Unbreakable: Johan Muller (The Full Story)

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Coach Logic

By Yolulwe Qoshe

T: @Prince_Yyoza

I.G: @Prince_Yyoza

FB: Yolulwe “Prince Yyoza” Qoshe

Johan Muller: “Had he not asked my brother, I would’ve lost my leg”.

Statistically speaking, how many times can the average human being get back up, after every fall? What is the figure attached to the people who have risen after every set back? At what point does your body begin to tell you that “enough is enough” but perhaps, more importantly at what point do you, as the individual begin to listen? Now there are people who are best placed to give us an answer based on their personal experiences. Experiences of seeing those dark days diminish any signs of light, and with the disappearing of the light, so comes the disappearance of hope. We might not know what the percentage of the people who have given in to hardships is, but one thing we do know for sure is…Johan Muller would not form part of that statistic anyway.

About 11 pictures into Muller’s Instagram account, you see a picture of him diving over for a try in the famous white and red jersey of the prestigious Affies first team rugby side. Now the picture its self makes for compelling viewing but, when you take a closer look at the post, you’ll find something potentially more significant. “A rose that grew from concrete” reads the caption. Now if you don’t know the background story to it, you may probably think it’s just a cool inspirational quote, but perhaps the use of the word “concrete” would give you a bit of context. The feeling of scoring a try is synonymous with that of joy and accomplishment. Now when you learn just how much it took for Muller to even be in a position to have that picture taken, you will learn that, “concrete” doesn’t even begin to describe how hard the journey has been. So let the story begin.

At four-years old, Muller was already competing with boys twice his age, as his promising ability with oval in hand, was already starting to shine through. But unfortunately one of the people who were a part of Muller’s early support system and would’ve been tasked with guiding that early promise, his father, sadly passed away in rather tragic circumstances, suffering from a heart attack in 2011, with Johan only nine-years old. “At the beginning I didn’t understand it, my mother was out somewhere, when she came back, I was asleep before she woke my brother and I to tell us and the day after it kicked in” Johan says as he begins to recall a day he would probably rather forget.  But for his mother, it was all surreal from the very start as the realities had already set on her. “Losing a husband and a father to two young boys will always be difficult and it was a very terrible and a very hard time in our lives” Mrs Muller recalls.

She still has vivid images in her head, of a young Johan, walking hand in hand with his father with the destination insight, being an awakening of a whole new world, one Johan would grow up and call rugby. “But the memories I have of Johan playing rugby with his dad from a very very young age is a fond memory and also the times we visited Loftus dressed all in Blue Bulls clothes”. Johan himself admits how big an impact his father and those trips to Loftus impacted him and his love for rugby. “He was a huge influence in me playing rugby” he said, before letting us in on a childhood secret “I have never really told anybody about it, but when I was born, my dad put a rugby ball on my chest so yeah, he always wanted me to play rugby. But my mother and I both always believed that even if I wasn’t a rugby player, I was always destined to become something big, that’s what kept on motivating me even when I was injured, I always had this thing in me, and I can’t describe it”.

It was almost impossible for Johan to not be a Bulls fan. Born in Pretoria, and with his father, who was a lawyer by profession having his offices right next to Loftus, and literally down the road from Affies, it seemed like his destiny had been around him from day one. If that wasn’t enough, his mother was a real estate agent whose top profile clients included the likes of a 19 year-old Victor Matfield, when he first arrived in the area, but it didn’t stop there.

 On some weekdays his mother would even take him to the Loftus B field to kick with Derrick Hougaard. “Every single weekend we went to Loftus to watch the Bulls play (giggles), then at some point my mother would even stop going with, it would just be myself and my little brother and we would braai afterwards. I would be there with Johan Mulder and we would play against each other on the field and I would pretend I am Bryan Habana” he reminisced fondly. 

But unfortunately for Mrs Muller, the realities of being a single mother, began to heighten. The situation eventually prompted the family to move to Johannesburg where they knew nobody. Mrs Muller had only previously been a part-time real estate agent, but suddenly the dire straits of this situation, demanded that she finds two jobs all of a sudden, just to keep the family afloat. So just like that, no more comforts of home in Pretoria, no more regular sights of Loftus to keep him dreaming with his eyes open, and so it all vanished with the influence of the Bulls players in the process and his whole life had practically changed.  

“Moving to Johannesburg was very hard for Johan, he was very insecure and he didn’t have any friends here”. Mrs Muller thinks back. “We had to leave everything that we knew and everything that my two boys knew behind in Pretoria and we had to come to Johannesburg and make a new living all over”. She recalls how much it took out of them to finally settle. “It was very tough and then starting all over again will always be difficult but the one thing that stood out for me from Johan was that he was in a new school but the first thing he did was make friends with the rugby kids. He was only in grade one but was already playing with the u9 kids”.

