This story already has a fairy tale ending: two friends kissing the polished wood of a NCAA championship trophy.
The two women are South African. One is white, one is mixed-race. Four years ago, despite barely knowing each other, both traveled halfway around the world to Chapel Hill — leaving behind their homeland, their legacies, their families, and the expectations of a nation.
And four years later, the two women are almost sisters. They combined to score all of UNC’s goals in the championship game, including the game-winner with 11.7 seconds to play.
But we’re getting ahead of the story.
The story started in the South African national under-18 championships, where a 17-year-old Dani Forword led an underdog Border Provincial team to victory.
In the final minutes of a scoreless game, she breezed through the heavily favored Western Province defense and flicked to a wide-open teammate for the game-winner.
“That one was special,” Forword said years later. “It was a beautiful goal.”
Across the field, Western’s star striker, Illse Davids, could only shake her head. Five years later, she’s still shaking it.
“She’s a killer striker and you hate going up against her,” Davids said.
“She could go through half the team just with her skill alone and score, which killed us. So we always had three people marking her and … Dani always found a way to get through them.”
It was the foundation for what became a close friendship — grown in the competitive world of South African field hockey.
It’s even more remarkable given the nation’s turbulent history. Apartheid ended just 19 years ago this February, and its effects still resonate. In field hockey, a system of racial quotas limits the number of black, white and mixed-race players on the national team.
Forword’s name always inspired powerful emotions in South Africa. Her mother, Beverly, and her older sister Candice both played on South Africa’s national team. A newspaper clipping features a days-old Forword with her hand on her mother’s hockey stick.
However, she struggled to emerge from her famous sister’s shadow, and many of her friends from home still know her as “Candice’s little sister.” As she grew into her own talents, people either hated or loved her, and weren’t afraid to be demonstrative.
“My family would be sitting in the crowds and hear people talking about me,” Forword said. “As if they knew me.”
Davids had none of the pressure. But she quickly became one of the best players in the Cape Town area and in the Western Province.
Their styles of play are perfect foils. Forword plays as if no opponent is an immovable object, and shoots with a Texas-sized swing regardless of how close she is to the goal.
Davids’ teammates call her graceful, fluid and annoyingly elusive.
Together, they led the South African junior national teams. It seemed only fitting that their college choice would be the same.
Crossing the Atlantic
All roads pointed to Stellenbosch, the premier South African university for field hockey. Stellenbosch’s coach, Jenny King, also coached the South African national team.
“Stellenbosch is where you go,” Forword said. “It’s the standard. It’s the powerhouse. That was always set. Ever since I was a little girl I knew I was going to go to Stellenbosch.”
That is, until the two started talking with Grant Fulton.
Fulton coached Candice Forword as an assistant for the South African national team in 2004, and Fulton had recently taken an assistant position on Karen Shelton’s staff at North Carolina in 2005.
A native of South Africa, Fulton thought he could tap into his home market. He also knew he needed two South Africans — the transition was too much for just one.
But why should two elite players spurn not only their home country but the national team coach herself? And why go play field hockey in the U.S., where the sport has nowhere near the popularity as in South Africa?
For Davids, it was a chance to get top-flight training, education, and a full scholarship. And if she played in South Africa for Stellenbosch, she’d spend her college years beating teams 10-0, 15-0.
“When are you ever going to be asked ‘Hey, do you want to come to the states for four years on a full ride?’” Davids said. “It was something different, being in the South African field hockey scene I knew where I was going.”
For Forword, the allure was even more powerful — and unusual. Eighteen years as part of the Forword family dynasty had turned her name into more of a burden than a privilege. America and the prospect of carving her own legacy started to look appealing.
“I didn’t want my life to be planned. I wanted to make my own, and maybe step out of the footprint of what my mom and sister have done. … I’ve made my own name.”
Cross-continental e-mails to Fulton were filled with questions, but in the end, Davids decided first, and her commitment convinced Forword to follow.
The two best high school field hockey players in South Africa agreed to come across the Atlantic to North Carolina, a school they had never seen in a nation where neither had set foot.
Their first week was something out of a movie. Coed dorms, all-you-can-eat dining halls, red cups at parties, the unfamiliar Southern drawl; even the bubble sheets used for exams were unfamiliar.
Forword and Davids also had to adjust to their new coach’s rigorous scheduling.
During those first weeks, Davids and Forword were scheduled to meet Shelton at 9 a.m. to fill out some paperwork. At 9:01 a.m., they arrived to find a steaming-mad Shelton.
