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The sporting family bleeds again

The sporting family bleeds again

By Steve Alabi
August is a month of dreadful remembrance for Nigerian sports. It is the month that saw the untimely demise of the most flamboyant superstar in Nigerian football, Samuel Okwaraji and the most colourful commentator in sportscasting in this clime, Ernest Okonkwo. Since these two distinguished gentlemen passed on, I have made it a duty to pay tribute to their warm memory every year. I didn’t know that I would have to add a tribute to a dear colleague and committed sportscaster this year.

The news came like a bolt out of the blue last Saturday, that Akinloye Oyebanji of the NTA Sports family is no more, having lost the battle for life to heart failure. Akin was a much beloved member of that generation of skilled, vibrant and enterprising sports reporters, commentators and producers who took television sportscasting to new heights in the eighties and thenceforth. From Lagos to Kaduna, Owerri to Sokoto, these high flyers brought dynamism, energy and colour to the daily reportage of sports on the tube. They followed in the rich tradition of excellence of two acknowledged masters of the game with contrasting styles, the straight shooting and direct Fabio Lanipekun and the suave and witty Yinka Craig.

Lagos produced Akin as well as Charles Ojugbana, Rotimi Bisiriyu, Maxwell Eseigbe, Tunde Orebiyi and Willie Sowho. The West gave Dele Ojeisekhoba (Benin), Tayo Balogun, Feyi Ogunduyile and Modele Oshinaike (Ibadan) as well as Dele Bakarey (Abeokuta) and my humble self (Akure). From the East came Okwun Omeakwu and Paul Ogazi (Aba/Owerri) and Okey Anyichie (Enugu). The North produced Hameed Adio (Ilorin), Bayo Atoyebi and Femi Okeowo (Kaduna), John Akiboh and Smart Adeyemi (Minna), Martins Simire and Mainasarra Illo (Sokoto) as well as the current NTA Director General, Yakubu Ibn Mohammed (Bauchi) and his younger brother, Abdulrahman Ibn Mohammed (Jos).

It was that exciting time that Nigerian sports were receiving a big boost and you could be in one competition or the other today within our shores and be outside the country the next day. Akin was in the thick of it all. While most of the NTA Sports crew were gregarious or boisterous, he possessed a calm and quiet disposition. He carried himself with the dignity of a cleric but performed with the agility of a cougar. He had this unique style of a near drawl in his presentation that enhanced his thoroughness and attention to details. He also had this deceptive gait that masked abundant energy that he unleashed on assignments with incredible success.

It was no wonder then that he soldiered on when reduced activity in coverage started forcing the crew out. He succeeded the great Fabio Lanipekun as the Head of NTA Network Sports and became the pioneer Head of the station’s 24-hour sports channel. He retired as Managing Director of NTA Properties at the authority’s headquarters in Abuja. Unfortunately after retirement, Akin battled health challenges arising from the loss of his kidneys though they were successfully replaced through a transplant in India. He passed on at only 62.

We pay tribute to a man who did his duty diligently and conscientiously to his fatherland, a true sports titan, a dear colleague and friend. We also remember the exceptional patriotism of Samuel Okwaraji and the bombastic inventiveness of Ernest Okonkwo who died prematurely at 25 and 54 on August 12, 1989 and August 7, 1990 respectively. Okwaraji’s rise to prominence was as dramatic as it was impactful. Unknown at home, he came home in January 1988 on holidays from his German base where he plied his trade with Bundesliga side, VfB Stuttgart and decided to attend a training session with the defunct Iwuanyawu Nationale of Owerri. Coach Tony Ukeachu was impressed with the bundle of talent just unveiled and immediately alerted the national gaffer, Paul Hamilton.

In only a matter of days, he was already playing for the Green Eagles against Algeria in a Seoul Olympic Games qualifier at Enugu, slotting into the midfield with effortless ease as if he had been part of the team for years. A lawyer with a Master’s degree in international law from the Pontifical Lateran University of Rome, Okwaraji subsequently became a natural feature in the team’s midfield. Though he played only eight times for the Green Eagles, he is remembered for his unmatched intense patriotism. He collapsed and died of heart failure in a World Cup qualifier versus Angola at the National Stadium, Surulere.

Many remember Okwaraji as a player who wore dreadlocks but originally, he spotted the Afro hair cut until the 1988 European Cup of Nations when Ruud Gullit, wearing braids, inspired Holland to victory. Okwaraji thereafter braided his hair in imitation of his hero and wore the distinctive dreadlocks till his death. It was at Maroc ’88 African Cup that he showed his full potentials as a gifted dancer in the midfield, scoring a 2nd minute world class goal against a world class goalkeeper (Antoine Bell) in a world class match between Nigeria and perennial foes, Cameroon.

Like Okwaraji, Ernest Okonkwo was a sports superstar, albeit of the microphone. He was a grandiloquent wordsmith who invented catchy phrases for football games and created enduring titles for the national heroes of the time in his commentaries on Radio Nigeria. Segun Odegbami was Mathematical, Christian Chukwu was Chairman, Yisa Sofoluwe was Dean of Defence, Adokie Amaesimaka was Chief Justice, Aloysius Atuegbu was Blockbuster and Humphrey Edobor was Elastic, among others. There was this unforgettable line he coined, “This is Okey Isima passing the ball to Sylvanus Okpala. They both play in Portugal. They can communicate in English. They can communicate in Ibo. They can communicate in Portuguese. And they are communicating with the ball.” Absolutely delirious!

Akinloye Oyebanji goes to join these sporting souls, and the duo of Taiwo Ogunjobi and Tony Eke, who departed earlier this year in February. The family bleeds again and it hurts but we must wish them, and all the sporting departed, a happy reunion yonder and peaceful rest in the bosom of the Lord.

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