As Mrs Muller had alluded, Johan would eventually find home at Fairland Primary in Johannesburg and he admits it was a far from smooth sailing transition. “When I got there, I had to start right at the bottom again, I had to build myself all over again, and I played everything! Rugby, cricket, tennis and athletics”. He recalls. It all felt like a forced attempt at a transition until a Good Samaritan came along. “The person who helped me a lot was Mr Le Roux who was very supportive on and off the field, I eventually made friends through sport.

It seemed like everything a young Johan needed to make him happy, was right there. Nothing could threaten to ruin that right? Well yes, except for an amputation threatening condition. “It’s quite a weird story, I just woke up one day and my knee was totally swollen, and I couldn’t even bend it. My mother then took me to our GP, he told me it was just an infection and it would go away after we put some ice on it”. But Boy, would Johan have wished that was all it was, but this “infection” was not going away at all. “Then after like three days, I could hardly walk but my mom sent me to school to see if I could continue as normal. The doctor dropped his son who is the same age as my little brother at pre-school, and he asked my brother about me”.

That right there, in simplified form, was probably a life changing question there. “He told him I still couldn’t walk. That’s when he called my mother and demanded I leave school immediately because I have a huge problem, so if he didn’t ask my brother about my knee that morning, then I don’t know, because when we got there he sent us straight to the specialist, so when they did the scans they found out it was Septic Arthritis”.

Muller then recalls he was told there was a 96% chance of him losing his leg and prompting an emergency operation on that same night. “So had our GP not asked my brother that morning, I probably would’ve lost my leg”. He goes on to make a startling joining of the dots. For Mrs Muller, the day still feels like it was just yesterday, and speaking about it audibly made it surreal all over again. “I can still remember the day when the doctor told me that there was a 90% chance of losing his leg, I was devastated! And my little boy was looking at me with his questions in his eyes, “what now?” and all I could do was just ask the doctor. “Please, you need to do what you have to do and I trust that my son will be okay, it was a very difficult time, and it was really a blessing that his leg was saved and it was wonderful to watch my little boy playing in the sport he loves so much” she said.

Muller would go on to miss the rest of that season but he remembers that, the first thing he did upon receiving the greenlight after months on the sidelines, was, of course, buy a rugby ball and run around the park with his brother. But soon, he would be running riot in official school matches, undeterred by the prospects of having to start from the bottom.

“I started off in the C-team for one game before promotion to the B-side” he recalls, where a two-try performance caught the eye of A-team coach Mr Le Roux who was taking notes. “He (Le Roux) taught me almost everything I know about rugby, and I still use all of that today, he was also another huge influence on my life. After that performance I was promoted to the A-side, where I played under him till I was in grade 7” and Muller never looked back from there.

Muller finding his feet in general school life and making friends, coincided with a happy Muller, in turn making his school mates and coaches happy on the rugby field, as at the back end of an impressive u12 season, he received selection to the Lions u12 Craven Week side. Muller recalls his mentality at the time. “I remember before they even picked the team I always practiced like I wanted to make the squad. When you are in grade five, you’re obviously very small but I still wanted to make that team, I remember they tested you on how many push-ups you can do in a minute and even then, I always had this competitiveness in me, so making the team was nice. Guys who played in those u12 and u13 sides are literally still playing even now”.

And with that champion mentality, it was no surprise when Muller graduated to the u13 Lions Craven Week side the next year, and he recalls its’s significance to him, as well as an encounter with a current teammate, that could prove nostalgic as soon as they link up again. “It was quite weird because we were playing against the Griquas, and Sonwabo Sokoyi who was at Grey College, was playing for that team, and we great friends now, yet we didn’t even know each other back then. But it was a huge moment for me, as a small guy, it was very nice, I loved the Craven Week, and it was a really awesome experience”.

Muller, playing in Sokoyi for a late Currie Cup winner in a few years time? Can you see it? Well one thing that wasn’t as easy to see, is the same Johan, who was just hours away from losing his leg just a few years ago, playing at two Craven Weeks, and even getting man of the match awards. The same Johan, who may have had no choice but to quit the sport, was all of a sudden in so much demand, that he could literally name the high school he wanted to continue his rugby development at.