“We walk out of the lobby and she’s goes ‘You’re late. I’ve been waiting for you guys for a minute,’” Forword said.
She and Davids were shocked. The two grew up accustomed to a South African culture that they describe as “chill.” Being on time wasn’t always a priority.
“And after that we were like 10 minutes early to everything,” Forword said.
The hockey itself was different as well. The sport Forword and Davids grew up playing was different in the States: UNC focused on running and weightlifting, things that South African field hockey didn’t emphasize. The older American players weren’t afraid to yell and shove on the field, either.
“Everyone gets dirty, and coach loves it,” Davids said of the indoor practices. “Because she wants to get that competitive fire out of you.”
Davids, naturally the more shy of the two, struggled with the adjustment. Shelton wanted her to be more assertive. But Davids contemplated returning home during her first semester.
“Things were just offish,” she said. “Playing was so different. Dani was saying, ‘No, stay, it’ll get better, stick it through.’”
It was a refrain Davids couldn’t get away from. The two players saw each other every day during practice and they had three classes together. Soon, they became almost inseparable.
They took solace in each others’ familiar accents and their shared knowledge of Afrikaans, the language of South Africa.
Any thoughts on racial differences or old rivalries got pushed aside. Black, white, mixed-race or green — the South African kinship overrode it all.
Davids stuck it through, and both players earned starting positions from day one. By 2007, their sophomore year, the two were already leaders on a squad that went undefeated and won the national title.
The Tar Heels looked primed to repeat in 2008 until Forword, the team’s leading scorer, went down with a torn ACL against Boston College in October. She missed the rest of the season and faced eight months of intense rehab.
Without her, UNC stumbled. Maryland clobbered the Tar Heels 7-0, and UNC didn’t win a postseason game, losing 2-1 to Wake Forest in the ACC tournament and 3-2 to Michigan State in the NCAA tournament.
Meanwhile, Forword faced trials of her own. Unable to play, she struggled to maintain patience with the rehab process.
She missed her family. The same legacy she sought to escape now called her back home. Forword came within a whisker of returning to South Africa for her rehab until Shelton firmly nixed the idea.
“She wanted to go home so badly, and I literally had to say no,” Shelton said. “It was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do.”
What kept Forword going wasn’t UNC’s trainers or facilities — it was Davids.
“I feel sorry for Ils because she has to hear my sob stories all the time,” Forword said.
Each time Forword came to her, Davids patiently ran through the list. Have you done this? Have you done that?
“I guess being the oldest in my family, I have to be the strongest,” Davids said. “I have to be the strong one in the family when things are going wrong.”
And Davids’ instincts kicked in as her sister in America struggled.
“I didn’t have (my) sisters, so Dani was like my sister when I was in the states,” she said.
Even after practice, one of the two would call the other to say she was sleeping over that night.
“We do this together,” Forword said. “It’s like we’re one person when we’re doing field hockey.”
By their senior year, the two were captains — and transformed.
Davids, once so shy and quiet, gave motivational speeches before every game. “Illse for President,” became a team mantra. Her flashy, graceful play remained but complimented by a nasty streak. She isn’t afraid to throw elbows, and one day in practice this year she broke teammate Casey Burns’ finger.
Forword overcame both the pain in her knee and the pain of separation from her family. She took full advantage of the fresh start North Carolina offered, and in her career netted 54 goals.
More importantly, Forword made a name for herself. She will forever be identified by her last 30 seconds as a collegiate athlete.
With 11.7 seconds to play and the score tied 2-2 in the national title game, UNC had one final chance.
When the Tar Heels drew a penalty corner, the decision went to Shelton: who’s the shooter? Should it be Melanie Brill, the senior and leading scorer? Or should it be Forword, who Shelton calls her money player?
Shelton didn’t hesitate. No, there would be no fakes, no fancy passes. Dani, just rip it.
“With 11 seconds on the line, I wanted her to straight strike it,” Shelton said. “I’ve seen her do it. She’s good at it, and she nailed it.”
Davids didn’t see the shot. Tears came into her eyes before Forword even swung, and it was all she could do to blindly run into the box.
When she heard the shot smack into the backboard, she didn’t slow down, just redirected her sprint to Forword, already in a joyful heap on the ground.
“This game was one of the games you dream of,” Davids said. “That competitive battle where … you just keep on fighting. It’s like something from the movies.”
Now that’s a story.
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