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Death took Jonah Lomu, because no one on a rugby pitch could

The improbable rugby star was even bigger than advertised.

David Ramos/Getty Images

It seemed like the pre-Internet world made him bigger than he was. That was a hard thing to do: Jonah Lomu stood 6'5 and weighed 270 pounds. If you saw him at all in the United States, you saw him on blippy late night Sportscenter clips, the ones the board operators and producers snuck in simply because they could. You did not get to replay him. He appeared, dressed in black like an undertaker, and he trampled lesser men on the field with thighs that looked like braided steel.

He was 20 in 1995 when he flattened Will Carling at the Rugby World Cup. Carling said afterwards that Lomu was "a freak...the sooner he goes away, the better." Brian Moore, another member of the English team Lomu rampaged through in that World Cup, was asked how to stop him. His answer: "I suppose you might stop him with an elephant gun." Anyone watching had to agree. Those late-night clips of him, the rare bits of BBC World coverage: They showed a terror whose only proper reaction fell somewhere between gobsmacked awe and fearful worship.

As an American, that was how you saw Jonah Lomu before the Internet: In flashes, horrifying, thrilling flashes. He was, for lack of any more accurate word, an alarming athlete. He made you worried for other competitors and their welfare. Lomu did not just shake off tacklers. He threw them, tossed them, shrugged them off like toddlers clinging to his legs, heaved them aside like cheap overcoats. Some of the best rugby players of his generation met him head-on. They all lost, and in spectacular fashion.

As it turns out, that was how everyone else ended up seeing him, too: In flashes, his career interrupted by arbitrary cruelties of circumstance and physiology. His best shot at a World Cup was broken up when 21 of 26 All Blacks contracted food poisoning before the final with South Africa. (Invictus, for Kiwis at least, is not an inspiring story of redemption, but is instead one of the royal random screw-jobs in the history of their national sport.) His career was hampered by Nephrotic syndrome, the kidney disease he was diagnosed with in 1995. When he died, Lomu was on the waiting list for a second kidney transplant to replace the one he received in 2004 that his body began rejecting in 2011.*

*Despite the obvious insanity of the idea, Lomu came back to play rugby after that 2004 transplant before finally retiring in 2007.

As a result of his disease, Lomu was never really at 100 percent. He scored two tries in the 1999 World Cup match against France, but that would be another flash of his stampeding brilliance interrupted by dazzling bad luck. The French, after falling behind 24-10, rallied for a 43-31 victory over the All Blacks. I watched that match in a bar in Kathmandu filled with Kiwis, and the silence after the game was unlike anything I've ever heard. Everyone had the same question: How could you lose with that man on your side, running out at the wing at a size and speed unheard of not just in rugby, but anywhere? Men that big were supposed to be playing in the interior of the line, not on the wing. They were not supposed to chortle with the ball in their hands, as a young Jonah Lomu did when hapless would-be tacklers bore in on him on a practice field at Wesley College. It was funny to those who tried to stop him when his coaches decided to listen to every devil on their shoulder and put him on the wing with the ball in his hands. It was funny to anyone watching.

It was, by all reports, funny to Jonah Lomu, though none of it had to be. Raised in Tonga and South Auckland, Lomu grew up covering up the bruises left from his father's beatings. When he was in trouble at home, he slept under a bridge, or at friends' homes until things cooled off and he could return. When Lomu finally fought back against his father -- throwing Semisi Lomu across the room bodily -- he was kicked out of the house for good. Lomu and his father didn't speak for 17 years. A Samoan/Tongan dispute resulted in Lomu's uncle's death in a machete attack at a shopping mall. Shortly afterwards, Lomu's mother sent him to Wesley College, where his rugby career began in earnest. Lomu was not supposed to happen, not in the geographic sense, not by class, not even by physiology. Lomu played his best rugby at, in his own estimation, about "eighty percent" due to his kidney disease. Jonah Lomu, in a lot of ways, was not something that was supposed to ever happen.

Despite all that, he did. The funniest part of all this is how, with the infinite replay of the internet, Lomu doesn't shrink or fade into something routine. Watch him. It's all still there: The frightening speed, the obvious glee at being let loose on the field of play in such a fearsome package, the power to grind opponents into the turf or toss them over his shoulder like a judoka. Lomu changed the game of rugby, sure, but don't pretend like this was a mold others could fill, or a position created by Lomu. Jonah Lomu played the Jonah Lomu position, one created by Jonah Lomu. His coaches were only giggling accomplices.

The other part about that exposure: Lomu was all too happy to reveal his humanity, even as his health declined. He helped make documentaries about his life, he appeared in ugly sweaters for UNICEF. Lomu openly talked of how he knew he might die young, and that he wanted to make it to 55 in order to see his young children reach adulthood. He kept busy, working the endorsement circuit and politely manhandling kids at youth rugby camps around the world. He visited Joost van der Westhuizen, the South African who prevented him from getting a try in 1995 in the final, and told him he loved him as Westhuizen sat in his wheelchair, paralyzed by ALS. Three days ago, he was in Dubai with his family, tweeting out pictures of the French flag unfurled across the front of the Burj Al Arab hotel. He was, in the end, a nice man with a horrible draw in life who played it about as well as one could.

Today he is dead at the age of 40, and those of us who saw him in blurry flashes in the pre-Internet era were wrong. The distance between the world and him did not make him bigger than he was. The first estimates were correct, and on review that was Jonah Lomu's proper size all along: Gargantuan, in every sense of the word.