Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Legend Of Pat Ekeji

Odyssey Of A Green Eagle: From The Pitch To The Summit by Patrick Ekeji; Kachifo Limited (Prestige), Lagos; 2014; 185pp

“Kingpin Ekeji” was a nickname coveted by most young footballers playing in the defence in the years following the end of the civil war. Patrick Ekeji was a rock in the defence of the East Central Academicals that won the Manuwa Adebajo Cup in 1971. Ekeji would go on to distinguish himself in the national team, the Green Eagles. He upped the ante by becoming a coach, and ended his career on the lofty note of retiring as the Director-General of the National Sports Commission in 2013.
Most sportsmen and women all over the world are not reputed for book knowledge. Ekeji has the singular distinction of graduating from University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 1978 with an Upper-Second grade despite his football demands that even made one of his lecturers to subtract 40 percent class attendance score from him! Even as sportsmen and women overseas may not be gifted in writing they almost always publish many autobiographies through their careers, mostly ghost-written by sports journalists. Ekeji’s book initially started out as collaboration with the journalist Joe Nwachukwu (Atinga) but that initial effort fell through. It is indeed a thing of great joy that Ekeji eventually on his own wrote and published Odyssey Of A Green Eagle: From The Pitch To The Summit to blaze the trail of our sporting legends telling their stories from their own perspectives.
Born on March 11, 1951 to a policeman father in the autonomous community of Nguru-Nwenkwo, Aboh-Mbaise in today’s Imo State, the young Patrick started primary schooling at St. Jude’s Catholic School, Amuzi before his father took the family to his station in Lagos. He got enrolled into St. Mathias Catholic School, Lafiaji, Lagos, a 25-minute walking distance from his home in Obalende Police Barracks. His talent in football got noticed quite early, and his leadership potentials manifested when he got his playmates to compete for mock trophies in 100 yards sprint, long jump and 400 yards race. When he switched school to the farther St. George’s Catholic School, Falomo he turned truant which led to his being thrashed by his father. At the famous St. Gregory’s College, Patrick was a notable hurdler and footballer, and he made it into the school football team in 1965 at class three.
His sojourn in Lagos ended in April 1967 at the approach of the Biafra war when Igbo lives in Lagos were greatly endangered. He continued his schooling for a brief period in Stella Maris College, Port Harcourt where he equally played football with the likes of Ugochukwu Uba who bore the nickname of Pele. He left Port Harcourt before the city fell and settled in his hometown. He wept when his attempt at recruitment into the Biafra Air Force failed because he had a prominent navel. He was once conscripted but escaped only to eventually enlist into the Biafran Army Signals (BAS). He was once caught sleeping on duty.
He survived the civil war and was back to school in 1970 at Community Secondary School, Amuzi. He had planned to study Medicine in the university but the local secondary school could not offer Physics and Latin. He had to take the WASC exams at the farther Mbaise Secondary School that had a provision for Physics. His first attempt in 1970 was cancelled by WAEC and he had to do a retake in 1971. His football prowess got noticed by the scouts of Holy Ghost College, Owerri, and he was promptly offered a scholarship for Higher School Certificate by the esteemed school. The self-assured Patrick had earlier met Coach Dan Anyiam, asking to be tried out for inclusion into Rangers Football Club of Enugu. Anyiam had told him to come back on the next Monday only for the poachers from Holy Ghost College, Owerri to intervene on the weekend, thus sending him to Owerri for his higher school studies.
He was an instant hit as a footballer, helping Holy Ghost College to defeat St. Theresa’s College, Nsukka 3-1 in the final of the 1971 ECS Academicals Cup. Patrick was then a redoubtable Central Defender nicknamed Powerhouse. He was invited alongside other notable schoolboy footballers to make up the state team billed for the Manuwa Adebajo competition in Lagos. A versatile player, he played at right fullback, giving up the central defence to Dominic Ezeani. The crack ECS team made up of Ahamefula Umelo, Ekeji, Christian Chukwu, Dominic Ezeani, Innocent Nwokeji, Paul Agu, Moses Nweke, Obed Ariri, Skipper Godwin Ogbueze, Kenneth Ilodigwe and Tony Uzoka defeated all-comers in Lagos to cart home the coveted trophy. All the players were awarded scholarships by the ECS government of Ukpabi Asika, with the name of Ekeji being singularly put forward as the one to study Physical and Health Education.
A very unassuming lad, he registered for his club football career with the less-fancied Jonathan Ogufere-inspired Vasco Da Gama as opposed to Rangers. He was in the East Central State football team known as the Spartans that won the inaugural gold medal at the 1st National Sports Festival.
A child of destiny, he gained admission into UNN in 1974 to study Physical Education as though ordained on high. He somewhat fortuitously broke into the national team, the Green Eagles, in 1975. He did not receive a letter of invitation into the team which he believed he deserved. He went to the office of the pioneer Chairman of the old Anambra State Sports Council, Patrick Nwakobi, who sponsored his young namesake’s trip to the Eagles camp in Lagos. It was the first time of him travelling in an aircraft. He got to the Eagles training ground and Coach “Father” Tiko was very happy to see him, stressing that he had actually sent out an invitation into the team to him! The Eagles Team Manager Ibikunle Armstrong who protested at Patrick’s inclusion was overruled by Coach Tiko who instantly ordered him to change into playing gears for the practice session. He thus became a bona fide Green Eagle, representing his country whilst schooling in the university.
He was in the Eagles team to the Montreal Olympic Games in Canada which was boycotted by the Supreme Council for Sports in Africa. His saddest day in football was on November 12, 1977 when his fellow defender Godwin Odiye scored the own goal in National Stadium, Surulere against Tunisia that denied Nigeria a first-time qualification for the World Cup. Meantime, his bosom friend Chuka Momah urged him on to sign for Rangers International which he did on the invitation of the then club chairman Jim Nwobodo. He was offered a Volkswagen car or the cash equivalent by Nwobodo, and he took the cash, not wanting the distraction of riding a car on campus.
It was in the course of the preparation for the hosting of the 12th African Cup of Nations in 1980 that he opted out of being a member of the Green Eagles following a misunderstanding with Coach Otto Gloria. He then underwent a coaching course in then West Germany between 1980 and 1982. On his return to Nigeria, he did a rescue mission as the coach of the Green Eagles in the matches against Zambia in 1985. Afterwards he served as the coach of African Continental Bank (ACB) team, in Lagos.
He was thereafter appointed the Director of Sports in his native Imo State. On December 30, 1994, he was appointed the National Director of Sports at the NSC. He survived all the multiform political intrigues until then President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua approved his appointment as the Director-General of the NSC on April 15, 2009. He retired meritoriously in 2013. Ekeji deplores the high turnover in sports administration, stressing that “from 1995, when Shola Rhodes SAN, got me back into the National Sports Commission up to 2013, when I retired as Director General (a period of eighteen years) I served under 15 different ministers. With this scenario, it has been difficult to establish consistent sports administration with a focus on policies and management.”
This is a well-packaged book. The only minuses are minor mix-ups in memory such as mingling the names of the players in the squads of the East Central State Academicals of 1971 and 1972, and giving the alias of the player Innocent Nwokeji as “Trigger” instead of “Stagger Lee”. Patrick Ekeji has indeed lived up to the words of his mentor Augustine Otiji who said, “in the future when you talk sports, Nigeria will listen.”