I was surprised by how affected I was hearing the news of Jonah Lomu’s death. Sitting on a bus of tourists set to explore the preserved movie set of Hobbiton in New Zealand’s Waikato, I was the only Kiwi on board when it was announced on the PA.
In a group of 30 or so Americans, Aussies, Filipinos, Brits, Indians and Chinese, I was the sole New Zealander as the driver welcomed everyone aboard, asking where we were from. She mentioned how sad it was Jonah Lomu had died. Everyone reacted, everyone seemed to know who he was. But nobody else was a Kiwi and the feeling was strange.
Back on the radio the next night I took calls from listeners about what Jonah meant to them and what stories they had of him. What came through the most for me was that alongside the barnstorming tries – 37 for the All Blacks in total – was that Jonah’s was a story of transformation and possibility.
That it is possible to transform from being a poor Tongan lad growing up in South Auckland to being the most famous rugby player in history. That it’s possible to transform from an uncertain international sporting debut to demolishing the best players in the world. That it’s possible to transform from heartbreak to finding lasting love. That it’s possible to transform from being a nervous public speaker to being articulate and inspirational. That it’s possible to transform from an abusive childhood to forgiving your father and becoming a loving father yourself.
Jonah Lomu was so famous he once had a CD made of his favourite songs and a McDonald’s burger marketed using his name and image. And even though he only lived 40 short years on this planet, he dominated rugby the way Muhammed Ali dominated heavyweight boxing.
I can’t think of too many Kiwis who would get tributes as far ranging as from the Queen, David Beckham, Fleetwood Mac and Elton John, but not too many of us are like Jonah Lomu. Here’s Elton from his Wellington concert on Saturday night where he dedicated the always gospel-feeling Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me to the big man.
Elton spoke first of his appreciation for New Zealand’s Black Caps cricket team before “paying tribute to one of the greatest athletes of all time.” Elton said Jonah was “beloved around the world,” calling him a “superstar” who deserved the term when others do not. It was beautiful and deserved – here it is: