There are some moments in life, despite the briefness of the encounter, that live with us forever.
July 2009, I was walking around the new retail development at Portsmouth Harbour with my wife Debbie, kids Georgia and Olivia, and my sister, Jackie’s, family – husband Nigel and my nieces Rebecca and Katy. As usual, the wives were veering toward the shops with the girls, whereas Nige and me were veering toward the pub. The girls won. It was late afternoon, around fiveish, and as I moped through one of the large wings of the shopping centre in Portsmouth, my phone sprang to life. It was my best mate, Tony Cottey.
A year earlier, Tony had tasked me with writing his autobiography, ‘There’s Only Two Tony Cotteys’, and was acutely aware that I wanted to write another book, especially another sporting autobiography. Tony is the most loyal of friends and had always pushed whatever abilities I may possess to the highest possible table.
‘Dai’. His voice was excited. ‘I might have got you your next autobiography!’.
My head swirled to think who it might be and I was wracking my brain to think of which Welsh sportsperson had recently retired. I couldn’t think of anyone. I asked him to tell me.
‘Are you sitting down?’
‘No,’ I replied, ‘I’m walking through a shopping centre in Portsmouth, we get the ferry to France first thing in the morning.’
‘Shit, I forgot about that, so you’re not going to be in Swansea for a couple of weeks?’
‘No, is that going to be a problem?’
‘Nah, don’t think so, I’ll just let him know.’
‘Who is it, mate?’
‘Oh yeah, sorry…it’s J.J. Williams.’
I nearly fell through Debenhams front door.
Tony went on to explain that he was friendly with one of J.J.’s sons who had loved Tony’s autobiography. In fact, he’d loved it so much, he’d apparently given it to his dad, who’d loved it too. On the back of this, J.J. had decided I was worth speaking to about potentially writing his. If I was interested.
If I was interested!
J.J. Williams had been a constant figure in my sports mad life for just about as long as I could remember. I’ll leave it to sports writers far better than me to regale his incredible career achievements, suffice to say, along with Gareth, Phil, J.P.R., Gerald, Merve and the others, he’d achieved such unbelievable international rugby success and fame, that even 30 years after his retirement, he was one of those select band of people known the world over by just his first name or his initials…everyone knew who ‘J.J.’ was.
The thing I remember most about him as a player was his incredible speed. As a trained sprinter, he really did look like an Olympic athlete – but dressed in a red rugby shirt – and never seemed to ever get caught once he received the ball and headed for the corner. Suffice to say, that along with the rest of Wales, he was one of my heroes and a Welsh sporting legend. And apparently was considering me to write his book!
Tony told me that J.J.’s son had just rung him to see if his dad could ring me for the chat. ‘Of course he could’, was my reply.
Tony said he’d call J.J.’s son back and take it from there. A couple of minutes later he was back on to say that J.J. would be ringing me soon. I was thrilled. I was also terrified.
I thanked Tony, and rounded up the gang and told them of the news. We needed to go somewhere so that I could take the call, outside Superdrug in the middle of a shopping centre in Portsmouth wasn’t the place I had in mind to talk to one of my sporting heroes. There was only one thing for it, the pub.
We found one on Portsmouth’s new harbour development and waited. And waited. I kept checking my phone for signal, it was strong. My battery was ducking below fifty percent which was a worry, but it should be ok. After an hour, still nothing. By now it was after six and the kids were hungry. Time for food. Armed with our half price family vouchers we headed to Zizzi. Last of the big spenders, me.
Nige had started to ask me what I was going to say, and the more I thought about it, the more I worried. You see, in retirement, J.J. had not gone gently into that good night. Instead, he’d become just about the straightest talking pundit on TV. He could be brutal and never tried to curry favour with any current players with his critiques, he said what he saw, whoever it was, and made no apology for it. I started to imagine quite a challenging phone call, so started to plan in my mind what I was going to say to him.
We ordered our food. No call. Our starters came and were eaten. No call. I even refused a beer. No call. Finally, our main course was served. I had seafood pasta with chilli flakes and the first mouthful was a taste sensation. Then my phone went. It was J.J.
I shot into the lobby area to take it.
What followed was quite surreal which is why I remember so much about that afternoon. He asked where I was due the background noise, so explained about the holiday, and we spent five minutes talking about where I was going to in France, who I was going with, how long for etc. He was charming. Then, we got on to the book. He explained that he was pretty much the last of the legendary Welsh side of the 70’s to write his book and he had lots to say. He also wanted to reflect on the career of his other son, Rhys, an elite GB athlete and European Champion in the 400 metre hurdles. It all sounded incredibly interesting. He asked me how I’d approach it, and we had a fantastic conversation about my writing style, the angles I like to explore in retelling somebody’s story and how I want to unearth the hidden stories, not just regurgitate what had already been laid bare in numerous news reports and newspaper articles.
We must have spoken for about 20 minutes and it was like talking to an old friend. At the very start I thought it was important that I laid my fanboy credentials on the table and told him how much I had idolised him. He was incredibly humble in thanking me. I also said I wasn’t sure I could call him John, as he’d only ever been ‘J.J.’ to me. He laughed and said to call him John, ‘all my friends do.’
When we wound the conversation up, he got the date from me about my return from France. He also told me that he was speaking to another, very experienced journalist and writer who was favourite for the book, but he’d been very impressed with my ideas and passion and was considering me strongly.
‘Now, go away to France, have a wonderful holiday with your family, forget all about this and I’ll ring you the day after you get back to let you know my decision.’
I left the conversation on Cloud nine. It had been an absolute delight talking to him.
Two and a half weeks later, my phone rang again. I was back home. As good as his word, it was J.J.
The conversation this time was shorter, but nonetheless, completely professional yet still very warm. He asked about my holiday, then apologised – he had decided to go with the other writer. I understood, and did my best to hide my disappointment and thanked him for considering me in the first place.
What he then said has always stuck with me.
‘Don’t be disheartened, Dave, the other writer is extremely experienced and that’s what won out in the end. Thanks so much for your obvious enthusiasm and good luck with your future career.’
So, my personal connection with J.J. Williams lasted about half an hour over two phone calls, but following them, I had a new found fondness and respect for a hero of my youth.
When J.J.’s book came out, it was written by that doyen of rugby writers, Peter Jackson. I’ve no idea if that was the writer that J.J. was referring to, I can only assume so and he certainly proved to be the perfect choice.
Life moves on quickly and I’d totally forgotten about that afternoon in Portsmouth eleven years ago, until this morning, when the news broke of J.J.’s passing. I felt genuinely sad when I read the news and couldn’t help thinking of what might have been – I’d have so loved to have written his book. But I’m just grateful that today, a long forgotten, extremely fond, memory has come back to the forefront of my mind, and I feel privileged to have had those two conversations with such a genuine rugby legend.
In fact, a legend who served his country on the highest stage, and deservedly became so brilliant, so revered and so loved, that he never needed a name, his initials were always enough.
Rest in peace, J.J.