By Onochie Anibeze
I met Reverend Edmund Akpala last week in Lagos and my mind flashed back to when I met Justin Rewane in Warri two years ago.
Justin is the son of Alfred Rewane, the top civil rights activist murdered during the General Sani Abacha days.
Justin awed everybody around with his passion for sports. He aired deep knowledge of track and field and recalled not only events but also performances of some star athletes in the days Nigeria gave meaning to sports.
It was in the house of John Oganwu, arguably, the first university graduate to play for the national team, then known as the Red Devils. Events that happened in the 1960s and 1970s running into the 1980s were so aptly captured by Justin that we all pictured them.
His description of Tony Urhobo on the Pole Vault, the long legs of Abdulkarim Amu on the tracks and the jumps of Seigha Porbeni was such that we all felt the actions he vividly painted. Amaju Pinnick, the FA boss of Delta State and head of the Sports Commission and his predecessor Solomon Ogba were among the visitors in Oganwu’s house. Justin thrilled all.
His stories on Hussey College, Warri, drew lamentations on why the authorities allowed the sports culture in such a school to die. There are many of them in Nigeria. It is , however, one of the regrets of the military administration in Nigeria. Many things died when they took over schools.
The greater disappointment is even with the politicians who, rather than carry out total repairs, have been adding weight to the rape of the polity. And so our institutions are now a far cry from the potentials that they were before our fall started.
“I want to see what changes we can make to get back some of these things,” Reverend Father Akpala said in his office before a walk down to the school’s athletics ground beside where a block of class rooms was under construction.
“After this project,(pointing at the building under construction) I’ll face the school athletics ground and make it a better ground for the school,” Akpala said while showing me round some of the structures that make St Gregory’s college one of the best in the country. They included the laboratories, the chapel, boarding hostel and the soccer field.
Akpala is the administrator of St. Gregory’s College in Lagos. It is a Catholic school of repute. In his office hung some pictures and memorabilia. One was a black and white picture when he competed in the Grier Cup and another was the great relay quartet of 1967, comprising Tokombo Pierce, Kyrusi from Uganda, Bobby Emmanuel and his humble self.
They were champions, having beaten all teams in Nigeria. Those were the days schools competed in the Grier Cup and zonal winners or representatives then qualified to compete in the Hussey Shield. Akpala was a sprinter but he was better in the jumps. Interestingly, he is an Old Boy of St. Gregory’s College, the same great school that produced Cardinal Olubunmi Okojie who was to become the Principal of the College and experienced the misfortune of the military government’s take- over of schools. It happened in his time. It took more than two decades for the schools to return to the missions.
Now, Akpala holds sway at St Gregory’s and rebuilding is on. His 7.9m leap in the Long Jump in 1969 and a 14.05 effort in the Tripple Jump in 1967 are still part of the existing records at St. Gregory’s. He discussed sports with so much passion that I got emotional. It was moving. It was like listening to Sergha Porbeni or Brown Ebewele discuss sports from athletes’ perspective.
They were great athletes. So was Reverend Akpala. He recalled when he lost shape and nobody gave him a chance to even represent the school. He had to sneak out early in the mornings to do road work to get back to shape.
“I also controlled what I ate and I made sure I rested at the appropriate time,” he said with some nostalgia. “When I saw the crowd that came for our Inter House Sports, nobody told me I had to do something special.
The leading jump was 20 feet. I jumped 21 in my first jump but it was a no jump. I faulted. I adjusted. I knew what to do. It was in my third jump that I got the crowd cheering. My run_up was great and the moment I hit the board, even the sound told me I was on.
I jumped 22 feet and was invited to the national team. We went to Ghana and I jumped 23. When I recall what happened I feel bad because I could have jumped 24 or more in my last jump. But I was so excited about my feat that I didn’t think of it. I was already celebrating. That wasn’t professional..”
It was with the same passion that Father Akpala discussed school traditions and their performance in academics. He quickly reeled out names of great Nigerians who passed through St. Gregory’s College and showed me recent results of students.
One particular student scored A in nine papers in the WAEC. Even the quality of their Year Book which they have been updating from inception of the school as well as their Inter House Sports Brochure are pointers to their high standard in most things.
“We’ll be on track again for sports,” Akpala said, adding “the school is known for discipline, academics and sports. Sports will be back. I tried to raise a good soccer team and the boys did well in the Shell Cup but lost to a school whose players didn’t look like secondary school students. It was obvious. We need to stop cheating if we are to excel in sports. It must begin with schools.”
When I left Akpala’s office I felt good. I knew that Nigeria could work again if the right things were done. I thought about the recent committee appointed by the sports minister to revive sports in schools. My friend Segun Odegbami heads this committee.
He is also the arrow head of the Shell Cup where participants are expected to come from the schools and not more than eighteen years of age. (This is a story for another day) My first suggestion to the Odegbami led committee is to have Centres of Excellence all over the country. What they could do at these centres will be a topic for another day too.
I have seen one centre at St. Gregory’s College, a school founded in 1928 which till date boasts of great ground in school tradition, academics, sports, camaraderie and discipline. I know and I have seen, because I went to Government College Umuahia, a school with an equally rich tradition but which unfortunately lost to the test of time. Permit me to blow my own trumpet, too.
Rest In Peace, Olufemi
Whenever I look at Olufemi Adebayo’s pictures the feeling is indescribable. So he is gone?
May the soul of the faithful departed and that of Olufemi Adebayo, through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.