Book extract: Neil Tovey’s autobiography
In his newly published autobiography, former Kaizer Chiefs and Bafana Bafana captain Neil Tovey opens up about the two heart attacks he had while playing sport
HE’S best known as captain of the Afcon-winning Bafana Bafana team of 1996. Now, in a new autobiography, Neil Tovey is telling the story of how he came to lift South Africa’s only major football trophy on an international stage.
Neil Tovey: A Captain’s Journey describes his modest upbringing in Durban, his entry to a mainly black sport in a deeply segregated 1980s South Africa, and his time as captain of Kaizer Chiefs and Bafana Bafana.
In this extract Tovey also talks frankly about his family and surviving two heart attacks.
IALWAYS thought I was in perfect health. My fitness levels were good, I played squash at least once a week, often went for a run, did some cycling and followed a fairly balanced diet. Doctors gave me the thumbs-up at every annual checkup and I felt good. Well, that was until I played a game of squash with my wife, Michelle, one Tuesday morning in February 2015.
We started the match and we were both looking to score points. I sensed my runs and my timing in hitting the ball were slightly off.
I also struggled to centre the ball. Then, suddenly, I felt a severe pain in my chest.
At first I tried to play through it, but then my chest really started to tighten. I said to Michelle, “Let me quickly sit outside the court.”
I sat there, trying to recover, but instead of catching my breath, I started sweating profusely and my fingers began tingling. Still, I didn’t even think about going to the hospital and just suggested to Michelle that we go home.
On our way back to the house, which was only about five minutes away, I started to really battle – the pain in my chest became so intense I couldn’t even get out of the car. Michelle decided we should go to the hospital immediately. She grabbed some clothes and we rushed to Umhlanga Hospital.
They took an ECG to check my heart. Suddenly there was a spiking of the lines on the monitors – I was having a heart attack, or rather, another heart attack. I was rushed to theatre immediately.
It was lunchtime and there was no cardiologist available on site, but soon Dr Shiraz Gafoor arrived. He needed to insert two stents. A stent is a tiny tube used to open a blocked artery and keep the blood flowing in the veins. Dr Gafoor told me after the operation that there was no damage to the heart muscle. I was relieved.
However, he also explained my cholesterol was too high. I found that strange because I had never had problems with my cholesterol in the past and my annual test didn’t show that it was elevated. It was a hell of a difficult experience, especially because I’d thought I was too healthy to have a heart attack.
IWAS discharged on the Friday and, after making a full recovery, I tried to work on my fitness levels again. I had to take some medication, but I soon felt fine and was happy when Safa appointed me as the new technical director in mid-2015. In October of that year, I participated in the AmaShova Durban Classic, a 106-kilometre cycling race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. I cycled with my friend Calvin Petersen, the former Moroka Swallows striker. I finished the race without any problems and felt excited. I believed it would be okay for me to participate in the 2016 edition on Sunday, 16 October.
I had prepared well for the race and felt confident of finishing in a faster time than in the previous year. I made it easily past the first water point at the 21-kilometre mark, and then reached the second water point, Cato Ridge, at 42 kilometres.
I took some liquid and had a banana, and then phoned Michelle to say, “Babe, all is on track. I’m doing fine.” I was a bit faster than in 2015 and felt quite satisfied.
About two minutes later, however, I felt a severe pain in my chest.
I stepped off my bike and sat in the shade under a tree. I took off my helmet and phoned Michelle to explain what was happening. She had planned to meet me at the finish line, but I knew there was little chance now that I would get there.
Many cyclists, mostly white, recognised me and asked if I was okay, but none of them stopped, so I just answered, “Ja, I am fine.”
Then a black cyclist came by. He also recognised me and actually stopped to ask, “Neil, are you okay?” I wasn’t. I had spotted some cops about 400 metres down the road and asked the cyclist if he could ask them to send for the paramedics. He did and help soon arrived.
He offered to take care of my bike and also called the ambulance, which struggled to reach us because of the race. Michelle also found it tough to get to us and even had to run about four kilometres through a field.
We eventually arrived at Hillcrest Private Hospital. I was prepped for the theatre, but my vital signs were dropping and the last thing I remembered was Dr Amit Singh walking up to me with a huge needle of adrenaline.
Michelle stayed at my side and was later able to tell me everything that had happened.
After receiving the adrenaline shot, I said to her, “Sorry, Babe, I am going now,” and flatlined. No heart activity. I had died.
BUT I wasn’t gone yet. They managed to get my heart going again after I’d been dead for about two and a half minutes. I felt very calm during that “death”. I remember walking in a forest that had huge trees with orange and yellow leaves. I was at peace.
Next moment, I woke up to find nurses holding me down while trying to insert a drip into my arm.
They operated on me and I was able to watch the entire procedure on the screen, even seeing them going into my heart. They added another stent, as one of the two that had been placed in my
artery the previous time had disappeared. I don’t know how that could have happened, but it did.
Michelle was a rock during this whole period and looked after me extremely well. To have my brother and my children around me was also really special. When I left the hospital my heart’s capacity had dropped to 43%, although I managed to get it up to 54% over time. It will apparently not increase further as the rest of the heart is dead.
My lungs and kidneys were damaged, so I have to look after myself carefully. I cannot cycle or play squash anymore and I shouldn’t push my heart rate higher than 134 beats per minute, so I stick to golf and light gym work, with a bit of easy jogging and walking.
I often think about the cyclist who saved my life. Many cyclists rode past, but he took the trouble to actually stop and ask me if I needed some help. At my request, he even went to the police to summon the paramedics. I have no idea who he is, but I would be dead without him.
I hope to meet him one day to thank him in person. I can’t cycle anymore and wanted to give him my bike to thank him.
'I'd been dead for about two and a half minutes'
In his autobiography Neil writes about being captain when SA won Afcon in 1996.
LEFT: Neil's wife, Michelle, was with him on the squash court when he had his first heart attack. ABOVE: The couple and their model daughter, Jessica (in blue), at the Sunmet with friend Kim Hansmeyer.
THIS IS AN EDITED EXTRACT FROM NEIL TOVEY: A CAPTAIN’S JOURNEY, PUBLISHED BY PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE. IT IS AVAILABLE AT LEADING BOOKSTORES AT A RECOMMENDED RETAIL PRICE OF R230 FROM TAKEALOT.COM. *PRICE CORRECT AT TIME OF GOING TO PRINT AND SUBJECT TO CHANGE WITHOUT NOTICE.