I’m out on the left flank in yards of space, shouting – screaming – for the football. But it doesn’t arrive. My teammate dribbles straight into trouble and the opposition grab possession.
“I’m ALWAYS open, but you NEVER pass to me,” I yell.
“You’re never open,” comes the reply.
I can’t remember how I responded, but he’s lucky I was only 10 years old. If I had the vocabulary to match the rage I was feeling that day during our “friendly” Grade 4 phys-ed lesson game, I would have made him cry.
After all, we both knew what he was thinking:
“Why would I pass to you? What will the fat kid ever know about sport?”
My name is Leonard Solms. Not “Lennerd”, but “Lee-o-nard.” The German pronunciation confuses most people, but fear not. Mine is a name you’re going to become quite familiar with in the next few years as I make my way to the top of sports journalism.
I make no apologies for that bold declaration, because if I had sheepishly smiled and backed into a corner every time someone had laughed in my face when I told them what my dreams were, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
On 11 June, I will be at Newlands rugby stadium in Cape Town, South Africa – covering the national team for Grocott’s Mail aged just 20.
While I still have a long way to go before I can fulfill my ultimate goal (covering Premier League football games), this is a sign that my twelve-year love affair with sport has turned out to be worlds apart from the waste of time so many people told me it was in my youth.
I was born in London on 2 March 1996. I lived there for the first six years of my life, before my parents decided to move back to the country they had grown up in: sunny South Africa. They enrolled me at Bridge House School in Franschhoek, just a five minute drive from our house.
I would go on to spend my whole school career there – and although most will tell you that Bridge House is a school that you go to for the sole purpose of improving your academics, I am grateful for the sporting education I received there above all else.
South Africa has many fiercely competitive sporting schools – particularly when it comes to rugby. Speaking to my friends who went to such schools, I have heard stories of players getting poached from rival schools; steroid abuse; parents getting into fights; and a win-at-all-costs culture.
These are the institutions that have produced most of the sporting heroes that our country looks up to – and that I write about. Little Bridge House always felt worlds away.
And yet, it was at the tiny school in the Franschhoek valley that sport changed a fat kid’s life forever. One man is to thank for it all.
When I was eight years old and in Grade 2, my phys-ed teacher, Riaan van de Rheede, sent a message via. another member of staff that he wanted me in his cricket team.
Looking back, it was absurd that he singled me of all people out. Not only was I overweight, but I also didn’t even know how to hold a cricket bat! But for some reason, Riaan saw something in me.
Had Bridge House been a competitive sporting school, he probably wouldn’t even have known my name. Nobody would have given me a second glance.
I still can’t quite put my finger on why, but I fell head over heels in love with playing and watching cricket as soon as I figured out what it was all about. From there, one thing led to another and I began playing; watching; and falling in love with other sports, too.
I was never particularly good at any sport – even in high school, when I had dealt with my weight problems. I can easily sit here and say, “It was all good, because I had fun,” but that was never how I felt.
When I was 10, I was wide open and my teammate refused to pass the football to me.
When I was 15, my cricket captain put me last in the batting order in the first game of the season because he “wanted to give everyone a chance”. Then, in the next game, he put me last again.
When I was 18, my football coach picked two successive matchday squads featuring every single player who trained under him except for me. (To be fair, he was honest enough to tell me that he didn’t consider me one of the better players in his squad, so I bear no grudges.)
Each time, I felt heartbroken and humiliated.
But the beautiful thing about sport is that you’re never beaten until you think you are. When cricket wasn’t working out anymore, I took up water polo. When football was no longer bringing me joy, I started playing rugby.
When I realised I would never be good enough to play sport professionally, I started plotting other routes into the industry.
I considered everything from working for the Court of Arbitration for Sport to taking a coaching course and usurping José Mourinho as Chelsea’s greatest ever manager. (And I wouldn’t have joined Manchester United afterwards!)
Then, one day, the penny dropped. I could write well. I needed to get as far away from my hometown as possible. Hey, why not go study journalism at Rhodes University?
To merely call it “the best decision I have ever made in my life” would be a gross understatement.
It’s easy to forget that I’m only in my second year at the university – and yet, here I am, getting set to cover the Springboks’ game against Ireland – and with a Cape Town Sevens tournament and several Currie Cup and Super Rugby fixtures already on my CV.
I will soon explain in greater detail the extraordinary run of luck that led me to where I am so early in my career.
For now, all you need to know is that you can follow the build-up; the game itself; and the aftermath, by liking my personal Facebook page and Grocott’s Mail Sport. Also, follow @LeonSolms and @GrocottsSport on Twitter.
Most importantly, you need to know that no matter what your dream is in life, it’s never over until you think it is. If one route to your destination closes off, you can ALWAYS find another.