Nelson Mandela's impact

Writers and activists tell stories about their hero and role model

Updated: December 5, 2013, 9:59 PM ET
An ESPN.com collection

Nelson Mandela, who led a revolution against injustice from a prison cell and who overthrew history by turning his back on violence, is dead. He was 95 years old.

Most of us saw him for the last time when South Africa hosted the World Cup in 2010.

Mr. Mandela, an amateur boxer and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, rose from poverty and obscurity to defeat the white minority rule of apartheid and become the president of South Africa. Known now to everyone everywhere, one of the best men of a bad century, he fills four or five shelves of world biography. Read everything and you'll still struggle to understand his impossible courage. Start here.

[+] EnlargeDemonstration
Central Press/Getty ImagesIn England in 1969, protestors marched toward Twickenham Stadium, where the South African rugby team was scheduled to play.

As we've done with only a handful of public figures before him, we think of Mandela not only as a player on some distant global stage, but as a marker of our own personal experience, integral to any reminiscence of who we were and are and how we came to be.

Mandela went to prison for his politics two years before the Beatles played on "Ed Sullivan." He was released from prison the week Madonna shot the video for "Vogue." Locked up, he still convinced two generations of us to march against apartheid. This we did every step of four decades behind Mandela. And Tutu. And Biko.

We spend a lot of time in the sports business making metaphors and symbols out of athletes and their achievements. We build heroes and role models from money and numbers and mud and straw. But Mr. Mandela was the thing itself. We owe him an inexpressible debt.

In partial payment, some thoughts from my colleagues and friends. From Jemele Hill, a warm remembrance of a cold night spent waiting in Johannesburg. From Jackie MacMullan, how Mandela's alchemy turned hate into love.

Rick Reilly on Soweto, hopeless then and rising now. A goodbye from activist and author Richard Lapchick. A photo gallery. Gabriele Marcotti on the founding of the Robben Island prison soccer league, and Johnette Howard on apartheid as a state of mind. Scoop Jackson and Mandela the fighter. Kevin Powell and what "South African" means to "African-American." Bonnie Ford on a long-gone June in Motown, and Wright Thompson on the persistence of memory and hope.

Nelson Mandela Day is July 18.

A decade after Steven Van Zandt's 1985 "Sun City," South Africa hosted and won the Rugby World Cup. Today a new generation of young people know Nelson Mandela mostly as a movie hero. The poem for which that film is named -- and which Mandela recited night after night in prison -- was written by William Ernest Henley.

"Invictus"

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Somehow always ahead of us and behind us urging us on, Nelson Mandela's greatest gifts were his strength and his bravery and his empathy, the depth and the breadth of his understanding. His capacity for change. For growth. And his unwavering faith in the rest of us. He is forever the example he set, the symbol of the light that comes from darkness, of a love that overwhelms hate. If, in the 20th century Mr. Gandhi was our great soul, Mr. Mandela was our inextinguishable spirit.

Nelson Mandela has gone ahead of us. He leads us still.

-- Jeff MacGregor

Waiting for Mandela

I remember being cold. Really, really cold.

My legs were wrapped in a blanket, but my knees still shook. The tips of my fingers were wrinkled and numb. The chill wrapped around my bones like an uncompromising vine.

[+] EnlargeMandela
Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty ImagesNelson Mandela and Graca Machel greet fans before the final of the 2010 soccer World Cup.

Only two things kept me from becoming a human Popsicle that night three years ago in suburban Johannesburg -- the rapid, anxious beating of my heart, and my imagination.

There were so many rumors that day about whether Nelson Mandela would officially stamp South Africa's historic hosting of the 2010 World Cup with an appearance at the final at Soccer City, the 89,000-seat stadium that served as the pulse of the World Cup.

Had Mandela opted not to appear, everyone would have understood. His 13-year-old great-granddaughter had died in a car accident following a World Cup concert before the opening ceremonies, which Mandela understandably chose not to attend.

