A Message to My Fans

Dan Carter
·11 min read

Before I was anything, I was a rugby fan.

I suppose it really started when I was five years old, and New Zealand cohosted the first-ever Rugby World Cup.

This was 1987, and while I have so many memories from around that age that are blurry, that tournament is still crystal clear in my mind.

The All Blacks played the very first match of the tournament against Italy in Auckland. And it was during that game (an All Blacks win, naturally) that John Kirwan scored one of the greatest tries I’ve ever seen. He took a kickoff and, with a full head of steam, ran the length of field, weaving through Italy’s entire team, dodging tackle after tackle, until he finally dove across the line to score. Man, that play just lit a fire inside me — I still get tingles just thinking about it.

As soon as that match was over, I was in my front yard trying to mimic all the same moves he’d made on that play. Now, I was just a little kid, the ball was almost as big as I was, but in my mind I was JK. I was sprinting full speed, weaving through tacklers, and I was wearing that iconic jersey as I touched the ball down for the try and the imaginary crowd lost its mind.

New Zealand ended up winning the entire tournament, and I still remember the moment when David Kirk, the team captain, hoisted the trophy in the air. It cemented one thought in my mind. It wasn’t actually a thought so much as it was a dream — a wild one at that.

I wanted that to be me one day.

I wanted to be an All Black. I wanted to represent my country — even if it was just for one cap.

Before I was anything, I was a rugby fan.Dan Carter

I was really young, but at that moment I had zero doubts as to what I wanted in my life. And I knew I would be willing to do whatever it took — to make whatever sacrifices I needed to — in order to get it.

It seemed an impossible dream at the time because I was from a town of about 700 people. But that didn’t really phase me because all that drove me was my passion for the game and sport in general. Growing up, my room was covered from floor to ceiling with posters of athletes I idolized — rugby players, cricketers, basketballers. If I wasn’t outside playing sports, I was inside daydreaming about them.

But more than anything, I loved rugby.

I went to every game I could get a ticket to, trained constantly, and I definitely hounded my favorite players for an autograph and “just one photo.” I definitely know what it’s like to wish you could just be in the vicinity of a player you idolized, and maybe, just maybe, work up the courage to interact with them. I experienced that feeling for so many of the players I watched growing up — some of whom I was blessed enough to play with later.

And that’s why, as I get ready for a new chapter in my life, it only felt right to say something to you, the fans — because you really are what’s made this journey so special, and why I’ve stuck with it as long as I have.

Ross Land/Getty Images
Ross Land/Getty Images

Back in 2002, I was 20 years old and hadn’t signed a professional contract yet.

I was playing provincial rugby and working a few part-time jobs on the side while living in a filthy flat with a whole bunch of mates who attended a uni nearby. I still had ambitions of playing professionally, but back then my more immediate focus was on just being able to afford rent.

One day, when I was walking down Oxford Terrace in Christchurch, I was stopped by this man. He said hello, and then just started talking to me like we knew each other pretty well. He was a really nice guy. We were just talking rugby, and he was really curious about my opinions and just seemed to know a lot about me. So, the entire time we spoke I just kept trying to place where we must have met before. Maybe an old teacher? Is this guy a friend of my dad’s?

We ended up talking on the side of the road for about 20 minutes (which is pretty brief as rugby discussions go). As soon as we said goodbye and I turned around, I started jogging through my mind trying to think of who he could have been — but I just couldn’t come up with a name.

And then it finally hit me — that this man wasn’t actually anybody I knew at all. He was just someone who had seen me play that weekend. I’m not going to lie, part of me thought — on a basic human level — Man, O.K., that was kind of weird.

I'd just spent 20 minutes on the side of the road talking with a random pedestrian who I’d pretended to know in order to be polite.

But then I realized the flip side of that. This man had taken 20 minutes out of his day to be kind and make conversation with me all because he enjoyed watching me play the game I love. And I realized that the reason it felt like we knew each other was because of the passion we shared for the same thing — rugby.

This is a sport that spans so many different continents and cultures, but there’s a special connection between fans everywhere. It’s a peculiar thing, this game where you can be absolutely brutal on the field for 80 minutes, and then afterwards, it’s all behind you. There are plenty of sports where opposing fans need to be separated from each other in different sections, but that’s not the case for rugby. You go at it as hard as you can as a player and as a supporter, and as soon as the final whistle blows, there’s no animosity toward the opposing side — just a desire to grab a beer with them.

It was surreal as my career progressed and more and more fans started taking an interest in my form. I learned a lot about the power of sport, and how much a game and result can really impact others.

This man had taken 20 minutes out of his day to be kind and make conversation with me all because he enjoyed watching me play the game I love.Dan Carter

When I started getting my first fan letters, I made a point to try to respond to every single one. The wins always felt that much more special because I knew I was making so many people happy. And losses hurt that much worse because I truly was invested in not wanting to disappoint those who supported my side. But more than anything, I always appreciated the fact so many fans invested their emotions in my performance.

There are many things that people struggle with in life that they can’t control. We all deal with our own battles that take up a lot of our headspace. But knowing that, for 80 minutes, people could watch me play a game and completely take their mind off the stresses of life — that was special to me.

The greatest example of that I experienced was in 2011, when we had a huge earthquake in Christchurch. Our fans and community were hit really hard, and for many people, rugby became a way to briefly escape the trauma that they were going through. I’ve never been on a team that played harder than we did — all because we wanted to give those people who were suffering something to cheer and feel positive about.

With the rise of social media, it became much easier to interact directly with fans. So as my career went on, I didn’t get as much fan mail as I used to. But there was still one fan of mine from Japan who never stopped sending me letters. She attended my matches all over the world, and kept track of the results, and thought enough to continue writing to me about them.

So to Yuka — and every other fan who’s taken the time to reach out — thank you. Truly.

Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images
Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

My first cap for the All Blacks was against Wales in 2003.

I was only 21, basically still a kid, and one of the things I remember most was sitting at my locker before the game, just looking around wide-eyed.

Those posters that covered my walls growing up? They had come to life. All the players surrounding me were guys I had absolutely worshipped growing up. Honestly, it felt like an out-of-body experience. Of course, I was trying to get my head right for the match, but I was also just amazed to be sitting there among those legends. Feeling almost like, Who let me in here?

All that sort of carried over to the field when I heard the roar of the crowd and we did the haka. It was all surreal. But then, during that game, something happened. A switch flipped. And I stopped thinking about how happy I was to be there and what a dream it was to earn a cap for the All Blacks. Instead, all I could think about was I want to do this again. And again. And again.

Since I first picked up a ball, rugby has always been what I wanted to do. I just love it. I love everything about it. And for the majority of my life, it’s been my biggest focus. It has required a ton of sacrifices. To dedicate your life to a sport this physical asks a ton out of your body. I pushed mine further than I ever thought I could, but with the support of my family and treatment from world-class training and medical staff, I made it through.

If you told me a year before the 2015 World Cup — when I had several injuries, my form was suffering and I had serious doubts that I’d make the squad — that I would compete for another half a decade until the age of 38 and win championships on three different continents, there’s no chance I would have believed you. I just wouldn’t be able to imagine that I was going to be that fortunate.

I was trying to get my head right for the match, but I was also just amazed to be sitting there among those legends.Dan Carter

The physical pains took their toll, and I still feel plenty of them when I wake up in the morning, but today I’m healthy and healed. The time I’ve sacrificed away from my family, though, I know that’s something I can’t get back. After our season was canceled in Japan, and I returned home to New Zealand to be with my family, I realized that I never wanted to leave them again. And with our fourth child now on the way, I know I just have too many future memories with the people most important in my life that I can’t afford to miss.

My wife, Honor, still doesn’t really believe I’m retiring. More than anyone else, she’s the reason I’ve been able to play as long as I have. As I’ve been continuing to chase the dreams I had since I was a child, she’s been my rock. But I’m ready for what’s next after rugby. Being able to not just say that, but to truly feel it, is a privilege. Ultimately, getting to leave your sport on your own terms is all you can really hope for as an athlete.

But I’d be lying if I said I don’t think I’ll miss playing.

Being able to go on the pitch, do the thing I love most in the world and make people happy in the process was always a thrill for me. I never took it for granted. And it’s what I’m truly going to miss the most.

I always knew my career wasn’t going to last forever. This game is so much bigger than any one player. Ultimately, we’re just custodians, and can only hope to leave the game in better shape than we found it.

My greatest hope is that maybe there was at least one person out there who, while watching me play, might have had a little spark ignited inside of them. And maybe that spark motivated them to dedicate themselves to their own impossible dream.

And maybe, if they put their full hearts and focus into it, they could also learn that their impossible dreams, as it turns out, aren’t so impossible after all.