 In the end, it was a move back to Pretoria, to a school that had practically always been at close proximity to him. It all sparked the first step of a life 360, when Johan chose to pursue a scholarship at Affies, but he admits it could’ve all been so different had he followed through with his initial decision. “Initially I wouldn’t have gone to Affies, I got scholarships from quite a lot of schools in Joburg like Monument, KES, Helpmakaar. I got a scholarship to Glenwood as well, like I actually went down to Glenwood at the beginning of grade 7 to see what the school was like, but I had to choose between KES and Monument because I couldn’t leave my mother alone, Glenwood wasn’t really an option for me” he reveals.

At that point, Johan’s choice of school was sealed, and all the relevant parties seemed to be in agreement. “At the end of the day, I chose Monnas because most of my friends were going there, guys I played rugby with even up to Craven Week level at primary school. I even went to a Monnas school camp at the end of my grade seven year but by the time I got to that camp, I actually knew I was going Affies”.

But why the sudden change of heart, what could possible undo a done deal? Muller reveals the mysterious Sunday afternoon that led to a sharp u-turn. “I was watching news and just the previous day it was the Paarl Interschools, it was Paarl Boys vs Paarl Gim and I sat watching that game, right after my grade seven year. I remember Boy’s High won, and I thought to myself “maybe I should go to Affies” then the next highlights were Affies vs Grey College and Affies won, then I thought to myself “nah, I’m going to Affies”, so as soon as my mother got home I told her that I want to go Affies”.

That decision came just in time, as he reveals that he was given a deadline. “Maneer (Jan) Grabie spoke to me after Craven Week about going to Affies, but at that stage I obviously wasn’t keen and just wanted to attend Monnas with my friends. We took that Sunday as a sign, as Mnr Grabie had already given me a Monday deadline to give a definite answer. So it was really a last minute decision that came from me watching the Paarl Boys vs Paarl Gim game (Laughs), even though when I was younger my dad took me to Affies games, but that wasn’t a big influence” he admits.

You would then think, a fairytale return back to his hometown would coincide with a smooth transition for Muller, but instead, it was Fairland Primary all over again and in their eyes, he had now become a “Joburg guy”. “It was really tough getting there, coming out of primary school. Obviously you good in rugby and you’re a big guy there in Joburg, but going to Affies you’re the smallest there, you don’t know the guys from different regions and they had this mentality that “all Joburg guys are soft”.

Muller admits that the situation had got so bad at one point, it even reduced him to tears. But it would be one of the biggest and toughest senior blokes at the school, who would surprisingly offer a comforting arm around the shoulder, in the form of two time Blue Bulls Craven Week player and SA Schools A captain Louritz Van der Schyff. “He was this huge guy, I remember I cried in front of him and the second day, I was so scared and he was there to comfort me, and tell me everything is going to be okay, now we’re going to be at the same union which is quite weird (laughs) but I’ve got a good relationship with him, we still practice and gym together in Pretoria” Said Muller.

Eventually he would see better days, as the tears dried up, his prospects began to look brighter at Affies and he not only made the A team for rugby, but cricket as well. He admits though that, while he watched as others gained a few genetic advantages over him, he had to work extra hard just to still be able to compete. “It was quite tough, because the thing is, between grade seven and eight a lot of guys get these growth spurts, where they get fast and get big, and I never had that”.

He recalls the day it all became a stark reality to him. “I remember at Otinnequa (festival) guys like Ebenezer Tshimanga (Wynberg) who was still at Paul Roos at that time, and Burger who is going to Western Province this year, I remember walking past and thinking they’re flippen 20 year-olds! We were at the mall when we saw them and they told us we’re playing you guys tomorrow, and we were all just so scared of playing against these huge guys (laughs)”.

Now almost everybody knows Muller as a rugby prospect, especially with his exploits between the four lines causing so much traction. But the scrumhalf is a multitalented all round athlete, and that is proven by his ability on the cricket field as well, an ability that he admits gave him a huge headache and eventually forced him to make a very difficult decision going forward.

“I played A team and also provincial cricket in primary for Gauteng, so even though rugby was a big influence in me coming to Affies, so was cricket, because they boasted Old Boys like AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis. Cricket was actually my number one sport but it’s obviously easier to play all the sports in primary but it is difficult at high school, especially at a big school like Affies or Grey, you have to be the best to make the A team and stand out and I always wanted to be a sportsman, I realized even at 13/14 that if I want to be a professional, I had to be the best in something, so playing both A team for rugby and cricket I realized at the end of the year, I needed to make a decision and I decided I really wanted to pursue rugby”

That decision seemed to go against the wishes of his uncles, but Johan already had his mind made up. Although he still played u15A cricket, most of his attention was devoted to the oval ball, before officially leaving cricket after u15. It was perhaps no coincidence then, that Muller was recognized as the top scrumhalf in the country during his u15 year. It had all seemed to pay off for him but he was quick to turn the attention to his whole team, rather than hog the plaudits.