Selfishly, I wanted to see him. This was the reason I came to South Africa. All I needed was a glimpse of one of the most brilliant men who ever lived. As much as I'd succumbed to the charismatic spell of the country, my trip would have felt incomplete had I not seen Mandela.

There is something surreal and frankly, unnerving, about being in the presence of someone who is an icon – and not in the way Jay-Z is an icon. I fantasized about what it might be like to be in the same room as someone who changed humanity. For the generation that preceded mine, this is what it must have been like to live at the same time as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I'd read several books about South Africa in preparation for my trip. I wanted to understand its history, its flaws, its culture, its maturation, and the connective tissue that binds its beautiful citizens together.

One of the books I read was Mandela's 1994 autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," which covered his 27 years in prison for being a member of the outlawed African National Congress party, and his vigilant fight against oppression and apartheid – racial segregation that was enforced by South African law from 1948 to 1994.

I certainly was familiar with Mandela's inspirational story before I read his autobiography, but understanding Mandela's private thoughts and emotions made my entire experience in South Africa more vivid and powerful. I was seeing the country through his eyes, as well as my own.

So on this cold night in Soccer City stadium, seeing Mandela in person easily became the most priceless moment of my life.

As I process Mandela's death and this time of mourning, I can still summon every emotion I felt and recall every moment as he rode around the sold-out stadium on a golf cart, letting his people know that despite his own personal loss -- during such a celebratory time across the country -- he would always be theirs and always be there for them.

I'm not sure another world leader has ever had a relationship as special and spiritual as the one Mandela shares with the people of South Africa. That's been clear forever, and it certainly was on display that night.

I can still hear their cheers, the annoying buzz of the vuvuzelas and the chants of "Madiba" -- Mandela's clan name.

I still remember standing on numb feet, applauding with a choked throat as Mandela waved to the crowd, and his smile provided an even brighter light in the frigid air. My emotion wasn't that of sadness, but appreciation.

My heart still is full with the knowledge that if it weren't for Mandela's service and actions, we would be missing a prominent example of dignity, compassion and sacrifice.

I also feel guilty for a morbid thought I had that night. Mandela was 91 years old at the time and I couldn't help wondering: How much longer would we be able to see Mandela like this? How much time did we have left with him?

The real answer was that we never had enough time with Mandela. But that doesn't mean he won't always be a part of all of us.

-- Jemele Hill

A divisive symbol unites

Conflict routinely roiled South Africa until Nelson Mandela emerged as the voice of calm. He coaxed reconciliation, embraced forgiveness, refusing to be consumed by bitterness. He was an optimist, even after being imprisoned for 27 years for the "crime" of pushing to bring about social change in his native country.

[+] EnlargeMandela
Jean-Pierre Clatot/AFP/Getty ImagesNelson Mandela made a statement about reconciliation by wearing a Springboks jersey and congratulating captain Francois Pienaar after the team won the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

He knew what moved his people and sought to unite a country paralyzed by deep racial tensions.

Mandela was not an avid rugby fan. In fact, he would confess years later, he wasn't entirely sure of all the rules. But one thing he did know: The rugby team was a polarizing entity, a symptom of what divided his country down to its very core.

The Rugby World Cup had been established in 1987, but South Africa's entry, the Springboks, did not compete in the inaugural competition or in the 1991 Cup because of anti-apartheid boycotts. The team's brilliant green-and-gold jerseys (not to mention its nearly all-white roster) represented everything the black population of South Africa despised.

In 1995, one year after he was named the first black president of South Africa, Mandela attended a Springboks match. As a former amateur boxer, he appreciated the spirit of competition and the camaraderie that developed among teammates, coaches and their fans.

Yet, as Mandela glanced around the stadium, he noticed that most of the patrons where white, while the few black spectators were hemmed into their own, separate area, cheering vociferously against their own country.

This, Mandela knew, had to change. South Africa was the host of the Cup later that year, and he wanted his country to be a harmonious presence on the national sports stage.

