stadium in his home city of Pretoria.