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The Michael Jordan of Rugby Just Died

All Blacks superstar Jonah Lomu died Wednesday morning from kidney problems. He was 40.

by Julian Morgans
Nov 18 2015, 6:20pm

Lomu teaching kids the haka. Image via Flickr

Arguably one of the greatest rugby union players of all time has died at the age of 40. All Blacks superstar Jonah Lomu died Wednesday morning at his home in Auckland, New Zealand. He'd been battling a rare disease known as nephroticsyndrome since he was 20.

Jonah Lomu's life played out like something written in Hollywood. He grew up in a poor part of Auckland called Mangere, but his rare combination of size and speed made him an artist. Still in high school he played with the national under-19s in 1993, before becoming the youngest-ever test player with the All Blacks at the Hong Kong National Sevens tournament in 1994. What came next has become rugby folklore.

In 1995, just one year after graduating from sevens, Lomu was selected to play at the World Cup in South Africa. He'd barely scraped in, having failed a fitness test at a training camp earlier that season. But then in his first match against Ireland he shocked the naysayers by scoring two tries in a 43–19 win. This performance was followed by another five tries over four subsequent games, culminating in his famed moment against England at the Cape Town semi-final.

Jonah Lomu consisted of around 120 kilograms [265 pounds] of muscle stacked in a six-foot-five frame. He could run 100 meters in under 11 seconds, which made confronting him a bit like tackling a bus. This was made clear when he ran over England fullback Mike Catt.

Suddenly Lomu was rich and famous. He was asked for opinions and endorsements and met his future wife at a Johannesburg barbecue. To most observers it looked like just the beginning, but actually, and for many purists, he was half done. Lomu's health complaints were to compress his triumphs into two blindingly fast seasons—the 1995 and 1999 world cups.

In another world Lomu never got sick and continued to play at this level, but in this one he began to lose sensation in his legs. Towards the end of 1995, he visited a doctor who informed him that his symptoms—weight gain, dizziness, frothy urine—were the hallmarks of the illness that would eventually leave him paraplegic unless he had a kidney transplant. He was 21.

He married his girlfriend, Tanya Rutter, and attempted to curb his vast appetite for junk food. He focused on getting well but an injury pulled him from the game, and his absence continued through to 1997. The following two years were comparatively quiet for Lomu, who played poorly and featured only with the All Blacks off the bench in domestic games.

This changed at the 1999 World Cup in Wales. This was renaissance Lomu and he achieved eight tries from his six appearances and played with the sort of strength and finesse that attracted attention from the American NFL. Australia won the cup that year, but for a few weeks it looked like this Tongan kid from Mangere would move to the States. This didn't happen but Lomu finished the season having scored nearly a quarter of his total tries.

Looking back now it seems the best was over. Lomu's health deteriorated over the next years and in 2003 he dropped out of the Super 12 early. In an article published by Fox Sports he conceded that by this point he could barely walk.

"The darkest moment was when I fell over for the first time," he said. "I had no clue why it happened. By the time of the 2003 World Cup, I needed my wife to help me walk. I would take three steps and fall over, or I could walk for ten minutes and then just fall over out of the blue. It just gave out when it wanted. I was basically numb from the knees down."

In mid 2004 Lomu underwent a kidney transplant. This happened under some secrecy but it later emerged that New Zealand radio presenter Grant Kereama was the donor. Kereama admitted he was angry his identity had been leaked, telling Scoop that "I don't think it is for others to judge or comment on. I had two kidneys and I am in great health. Jonah was not well and was in need of one. It was very simple for me."

Lomu retired in 2007; having scored 37 tries for New Zealand and sharing a World Cup try-scoring record of 15. He was inducted in the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2011.

Lomu's peak now seems tragically short, but it was also this brevity that made him a god. He came from nowhere and through a debilitating illness played some of the best rugby around, but it was also the way that he grew that made him so admirable. In 1995 he was barely out of adolescence and spoke in monosyllables that sometimes received subtitles. But by the end he was an ambassador for charities, a public speaker, and a mentor for kids who'd similarly come from nowhere. As Auckland Mayor Len Brown said on Tuesday, "Jonah was one of Auckland's greatest sons. He was an icon who New Zealanders from every walk of life respected. Our thoughts today are first and foremost with Jonah Lomu's family at their time of loss."

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