Over the months that followed, he met with the Springboks players and their coaches and developed a relationship with them. He worked tirelessly to break down barriers among his black supporters, convincing them the Springboks' motto of "One Team, One Country" could legitimately apply to all of them, not a handful of the elite.

The success of the Springboks galvanized South Africa. And, when they made it to the finals of the World Cup against New Zealand, Nelson Mandela chose that moment to appear in one of the team's trademark jerseys.

In doing so, he stunned both his loyal followers, who were so conditioned to hate the jersey, and his onetime detractors, who had been so conditioned to hate the man now wearing the jersey.

By the time Mandela left the stadium, his South African Springboks 15-12 victors in a major upset, the crowd of more than 60,000, both whites and blacks alike, stood and chanted, in unison: "Nelson, Nelson, Nelson!"

Nelson Mandela died on Thursday after a long illness. He was 95 years old, but lived long enough to see the dream he put into motion on that rugby field 18 years ago: a unified South Africa.

For that his people can thank their beloved agent of calm and reconciliation, who believed in the power of sport -- and the power of forgiveness.

-- Jackie MacMullan

Robben Island soccer

Nearly three years ago, Nelson Mandela, wrapped up against the winter cold, appeared on the pitch in Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium and waved to the 85,000-strong crowd assembled for the World Cup final. This was not a head of state emeritus simply engaging in a sporting ritual. This was the closing of a circle.

Mandela was 92 years old and had been ill. A few weeks earlier, he had buried his great-granddaughter. But once again, he felt he had to be there.

[+] EnlargeRobben Island
Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive/Getty ImagesMany anti-apartheid activists were imprisoned on Robben Island.

Father of the Rainbow Nation, Mandela was about to complete the successful hosting of the biggest event in sports, something that would never have happened without him. That was enough to brave the elements and push his frail body one more time. But there was another reason.

While not being a soccer enthusiast himself, Mandela felt a debt to the game and what it had meant to his comrades in the struggle against apartheid. For 18 years, Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists were imprisoned on Robben Island, a rock five miles and a million orders of magnitude away from the genteel streets of Cape Town, South Africa. As political prisoners, they had little to do but read what little they could get their hands on, let their minds dream and play soccer.

Thus was born the Makana Football Association, in part because one of the few books allowed on Robben Island was the FIFA handbook listing the Laws of the Game. The prisoners formed a league and played against each other. These weren't pickup games; this was proper, bureaucratized sports, with clubs and officials and referees and a commissioner. They kept meticulous records, and they wrote letters to each other to arrange games and kick-off times, even though they might just be in the next cell over. They mimicked normality through sports, both in the joy of playing and in the tedium of record-keeping.

The Makana FA existed on Robben Island for seven years, and everyone involved credits it for so much more beyond a means to blow off steam. It brought together educated intellectuals imprisoned for their beliefs with low-grade street criminals who could not read or write, as well as building a bridge between political activists of rival stripes. It maintained a routine that had nothing to do with physical survival yet had everything to do with mental survival.

Mandela, isolated in his 8-by-7-foot cell, was not allowed to play. Instead, he watched until the warden decided to build a wall outside only his window. And once it went up and he could no longer see, he imagined the players out there.

His people hadn't just built and operated a prison soccer league. They had laid the foundations for what was to come several decades later.

That's why Mandela was there on that cold July night at Soccer City. That's why he felt he owed it to his people and to the game that helped keep the struggle alive on Robben Island.

-- Gabriele Marcotti

Powerful decisions

Nelson Mandela confounded his own supporters at times with some sports stands he took after he was freed from a brutal prison stay that included forced labor and became the first black president in his country's post-apartheid age. Sometimes, the fact that he was yet another world leader who trifled with sports at all was questioned. But Mandela had his reasons. And they go straight to the most powerful but counterintuitive lesson of his extraordinary life.

[+] Enlarge1992 South African Olympic team
AP Photo/Gillian AllenIn 1992, South Africa sent an integrated team to the Olympics. The country was represented by an all-white team in 1960, but had been banned after that over apartheid until '92.