“In u14 I was good, but I was split between the two codes, but when I focused on just rugby the next year I got very good, and so was our team, it had fast guys. I knew I wanted to play rugby long-term, my focus was there that season and that’s what, I think made the difference that year”. But it’s usually from u16 that achievements really begin to count in rugby, and Johan was certainly targeting turning his burgeoning reputation into something tangible and he recalls his head space at that time. “Going into u16 I was told I was rated the number one scrumhalf in the country in our age group and obviously that did a lot for my confidence. I was really confident, I was playing very well, I remember that December, I don’t think it was a growth spurt but I was really fast and agile, I was so fit, and I was looking forward to the u16 season because I wanted to play Grant Khomo and get into the EPD groups” he recalls.

It all started so well for Johan, with his goals insight, looking like he was in the plans for the Bulls Grant Khomo week side, but soon, what was supposed to see him get one step closer to his dreams, would seem to make it look harder for them to be a reality. “I remember we had a practice in the morning, I was a bit stiff because I had ran before and I didn’t really stretch so well and literally at the warm up before Grant Khomo I stepped, just a small step and I tore my whole ACL”.  But there seemed to be a whole lot of confusion as the initially diagnosis gave him hope, before the worst was finally confirmed, another huge setback for Johan.

“It was weird because when we got to the hospital they told me it was my calf and I’d only be out for about 2/3 weeks. I went home and saw a specialist and he told me it was it was my MCL (inner knee) and it would be six weeks but I would be fine for school trials but I wasn’t even focused on the school trials, I just wanted to make the first game” he remembers.

“But from there we went to the physio that usually helps me with my strength and conditioning. He just felt my knee and immediately said “No, that’s an ACL we going to have to book you in for an operation tonight, it’s going to be nine months”. And in disbelief I told him “no, you crazy the other guys said weeks, there is no way”.  He then called the Lions doctor who then confirmed it was an ACL. I was told after my operation it would take 12 weeks to get me ready again, it was very bad” he recalls.  And that was it for Muller, just like that, the top scrumhalf in the country at u15 level, a player who was in pole position to be the Bulls scrumhalf at a national week and hopefully make a national set up, didn’t even have an u16 season and had to watch on in agony as some even overtook him.

He would only return to action on the February of his u17 year, and because the first team coaches new what he was capable of, they kept him in the first team bench as opposed to playing him in the second team. Muller, however, was about to find out just how grueling that road to full fitness really was, and his first outing was the perfect example.

 “I was so unfit, I remember one warm up game at Loftus, I came off the bench and played just eight minutes, made one chip we scored, got tackled and came off. I was so tired, I laid there next to the ground, and it was really bad. But every game they played me a little longer”.  Eventually Johan would find himself getting back up to speed again, showing signs that made him the top scrumhalf in the country, all over again, including some good cameos off the bench at Wilderklawer week. “I remember I played well against Drosty and Paarl Boys, that’s when I got back to my best form again. I was then scheduled to start against Grey College but we had Westville Boys High just before”.

That game in between would prove to be Johan’s undoing, and true to his luck and wretched injury history, he would suffer yet another season ending blow. “I then tore my AC joint and I was told I can’t play. They even tried to put cortisol to see if I can, but I couldn’t even pass the ball, that was really bad. I was back to my best and got injured again. That shoulder injury really hurt” he recalled woefully. Muller admits that, although Affies had been on a downward spiral since about 2017, he maintains that in 2020, they would’ve shut their critics just in time to give the school something to celebrate on its 100th birthday. “I knew the guys, I know we were the best u15 side in the country even u16 with all the injuries we ended up 3rd/4th so I knew we had a good team, but everyone on the papers was saying otherwise”.

Quizzed about just how much he thinks he would’ve achieved last year, a very confident Muller didn’t mince his words. “I think I could’ve played Craven Week and SA Schools if I played to my full potential when I look back now. But at the beginning of the year that wasn’t my goal, my only goal was to make the first team and make sure we were unbeaten”. He said as he admitted that mainly that was to make up for the yesteryears. “After losing so many games in 2019, I didn’t want to lose another game that was my only motivation. I wanted to win against Grey College, Paarl Gim, just for everybody linked to the school.”.He said

Although he didn’t quite get his fairytale ending at Affies, Johan reflected on his decision years ago, to snub Monument last minute, in favour of the school and believes it was the right one. “Obviously there were a lot of ups and downs but I learnt a lot at the school, and looking back now I’m very proud to be an Old Boy of Affies, so I’m definitely happy with my decision, not just because of the rugby but the whole set up”.

