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Francois Pienaar on seeing Mandela wearing his Springbok rugby jersey: ‘I bit my lip so hard. I wanted to cry.’

December 10th, 2013
03:13 PM ET

By Mick Krever, CNN

When former South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar was getting ready to attend Nelson Mandela’s memorial on Tuesday, his sons – godchildren to Mandela – told him there was only one thing he could wear: His team jacket.

“They said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to wear this,’” Pienaar told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and Anderson Cooper. “Because if it wasn’t for Mister Mandela this emblem” – he pointed to the crest over his breast – “would not have survived.”

In 1995, Pienaar was the white captain of the Springboks, the national rugby team whose base of support had always been white South Africans.

Mandela publicly put his weight behind the team in their World Cup run. They would win that year, and when they did, Mandela – the black president – strode into the stadium full of white supporters wearing Pienaar’s #6 jersey.

The story was the subject of the 2009 movie “Invictus,” starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.

“In the years of apartheid rugby was a hated sport,” Pienaar said. “Mr. Mandela, when he came out of prison, against the wishes of the ANC, actually said to them, ‘These are our boys. You know, they are playing for us. We have to embrace them.’”

Pienaar said he could not “describe in words” the emotions he felt after what happened in South Africa in 1995, with whites and blacks rallying around his rugby team.

Before the championship game, Pienaar said, Mandela unexpectedly came into the Springbok’s changing room.

“He walked in and this on his heart,” he said, motioning to the Springbok emblem. “Unbelievable, incredible emotion. And then he walks out and my number was on his back.”

“I bit my lip so hard. I wanted to cry.”

“I couldn’t sing my national anthem. I knew I would just – I wouldn’t be able to hold it. I was so, so proud.”

After the game, when Mandela strode onto the field and handed over the championship trophy, Pienaar said he fought back the urge to warp his arms around the president and give him a hug.

Mandela thanked him for what he had “done for this country,” he recalled, to which he responded, “‘Mister Mandela, thank you for what you’ve done for this country.’”

Filed under:  Christiane Amanpour • Latest Episode • South Africa
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