Why, Mandela was asked, did he do an about-face and support sending South Africa's first racially integrated team to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, though just eight of the 95-person delegation were black? And why did he more famously walk onto the field during the 1995 Rugby World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand wearing the Springbok national team's green jersey, knowing that among blacks the traditionally all-white team had been a hated symbol of the country's racial oppression?

Mandela's answer always harked back to this: "As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison."

Sports weren't the only venue where Mandela taught us that apartheid could be a state of mind, not just a system enforced by a regime, and that to truly transcend the damage, both had to change.

But once you know that about him, it's easy to see why he considered himself a lifelong sports fan long after his days as an amateur boxer ended, or why he often said, "Sports has the power to change the world."

Mandela understood sports' power to deliver a message, level societal playing fields, and explode myths of racial superiority/inferiority. One of his most prickly challenges was creating a new South Africa where everyone felt they belonged. He knew the value of sports as a source of pride, an important escape hatch, a ladder out of isolation and deprivation.

Funny as it sounds, other quotes attributed to Mandela over the years -- "A winner is a dreamer who never gives up ... One cannot be prepared for something while secretly believing it will not happen" -- could've just as easily been uttered by Vince Lombardi or John Wooden.

Sports were one of the many areas in South African life where blacks and whites were completely segregated when Mandela walked out of prison on Feb. 11, 1990. The country had been boycotted by a great deal of the world's sports community for decades before he was elected to power in 1994.

But Mandela also knew that sports offer one of those places where integration could be swiftly achieved and held up as concrete proof of what was possible -- both to South Africans and to the rest of the world.

That's why there was inspired genius -- not just symbolism -- behind Mandela's startling decision to walk onto the field wearing the Springbok jersey that day at the world rugby championships.

It represented another prison door flung open without prejudice or bitterness.

The most powerful man in the country -- now a black man -- had just appropriated a potent symbol of white apartness and made it his own, rejecting whatever power it had before. And it was impossible to regard it the same way ever again.

The same is true of South Africa since Mandela.

-- Johnette Howard

Gloves on and off

In college, there were two pictures of Nelson Mandela that I kept with me. To me they told the comprehensive story of who he was, who he was to me.

One was of him as a boxer, the other of him as a fighter.

[+] EnlargeMandela Statue
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Getty ImagesA statue of Nelson Mandela as a boxer stands across the street from his former law office.

Back in the early '80s, when he was still on Robben Island, Mandela became a symbol to a generation of us who were in search for our own Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. The last was of somewhat greater significance to many of us because, through sports, we found liberators and agents of change. Jackie Robinson. Jim Brown. Bill Russell. Curt Flood. John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Arthur Ashe.

Ruben Carter's false imprisonment was less significant in comparison to Mandela's. As was Ali's much shorter stay.

Apartheid was the new slavery gone global. As children of America's civil rights movement who were too young to participate in initiating freedom and equality for our future, my peers and I latched on to the anti-apartheid movement as though the South African laws directly applied to us. With this, Mandela became more than a hero. The ANC was our NAACP and SNCC. It was an organization we fought for without being a part of.

Over the years, Mandela has evolved beyond a sports connection to embody human struggle, sacrifice and the importance of liberties.

We often get stuck thinking of him "doing 27 years in prison" and forget what he did prior to becoming my generation's living "Black Shining Prince." Over the years, the boxing photos in my house were replaced by books treated as bibles ("A Long Walk To Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela"; "Mandela's Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love and Courage" by Richard Stengel; "Nelson Mandela: A Biography" by Martin Meredith; "Conversations With Myself" by Nelson Mandela), speeches, news clips, magazines, Morgan Freeman and Sidney Poitier films, a future wall mural and two T-shirts. One shirt that has his prison number "46664" across the chest, the other with his clan name "Madiba" on the front, hidden in black on a black tee.

His Tao has become the template of man. Of how we should all aspire to live and lead even when/if our personal, cultural or societal circumstances don't reach the depths and heights of his.

