Nelson Mandela's impact

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.

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.

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