The year 2021 immediately conjures words like heartbreak, uncertainty and challenge for Orlando Pirates forward Zakhele Lepasa.
Stared with the reality of being sidelined from a game he loves so much due to injury, Lepasa reveals that was the least of his worries.
Even when the rumour started making rounds that the severe ankle injury he sustained would spell the end of his fledgling career, there were still bigger things to worry about.
“I know there was talk that I would never return, but I never even had time to think about the injury; I had bigger things to worry about,” the Bucs forward tells FARPost.
Some seven years ago, while in high school, Lepasa met someone who would become an important part of his life. Khanyisile was there through the highs and lows of his life.
“Everyone at the University of Pretoria [where she was a student] knew that we were dating. I was becoming famous at the time after we won the Nedbank Cup [with TS Galaxy],” he explains.
Just five months before the injury, ‘Zakes’ and Khanyi had stepped into a new stage of their blossoming love relationship – parenthood. Blessed with a baby boy, the couple’s utmost dream was to give their boy a beautiful upbringing. Perhaps their lil’ man would follow in his dad’s footsteps. Or maybe not. Whatever the case, the young couple wanted to give him a head start in this life thing.
However, while in the thick of dealing with the injury, disaster struck again. Enough to leave a scar on his heart.
“I got injured on the 16th of December [in a league game against Chippa], and then a month later, my girlfriend of six years and the mother of my newborn child suddenly became ill,” explains Lepasa.
In her early 20s, the thought of her passing on was almost the last thing on anyone’s mind. Hoping against hope, they had faith that she would pull through.
But that was not to be as she passed on, leaving behind her lover of six years and their six-month-old boy.
“She passed away a few weeks later. It meant I never had time to deal with the injury. I was now dealing with the loss of someone I had planned a life with,” he says.
The next couple of months would be nightmarish as he battled to come to terms with the loss. “I became lost for a few months. My mind was not in football,” adds the 24-year-old.
As if that was not enough, three months after the injury, just when he was about to return, it turned out the screws doctors had put on his ankle were not placed correctly.
“I was lucky they picked it up early. I could have played the derby in March, but I felt pain and we decided to do a scan. I would have been out for three months as initially estimated,” he says.
When he went to corrective surgery, he was warned that there was a possibility he would not play football. “It was a lot,” he admits.
It meant taking it one day after another. It would be another long nine months on the sidelines.
His mind, he says, only switched back to dealing with football in September 2021. And, at the time, reports were now surfacing that the injury had forced him to retire.
“I dealt with football in September when my return was close,” the Soweto-born forward says.
That phase taught him the importance of taking care of one’s mental health. He is convinced that it is impossible to excel on the pitch while not in a good mental state.
On December 23 2021, exactly a year after he sustained the injury, Lepasa returned to the Orlando Pirates first-team after being introduced as a second-half substitute in a 2-1 win over AmaZulu at Orlando Stadium.
He, however, reveals that his return had been earmarked for February until he made it difficult for the coaches to keep him out.
Bucs co-coach Fadlu Davids waxed lyrical after Lepasa’s return.
“It was a fantastic moment in the camp, thanks to the physio, the pressure he went through and to come here and to have that taste of football when his injury was really in the balance,” Davids said.
With football back on track, his son a year and seven months old, Lepasa want to give his boy the best.
“Fatherhood has changed me; I no longer play for the sake of playing; I have this guy that I live for now.”
He credits his family and Khanyi’s family for holding him up throughout that challenging phase. His dream of taking his talents to Europe someday is still very much alive!