I tell people all of the time: I named my son after Ali, but I'm raising him to be Mandela.

Because I've never forgotten that at the center of Mandela's life fight is a fighter. A man who we identified with as a boxer-turned-lawyer-turned-activist-turned-revolutionary. A man who used sports (rugby and more) as his country's own agent of change. Always a leader. For me, those pictures I kept of him reminded me what he once was and who he'd become. They bookended my understanding of what adopting a sport can do if justice is part of one's foundation. The difference between one who boxes and one who fights.

Black sports figures in America once seemed to always find their way to the forefront of the struggle. They symbolized our fight.

By the time I was in college, Mandela faced the tougher fight. Which made him bigger than life. Especially mine.

-- Scoop Jackson

Changing lives a world away

I had never heard of Nelson Mandela, of South Africa, of apartheid, until I was an 18-year-old college freshman at Rutgers University in the mid-1980s. At that time I had no interest in politics, in community, and "democracy" was a very strange and elusive word to me, something we had been taught in American schools, but which felt like it belonged to the people in our textbooks, forever frozen in history. But there was something happening at Rutgers, and on campuses everywhere, called "the anti-apartheid movement," which was bringing together students of different races and cultures, in a way our country had not seen, I read and was told, since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

[+] EnlargeDivestment Protest
AP Photo/Craig HoutzLike these Penn State students in 1987, people enrolled at many U.S. colleges asked their schools to sell stocks in companies that still did business in South Africa.

Except this time the struggle for freedom was in a foreign land, a magical but terribly oppressive and violent place called South Africa, where the white minority had been ruling the black, "colored" and Indian majorities for many decades. And there was a leader, locked away with others in prison cells, in locales with names like Robben Island, for daring to oppose the white power structure of South Africa. I was both transformed and liberated as I learned about this man Mandela, as I joined the student protest and building takeover at my school directly challenging Rutgers' ties to corporations invested in the apartheid regime. I absorbed everything I could on Mandela, his speeches, his life story, the facts and mythologies. I was changed forever. Gone was the desire for a career merely to make money, replaced by a determination to live a life of service to others.

Mandela's influence on me lapsed between the time of my school's protests and my early 20-something life. But it was reignited when I watched the global broadcast when he was released, after 27 long years, on Feb. 11, 1990, and walked hand in hand with his then-wife Winnie Mandela from Victor Verster Prison. Iconic and transformational leaders like Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were long gone. In Mandela we had a living and breathing example not simply of struggles for freedom and democracy, but also of someone who was willing and able to be a bridge-builder for humanity, like Gandhi, like Jesus Christ.

But let's also be clear: While Mandela is today widely viewed as a man of peace, he did advocate for self-defense and armed resistance against the brutal apartheid regime when he was first sent to jail in the early 1960s, and again in his first speech after walking away from that prison. Mandela was clear, just as America's founding fathers were, that freedom was not free.

Regardless, what captured my imagination and what will be one of Mandela's enduring gifts to humanity was his bottomless capacity to forgive his white oppressors and his openness to working with them for a new South Africa. Nothing in my lifetime prepared me for this post-prison Mandela. Nothing. The absence of bitterness from Mandela's words and demeanor was extraordinary to me, given that he lost 27 years of his life to prison.

In my still very young American and African-American mind of the 1990s this was the true revolution for humankind, to see each other as sisters and brothers, to be able to have honest conversations about the past, by way of South Africa's truth and reconciliation commission, so that there could be healing, yes, and an opportunity to move forward as one people.

This Mandela impacted my work greatly, and I went from being someone focused mostly on race issues to an activist and speaker who began, however difficultly, to embrace the lives and challenges of people everywhere no matter their race, gender, class, religion, ability or sexual orientation. In Mandela I saw a living and breathing example of what was possible, as a human being, as a man, as a leader, if only we could dig deeper into the reservoir of our spirits and find the capacity to love each other, to know each other, to get along with each other.

