By Fan Ndubuoke
I can’t really remember how our paths crossed. Possibly, at the National stadium, Surulere, Lagos. In the late eighties , I left the Imo Broadcasting Service,IBS, Owerri to join the Champion Newspapers , Lagos as a pioneer staff on the sports beat. Austin Mgbolu had also moved over to Lagos from Benin as a Sports correspondent for Edo state owned Observer Newspapers. I can’t recall who arrived first.
But birds of the same feather, it’s said , always flock together. Both of us had a lot in common and naturally bonded. First, we were both coming from poorly funded state owned corporations where salary was either insignificant or irregular. Family background was similar. Not with a silver spoon. A pair of shoes was a luxury, while some shirts were worn more than twice a week.
Remarkablely, educational background was almost the same as other parameters. Austin had just a diploma from One Journalism Institute in Benin while my only qualification then was also a diploma in Mass Communication from the University of Lagos. But we were determined not to be deterred from pursuing our dreams . We lived closely in the Mainland of Lagos, jumping in and out of any available bus heading towards the National stadium Surulere on daily basis.
Under the tree at the Stadium was a common meeting place as we hunted for sports stories along with other colleagues , most of them clearly ahead of us on the beat. As the chairman of Imo state chapter of the Sportswriters Association of Nigeria, as well as member of the National Caretaker Committee of the association before coming to Lagos, integration was not difficult.
December 1991, I was elected national president of the association in Kaduna with a lot of support from Austin Mgbolu and indeed the entire leadership of Lagos SWAN at the time. By the provisions of decree 101 of the Nigeria Football Association, the national president of SWAN was automatically a board member of the football governing body. Elder Effiong Okon was the chairman of the board at the time.
When late Air Commodre Emeka Omeruah became the first elected chairman of the board in 1993,he came with a lot of innovations and ideas. Omeruah was worried about the negative image NFA was always associated with. He tabled the issue before the board. Opinions were divided whether the presence of the national president of the Sportswriters on the board wasn’t enough to address the issue . My position was very clear that Public Relations was a Management function. I was only a board member. The NFA/NFF has always been in the news for the wrong reasons. It didn’t start today. There was need for a full time image-maker. Moreover, not every sportswriter supported the idea of the watchdog being on the board. Don’t mind if some of the arguments were petty.
The board approved the employment of a full time public relations officer and the Secretary-General, Alhaji Sani Toro who was fully in support of the idea, constituted a panel to engage one within the rank and file of SWAN; with yours sincerely as the chairman of the selection team.
I can’t remember all the members now but I won’t forget the head of Pro-League then Steve Olarinoye(now a Doctor), as well as Salihu Abubarkar were members. The search was eventually narrowed down to the then Secretary-General of SWAN, Mr Domino Johnson of the News Agency of Nigeria and our now fallen colleague, Austin Mgbolu, the ‘Booster’. Austin got the job.
Naturally, Johnson, a complete gentleman,felt betrayed by his president and comrade. But I had a clear mandate; to not only hire one of us but one whose presence at Ogulana Drive, would help tackle the barrage of negative reports about the football house. Austin Mgbolu was hugely popular among his colleagues. He didn’t have many baggage and his choice was widely acclaimed.
Austin grabbed the opportunity with both hands. It was a dream job, given where he was coming from. Without any formal certification in the field of public relations, he excelled and masterfully executed the demands of the office for about a decade. What he didn’t have in formal training at the time, he had in aboundance in charisma. Jovial, friendly, unassuming and above all humble. Austin was not the media officer of the national team as some tend to refer to him, he was incharge of the image -making department of the entire football house.
Aware that his detractors tormented him with his scanty academic box, he enrolled with the Lagos State University LASU, where he later obtained both First and Masters degrees. Even when the football house relocated to the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, he refused to give up on his academic pursuits. Austin shuttled between Lagos and Abuja by air for many years.
However, he exited the office as a result of controversial reforms carried out by the Ministry of Sports which suspended the entire management of NFA and asked affected staff to reapply as contract staff. Luckily, Austin had regularised his employment with the Federal Civil Service Commission which posted him to the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs.He remained there until his untimely death last week.
Sincerely speaking, i never knew the origin of the nickname ‘Booster’ until his demise. I now know is in recognition of his generosity and magnanimity, especially to his younger colleagues. He had human milk flowing in him. I never called him by the nickname because the source was not clear to me. I can’t agree more with those who described him as such. He was a real Booster, not only to his younger colleagues but to all who came in contact with him.
Austin had a unique name for all his associates. Who will now call me ‘Ndubulife’? or “Fannooo”. If he had a fault, it would be his passion for his Creator and his immediate family. His 85 -year -old mother was only laid to rest last year at Ibusa, Delta state . Austin has left his calm, quiet, and equally unassuming wife Felicia, his three young children, two boys and a girl behind. They, with his only brother and sisters,will have to live without the Booster forever. The young family needs our prayers and support to remain strong. For all of us he boosted, this is pay back time. This is indeed the painful exit of a Booster like no other. Adieu Austin.