This is for all young persons aspiring to a professional sports career, examined through my own story. Enjoy it.
Two weeks ago, I received the good news that the Federal University Oye Ekiti, FUOYE, would be conferring on me an Honourary Doctorate degree in Human Kinetics during the institution’s 7th Convocation ceremony on February 11, 2023.
The reaction of all those that heard or read has been a deluge on the airwaves and on social media. I have been overwhelmed by the flood of good will messages that make me to appreciate the enormity of this completely unsolicited honour.
Who could have imagined the trajectory of my life, a little unknown ‘local’ boy from Jos metamorphosing into the ‘popular jingo’ that I have become without traversing the regular paths of accomplishment in Nigeria?
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In the past few days, I have had to hold myself back from exploding with the excitement of this special ‘gift’ coming completely from the blue.
When I left Jos, a fledgling 17-year old boy, freshly minted at St. Murumba College, and landed in Ibadan to venture into the world of academics, it was with a start that was totally unrelated to any of the things that eventually became my life and story.
The only thought on my mind in 1970 was fulfilling my father’s wish to get a proper university education and to become either a lawyer, like the great Yoruba sage and political leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, or an engineer. My father’s instruction followed me like a shadow, ringing endlessly in my ears.
When football suddenly came along a few months into my sojourn in Ibadan, it was the last thought on my mind that it would shape the rest of my life. It started on the campus of The Polytechnic, Ibadan, where I ended up.
I loved football and had been playing it well from my primary and secondary school days in Jos. As soon as I arrived Ibadan, some new friends on the campus took me to a training session with a small football club, NTC, FC. I was given transport fare by an official of the club to take me back to the campus. That pittance became a useful, unexpected income.
Soon NTC FC started to win a few matches and some honours. With every success I started to get a little bit more money. I soon started to feature in newspaper reports. I was described as that ‘slow unknown striker’. After 2 years I had been thrown into the whirlpool of popularity around Ibadan and on the campus of the Polytechnic. I even won ‘Best Player of the Ibadan League award’.
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3 years after leaving Jos, in a divine script (or coincidence), as I was completing my compulsory Industrial Attachment, a requirement for admission for Higher National Diploma, HND, at the Polytechnic, I also received an invitation to the national team of Nigeria, the Green Eagles, following my impressive performance at the 1st. National Sports Festival.
Green Eagles? That was the last thing in my shopping list of ambitions. That dream did not even exist.
The transformation of my mindset from a purely academic pursuit to new possibilities in sports was moulded in that totally unexpected invitation. I suspected immediately that the ‘temptation’ would come at a cost, a price to pay and a sacrifice to make. The national team camp in Lagos is not where you went to (and succeeded) as an undergraduate student in Ibadan. There were no antecedents to draw inspiration, or hope, from. After some weeks in the national camp, I chose to go for my HND program for another two years, purely as a simple back-up plan.
Until last week, and for the past half a Century, I have not been certain if that decision was right or wrong. I was very afraid for my future. The lives of former renowned footballers were not pin-ups, and were a poor advertisement for a secure life beyond football. In my mind were too many uncertainties, but I took my decision.
I also had to give up going to West Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA, with 4 other classmates (Babatunde Oki, Tunde Oyewo, Soji Benson and one other) after our OND at the Polytechnic and Industrial attachments, to pursue whatever my invitation to the national football team in 1973 brought me. We had secured admission for our first degrees in Mechanical Engineering in Kalamazoo, a university to which the Polytechnic was affiliated. By the way, I also had admission into the prestigious Imperial College, London, one of the foremost engineering universities in the world, to study metallurgical engineering.
Ibadan was surely closer to the national team in Lagos than Michigan, or London, thousands of kilometres away from Nigeria and the opportunities that representing my country and being a famous star would bring.
My choice to remain in Nigerian football was a gamble, but was reinforced by the picture painted by the first Rector of the Polytechnic, Professor Victor Olunloyo, former Head of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Ibadan, when he spoke to us as pioneer students of the Higher Diploma program at the Polytechnic. He painted a future of ‘Paradise’ for Polytechnic graduates in the world – middle-level manpower technicians that would rule Industry in an emerging new technology-driven world.
His words were my hope, my motivation, my ‘oxygen’ for plunging into Nigerian football. The image of footballers being school-dropouts had to change, and I was a pioneer change-agent determined to earn respect and be counted as ‘successful’.
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So, I became a restless soul. The training I received at the Polytechnic prepared me for life as a serial entrepreneur and a business ‘nomad’. That life has lasted almost 50 years.
From being a full time football player for 14 years, to browsing through the radar of society for what I could venture into without the risk of ending up a dreg of society, I seized and exploited every scrap of opportunity I found in the sports industry, driven by the pursuit of success. It became an obsession.
Almost 40 years since I hung my football boots, I have not looked back. I have traversed the world of sports, seeking every exploitable opportunity in what was an untapped but lucrative industry.
I was always on the move, and connecting with people that knew me through football to establish any line of work related to sports. And I discovered to my surprise that everything is connected to sport – health, engineering, law, education, business, media, tourism, the environment, culture, music, and so on. It was limitless.
That’s how I joined my late friend, Dr. Sunny Obazu-Ojeagbase, to found the first, largest and most successful All-Sports publication in Nigeria. That’s how I got more deeply involved in sports journalism. Through the decades, I went into television production of sports programs, became a practicisng sports journalist, learning on the job from the newsroom to the sports field, covering events, producing documentaries and developing sports content for international media.
I became a pioneer in the sports business in Nigeria. It was safe. I was doing fairly well.
That has been my journey for 4 decades, setting a pace and standards in specialised sports fields.
20 years ago, I sought for a license to establish a radio station, and also laid the foundation stone of a sports secondary school and academy.
It took 18 years for the sports radio license to be granted, but in the past 9 months, it has been operating well.
In 2007, the sports school started and admitted its first student/athletes. The school is doing better than the dream that birthed it.
Against this background, despite all these accomplishments, I have had to admit to myself, from time to time, the existence of, still, a nagging feeling of unfilfilment, of something missing that all the accolades, national assignments and appointments could not fill.
These past 2 weeks, things have suddenly changed.
The conferment of an Honourary Doctorate Degree, one that is neither ‘bought’ nor solicited for, but earned through the merit of one’s work and scholarship, by a prestigious Nigerian university, seems to have filled that little void in my life.
I thank the Vice Chancellor, Governing Council, Senate, Staff and Students of the Federal University Oye Ekiti for adding the last jigsaw to the puzzle of my life by acknowledging my humble contributions, and gifting me academic recognition that assures me now that the Creator of the Universe knew the end from the beginning, when I had to take a decision that would change my life for good, forever. There was no error in my choice of going into Nigerian football when I did in 1974, because I had a cushion of education.
This recognition is a confirmation that sports and education are Siamese twins. It fills the missing void in my life and brings me fulfilment and joy that money cannot buy!
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