Sports was certainly central to Mandela's life. In his childhood he loved to run. Some of my favorite photos of him are the ones of Mandela in workout gear with boxing gloves on. While in prison he was held in isolation for much of his time. The famous stories are of Mandela watching the Robben Island soccer league, or hearing the retellings after a wall was built in front of his window.

Mandela would see sports as a way to unify South Africa into the "Rainbow Nation" his fellow South African freedom fighter Desmond Tutu called for once he was freed and eventually became South Africa's first black president of the post-apartheid era.

The 1995 Rugby World Cup, the 1996 African Cup of Nations in soccer, the 2003 Cricket World Cup and then the big one, the 2010 FIFA World Cup, were all played on South African soil. Those sporting events advanced the idea that if people could play and root together, then maybe, just maybe, people would acknowledge the evil of separating and dissing each other because of skin color.

Nelson Mandela is gone now, and I think about my own work here in America, of our first black president, Barack Obama, of how much race relations have changed in my nation because of sports just as sports dynamics affected Mandela's South Africa. But I also think about the ugly divides that still exist in my America, on our planet, of the still unequal and very violent South Africa that Mandela leaves behind. So much progress and yet so much more work to be done.

Finally, with profound sadness, we say goodbye to you, Mr. Nelson Mandela. I know the best way to honor you, Madiba, in your death, is for all of us to make a renewed commitment to come together, even where there are differences, for the sake of humanity. And if we can simply embody a fraction of the capacity for love, grace and unity that you possessed for nearly a century on this Earth, then our lives will be as victorious as yours.

-- Kevin Powell is an activist, public speaker, and author or editor of 11 books, including "Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and The Ghost of Dr. King: Blogs and Essays." He is also the president of BK Nation, a new national and multicultural organization focused on civic engagement, leadership training, and volunteerism. Email him at kevin@kevinpowell.net or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell

The roar of 'Motortown'

I was working rewrite on the Detroit News city desk on the night in June 1990 when Nelson Mandela electrified a full house at Tiger Stadium a few months after his release from prison. I'll never forget the whole-body shiver I felt when he read four lines from Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," saying they were "a reflection of the South African condition":

Mother, mother
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying

Charmingly, he reversed the order of the lyrics and referred to the hometown record label as "Motortown." The crowd roared mightily, pleased at the reference.

[+] EnlargeNelson Mandela, Rosa Parks
AP Photo/David LongstreathFederal Judge Damon J. Keith, left, and Rosa Parks, second from right, greeted Nelson and Winnie Mandela in 1990 when they arrived in Detroit.

I didn't dwell on the significance of the venue. It was the only place in the city that could have held an event on that scale at the time. Looking back on it now, the fact that he spoke at the grand old stadium -- a place that at least fleetingly brought joy to a racially torn city when its baseball team won the 1968 World Series -- was so very fitting.

A heavyweight boxer in his youth, Mandela was a fitness devotee and a lifelong, avid sports fan, including the 27 years of his incarceration, much of it at Robben Island.

"Prisoners from the general section painted the cement surface green and then fashioned the traditional configuration of white lines," he wrote in his autobiography, "The Long Walk to Freedom." "A few days later, a net was put up, and suddenly we had our own Wimbledon in our front yard. I pursued the sport for exercise, not style … I was a backcourt player, only rushing the net when I had a clean slam."

Mandela admired the sublime capabilities of elite athletes, and because of that passion, he understood the power of sports to call attention to a greater cause. He skipped his own presidential inauguration parties in 1994 and went to a soccer match instead, telling author and researcher Richard Lapchick he knew the country's athletes had suffered because of the international sporting boycotts that in turn accelerated political change.

Sporting icons Mandela welcomed into his life included Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe, but his embrace was color-blind. When South African swimmer Penny Heyns set a world record in the 100-meter breaststroke in 1996, he invited her to a private tea. When she won the nation's first Olympic gold medal in 44 years, he sent her a message saying, "You have done our country proud. You are our golden girl."

