By Doug Williams | Dec. 14, 2013, 9:30 p.m. (ET)
Former South Africa President Nelson Mandela poses with the Webb-Ellis cup during the Springboks visit at Mandela's residence on Oct. 27, 2007 in Houghton, Johannesburg, South Africa.

They traveled thousands of miles, played five rugged games over two days and racked up their share of highlights and lowlights on the rugby field against some of the world’s best teams. 

But when it was all over, the members of the U.S. men’s rugby sevens team will remember very little about the actual games of the Cell C Nelson Mandela Bay South Africa Sevens tournament.

What they will recall are the sights, sounds and feelings of being in South Africa when Mandela, the nation’s former president, died, and how South Africans mourned and celebrated his life in the days that followed. That included the people in and around Port Elizabeth, where the tournament was held, and inside Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

The news of Mandela’s death was announced the day after the USA Eagles arrived for the tournament. Mandela died Dec. 5 at the age of 95 and will be buried Sunday. 

“The sense of grief, you could see it on the people’s faces, and a little bit of shock and loss,” said veteran U.S. winger Nick Edwards. “The hosts everywhere sort of rolled out national flags and there was a big tribute in the hotel. His picture went up everywhere. There were a lot of votive candles. It was a very, very hushed atmosphere.”

U.S. coach Matt Hawkins, who grew up in South Africa and now lives in San Diego, said there were initial rumors the tournament might be canceled. Some events in South Africa were. But tournament officials decided to go forward. A national soccer final and a cricket match between South Africa and visiting India also went on. Having these events continue in the wake of Mandela’s death was important, national sports minister Fikile Mbalula said.

“We celebrate a life well lived,” Mbalula told South African media. “It’s through sport that we do not differentiate between white and black but are identified as one nation. This is through the legacy that Mandela achieved.”

Mandela himself used sports to help unite the people of his country, so long divided along black and white lines by the policies of apartheid. At the Rugby World Cup of 1995 hosted by South Africa — when rugby was still mostly considered the sport of whites — Mandela famously appeared at the final between South Africa and New Zealand, wearing the home team’s green jersey, and embraced his nation’s Springboks. His presence that day helped the nation heal and come together.

“Sport has the power to change the world,” Mandela said at the time. “It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.”

And that’s what happened again this past weekend, with rugby sevens — a sport which will make its Olympic debut at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro — as part of the stage.

At the sevens tournament in Port Elizabeth, every player from all 16 teams wore a black armband for the two days of play on Saturday and Sunday.

And, on the first day, play came to a halt for a special tribute. Normally at an international sevens tournament, organizers hold a parade of nations. This time, every player from every nation stood shoulder to shoulder on the field for the South African national anthem, a moment of silence and a video tribute to Mandela.

Players from all corners of the world were united for Mandela, as were the fans.

“We stood there for a minute of silence and they played a tribute to Nelson on the big screens, and I can tell you that the sound of, I think, about 45,000 people. … It was eerily silent,” Edwards said. “It was a beautiful thing to be a part of.”

For Hawkins, who came to the United States more than a decade ago, the chance to be back in his nation of birth for Mandela’s death and the nation’s outpouring of gratitude and remembrance was special. Hawkins was 12 in 1994 when Mandela was elected president, and he vividly recalls the events of that year and the next during the rugby world cup. He’s proud he was able to see the transformation and growth of South Africa in his lifetime, and proud to share what he knew with his team.

Mandela, he said, led his country forward and made an impact globally.

“I’ve always said Nelson Mandela was my No. 1 person,” he said. “If given five minutes to spend time with anyone in the world, that’s the person I’d be with, you know? A couple of guys (on the team) knew that, so they asked about him.”

On the morning of the day Mandela’s death would later be announced, Hawkins in fact was asking a friend what the future would hold for South Africa upon Mandela’s passing. He soon got his answer.

The entire nation, black and white, came together, in more celebration than mourning.

The on-field gathering of all the players was especially moving.

“It’s definitely something I’ve never been a part of,” he said. “I’ve been on the world stage for a very long time and nothing like that’s ever happened. That’s something that will stay with me forever.”

Edwards, who grew up in Australia and is based with the U.S. team at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., said players from all nations spoke to one another during the tournament about what they were seeing and experiencing. He said clips of Mandela’s appearance at the rugby world cup final were played several times at the stadium. And the South African players — who went on to win the tournament — shared their insights about Mandela’s life and significance to their nation with U.S. players.

Meanwhile, the fans in Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium — Nelson Mandela Bay is the metropolitan area that includes Port Elizabeth — cheered every move of the home team.

“Every time the South African team came out of the tunnel or went to warm up or took the field, you couldn’t hear yourself scream,” Edwards said. “The crowd was going absolutely bananas. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve played in every single stadium on the circuit and I’ve never been in a stadium that was louder.”

The Eagles went 1-4, with their lone victory a 19-14 decision over Spain bracketed by losses to Wales, New Zealand, Portugal and England. But when the tournament was over, Edwards decided to stay on a bit longer to see more of the country, including Cape Town and the prison at Robben Island, where Mandela was held 18 years for his part in fighting apartheid.

On this trip to South Africa, Edwards says he and his team felt Mandela’s spirit.

“I think a big part of his legacy, and a big part of South African culture, is being so patient and accepting of others,” he said. “It was almost as if they opened up their hearts and were happy to sort of share the significance. … It was quite a unifying experience for everybody.”

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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