When South African rugby captain Siya Kolisi raised the World Cup in victory last year, it was not just a celebration of a ground-breaking achievement for the country but also a declaration of how far this outstanding sportsman had come personally and professionally.
Siya, the first black man ever to captain the Spingboks, grew up in abject poverty in a township outside Port Elizabeth. His mother died when he was 15 and his family struggled to put food on the table, let alone find enough money to pay for his education.
"Sometimes we didn't have enough money to pay my school fees, which were only R50 (US$4) a year," Siya told The Guardian.
However, Siya discovered early on that he had a talent for rugby and he latched on to the sport as his ticket to a better life. True enough, he was scouted from a local competition and won a scholarship to the prestigious Grey High School in Port Elizabeth.
The rest, as they say, is history.
"When I was a kid all I was thinking about was getting my next meal," Siya said following the victory. "There are so many people in South Africa who just need an opportunity – I got my opportunity and I took it with both hands."
Against all predictions, South Africa beat England in the World Cup final, 32-12.
Yet there is another aspect to the captain that has also been drawing attention: the 28-year-old's strong Christian faith.
Speaking to SportGo magazine during the World Cup, Siya explained how he was raised by his grandmother because his parents were too young to take care of him. She was a godly woman who brought her grandson to church every week, giving him a strong religious foundation.
"I grew up going to church but [later] only went on and off for several years," he told SportGo.
"However, God had been preparing me for such a time as this. While I grew up going to church, it wasn't until recently that I truly gave my life to Christ.
"I was struggling with a lot of things personally —_temptations, sins and lifestyle choices — I realized I wasn't living according to what I was calling myself:_a follower of Christ.
"I was getting by, but I hadn't decided to fully commit myself to Jesus Christ and start living according to His way until something I was struggling with in my personal life was exposed to the public. Up to that point, everything I was fighting against was hidden, but when my sin was exposed, I knew I either had to change my life, or lose everything.
"I decided to lose my life and find it in Christ."
Siya was referring to the scandal in which his wife Rachel found risqué pictures of a fitness model on his social media account that were allegedly sent by the model. This led to a messy and very public exposure of his private life and drove him to his knees.
Feeling the Lord calling them back, Siya and Rachel sat down and admitted to each other how much they needed God in their lives. Soon after, they joined a church in Cape Town and, under the guidance of the pastor, the couple reconciled.
"Walking alongside a spiritual mentor I've been able to discover the truth and saving power of Christ in a whole new way. This new life has given me a peace in my heart I'd never experienced before," Siya testifies.
Siya also found strength and comfort from this Bible verse in the book of Isaiah, which he read over and over again: "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour." (Isaiah 43:2-3)
He said, "I told myself that if God could come through for countless people throughout history, He could do the same for me." Now that difficult time has passed and Siya is back on his feet again. He and Rachel have recommitted themselves to each other and today are passionate for Jesus.
The lessons of that tumultuous time have not gone unheeded, though. Knowing how difficult it is to live out his faith in the public eye, Siya said: "The temptations are real.
"At times we all struggle and make mistakes. The best is always to surround yourself with Christians, and there are many in the Springbok team.
"They encourage you, build you up and will always keep you accountable. We have Bible studies as a team and often pray together. I try to read the Bible as much as I can when I'm alone, every single night before going to bed. I love reading devotionals."
As for the much-lauded part he played in the Springboks' World Cup win, Siya said: "I always tell my teammates that our talents are God-given.
"We must always remain humble. It is a great blessing to know that no matter what, nothing can deter God's will – it will always be done.
"I don't have to understand everything in life, and there are so many things I don't," he added, "but I know God is in control of it all. My job is to do the best I can and leave the rest in His hands. Knowing He is in control gives me peace."•