He shares the biggest lesson he takes away, “You should always believe in yourself, and that there are going to be a lot of people that won’t believe in you, and tell you that you can’t do it, but at the end of the day, whatever everyone says doesn’t matter as soon as you on the field. It definitely taught me to stay in the moment and in the game and obviously to work hard. At Affies if you work hard you will definitely make it”.

 Despite all the setbacks, he maintains he has no regrets about his schoolboy rugby career. “I think whatever happened, shaped me to become the person I am today, and I’m obviously very proud of where I am now because of everything I had to go through. Everyone is going to go through their own battles but mine shaped me and influenced how I think now”.

Muller has since got his just reward for his perseverance, as he recently completed the full 360 of his childhood by putting pen to paper with the Blue Bulls meaning a return to Loftus, where a lot of his childhood memories lie. “I don’t know, it’s weird how things work, I remember thinking what am I going to do next year and the one place I didn’t think I would go to was the Bulls, maybe the Lions, I thought the Bulls wouldn’t be interested and then somehow (laughs) I ended up going there”. But besides it catching him off guard, he expressed his gratitude at the fact that it happened, due to its obvious sentimental aspect. “But obviously it does mean a lot, I always supported the team so I’m very proud to go there but now I obviously want to make it to the senior side, ultimately and hopefully I can make that happen as well”.

Having said that, he acknowledges that the Bulls are one of the biggest unions in the country and therefore their contracting numbers reflect that. He, however, is relishing the competition and maintains he can only focus on himself at the end of the day.

“The Bulls have, I think the top three scrumhalves in our age group going there, so I’m not thinking about doing anything specifically to stand out, I just want to work hard and play the best rugby that I can. But I think if I am at my best, nobody compares to me, that’s just what I think but if I work my hardest and the other guy is still better than me, then that’s it. I can’t do more than that (laughs)”.

Muller than concludes by outlining his objectives for his time at the Bulls. “I obviously want to make it at the Bulls, they have the best coaches in the country. Those guys are on another level and what they’re doing there now is like the beginning of a whole new dynasty. I want to win trophies and be part of the best team, that’s what’s important to me, I’m not too worried about myself individually, I just want to win all the trophies I want to play and win the junior Currie Cup with the u20’s and eventually the Rainbow Cup with the senior side when the time comes”.

Johan believes that, the Bulls are the benchmark union right now, and the best set up for any young player to be a part of and further their development and he is relishing the opportunity he has been granted. “I think at the moment, there is no better place to go than the Bulls, Jake White is probably the best coach in the world and Duane Vermeulen probably the best player to ever play! (Laughs) that guy is a beast. So I want to learn from all these guys I have been watching since I was a kid”

It has undoubtedly been anything but a smooth sailing journey for Johan so far, but he can definitely be proud of what he has made out of it. He won’t be the only one that is proud though, as the person who oversaw the whole journey shares her delight too. “ I’m proud of him as his mother, I wish him all the blessings in the world, I wish that all his dreams will come true. He worked extremely hard for this opportunity and all I see now is my young kid running around as a little boy of four years old in his blue bulls jersey. By saying that I know that he is at the right place. Everything is a blessing from God and I can see in my son’s life there has been a lot of grace and all I wish for my son is humbleness dedication and a blessed life” Mrs Muller concluded.

Although, Johan lost his father at an early age, he was never short of male guiding figures, with Jan Garbie, the person he not only credits for recruiting him at Affies, but also as a prominent father figure. Garbie gives us an insight of what Johan characteristics on and off the field.

“He is a quiet, fully focused person that knows what he wants to achieve in life, especially in rugby. He works hard and does the primary work of a scrumhalf very well, passing, kicking and the capability to link with the forwards and backline”. But what exactly did Garbie see in Johan,that prompted him to convince him to snub Monument for Affies?

“His love for the game and his ability to do the right things at the right time, Affies is a breeding ground for scrumhalves. Fourie du Preez, Ivan van Zyl, Shaun Venter (Cheetahs), Johan Mulder (Bulls), Luan Jacobs, Ruan Snyman just to mention a few. Johan is in the same class as above mentioned”. Having seen yet another recruit come out of his hands and through the Affies factory straight to the Bulls Academy, Grabie couldn’t help but express his pride in Johan. “I’m very proud! Johan shows great promise and I trust he will make the most of the opportunity given to him”. he concluded.

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