Heyns competed at the Atlanta Games with a Springbok tattooed on her left shoulder. That didn't lessen Mandela's pride. The profile of a leaping gazelle had long been synonymous with an oppressively racist regime, but Mandela had already converted it for good by giving South Africa's rugby team his blessing to keep it. Sport transcended mere symbolism in Mandela's life. In return, he recognized that an old symbol could come to represent a nation's new soul.

-- Bonnie Ford

Remembering: 'This is the field'

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Two years before the 2010 soccer World Cup, during a time of great hope, an old man walked down to the Cape Town harbor. Boats rocked in their moorings. The brine of the Atlantic filled the air.

"The sea smell reminds me of prison," Sedick Isaacs said, climbing on board a ferry for the short ride to Robben Island. He wore studious glasses and shirt sleeves. The camera-pointing tourists didn't look at him twice. None of them knew he spent 13 years on the island, jailed with his fellow freedom fighter Nelson Mandela.

Isaacs didn't say much on the ride over. He went back into his mind.

[+] Enlarge Sedick Isaacs
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty ImagesFormer Robben Island prisoners Lizo Sitoto, left, Mark Shinners, third from left, Sedick Isaacs, third from right, and Ahmed Kathrada, right, hold a ball autographed by former South African President Nelson Mandela.

The ferry docked next to the same rusting blue boat that brought him here for the first time. He could still remember his last view of Cape Town, of the newspaper headlines announcing his fate, like he was reading his own obituary.

The tourists lined up to exit. A haze floated between them and the flat-topped Table Mountain and the cranes finishing the waterfront soccer stadium. With his hands behind his back, Isaacs walked upright onto Robben Island. Tourists followed the guides, winding toward Mandela's famous cell.

Isaacs slipped off in a different direction.

The path took him to the backside of the island, facing away from the city, up and to the left from the stone quarries where the sun permanently damaged Mandela's eyes. On a large rocky patch of land, rusting rugby pipes rose into the blue sky. The driftwood goals long ago fell down.

"This is the field," he said.

Isaacs helped organize the first soccer league on Robben Island. They played on Saturday. Three matches in the morning. Two in the afternoon. Mandela couldn't leave his cell to join the games, but he and the other isolated prisoners followed the action through secret communications and even managed to watch some of the games. Prison guards saw the danger in sports, the way they breathed hope into a place designed to destroy it. Hope was the only thing Mandela and his comrades had left. Hope could change South Africa. The guards built a wall so Mandela couldn't see the matches.

The prisoners organized six teams: the Gunners, the Vultures, the Lice, the Bush Bugs, the Dynamos, the Stars. Isaacs belonged to the Gunners. He wasn't good, but he loved to play, to run, to control the way the ball left his foot.

"It made us exist," he said.

On Sunday at church, the best storytellers recreated the games in great detail for those who couldn't watch. "It was all a big discussion," Isaacs said. "By Wednesday, it petered out, and by Thursday, the forthcoming matches were talked about. They carried us from week to week and month to month."

He left the field and headed toward a place of despair. From memory, he walked to a long, narrow room, the first door on the right. The walls were white and gray. The locks had been removed. He fell quiet, going further into his memory.

"I stayed in this cell," he said.

Isaacs left part of himself on the island. Footsteps echoed in the old prison blocks. He heard different things. A close friend of his died in the hall outside. His friend came back to him now, until Isaacs had remembered enough for one day.

He caught up with the group, who crowded near the heavy rocks on the coast. Couples posed for pictures around him. Isaacs crossed his arms and looked at the mountain and the cranes. Waves broke over the boulders, white foam spraying into the air. Five years from now, he and Mandela would both be dead, mourned by the shrinking brotherhood of men who lived the horror of Robben Island and by those for whom the place exists only in a distant, hazy past.

"It's like a bad dream," Isaacs said, staring across the water at a world he helped change, breathing in the salt air that always reminded him of prison.

-- Wright Thompson

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.