By Taiwo Alimi, Chris Orji
The image of his lifeless body at the altar of Nigerian football, Lagos National Stadium, has remained fresh on the minds of his family and Nigerians. Repeated efforts to find closure for Okwaraji have become impossible and every year since August 12, 1989, Okwaraji, who would have turned 55 this year, has returned to haunt a nation.
Okwaraji collapsed 10 minutes from the end of a 1990 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Angola. He died from possible complications of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy as an autopsy showed that the then 25-year-old had an enlarged heart and high blood pressure.
Prior to that sad incident, Sam had a blooming career in Europe and made the Green Eagles squad in 1988 and at that year’s African Nations Cup, where he scored one of the fastest goals in the history of the championship against the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon. He played well into the final match, which the Eagles lost to Cameroon by a lone goal.
“We can’t close the chapter of Sam’s life until the right things are done,” Patrick Okwaraji, Sam’s older brother and spokesman of the family, succinctly put it.
As family and friends gather to celebrate Sam tomorrow to mark his 30-year memorial, his life and death is a subject of discuss as if it were yesterday.
Sam was different from other kids his age. He was focused and determined to live a life to the full. For Patrick that watched him from infancy, he bore the pain more than others because of this sterling quality right from boyhood.
He said Sam excelled in nearly everything even as a boy. “My brother as a child was very active like every other kid. He was very bright. Beyond the primary and secondary school football that he played and excelled, he also did well in other sports. He was active in boxing, table tennis and football. He was a good goalkeeper and player. He was above most of his peers in terms of vision and that was why he was able to achieve some of the things he achieved at a young age. At the age of 22 he had already achieved his Masters degree and he was always ahead. He was focused. He was a very serious minded person.”
Unlike other kids in Africa whose parents usually have problem with them for choosing football ahead of education, Sam’s family did not need to worry or try stopping him because he was brilliant in all.
“We did not have any problem with him playing football because as he was into football, he was doing well in other areas. His academic work was excellent and his results were great from primary to secondary and up to university level till the incident happened. We had no cause to challenge him on his love for football because it was not as if his engagement was distracting him or giving him some form of hiccup.”
Like Patrick, the pain also runs deep in their mother. She has never remained the same since Sam’s death.
She watched Sam grow to become the family pillar. A strong and promising one at that. Sam started taking care of her and all those around her. His malevolent spirit was infectious and in her son’s death, the whole essence of living disappeared for Sam’s mother too.
When The Nation visited the family house to speak with her, she was indisposed out of ill heart. “Mama has been through a lot. She is not feeling well. She has tried and we want to shield her away from all this. It’s been 30 years.”
Chigozie Sam Okwaraji, Sam’s kid brother, was only 10 when his famous brother died, yet he remembers vividly Sam’s footprint. “I was quite young when he died. But I can’t forget his patriotism because I’ve heard his colleagues in primary and secondary school talk about him. His playmates: Bright Omokaro, Uche Okechukwu, Austin Eguavoen, Samson Siasia and Etim Esin all speak well about him. All the matches he played for his country he bought his own ticket and did not collect match bonuses.”
Teammate Austin Eguavoen and one-time Super Eagles coach, remembers him for his devotion to man and country. “Whenever Sam was coming for any national assignment, he would come with his mother who was staying with him in Europe at that time. And when he was going back they would leave together. He loved her. Then after each match, he would just take his bag and leave camp while the rest of us were waiting for match bonuses.”
Once Sam was asked by one of his teammates why he did that, he simply told them, “I can’t collect money playing for my country.”
Sam’s teammate, Etim Esin, remembers him as being ‘selfless and inspirational’.
“Sam was a great guy. He inspired me. He was ahead of his time. He inspired everyone around him. He called me ‘Maradona’ and advised me to go back to school when we were playing. He did not even know that I would get into trouble. If I had heeded his call then, it would be something to fall back on now.”
Patrick corroborates Etim’s picture of his brother.
“Sam was a king hearted person. Whenever he came back from Europe, he had a habit of moving around his neighbourhood, either in Enugu or Lagos. Like the time he was in Festac, he would always share sport jersey, football and other kits to kids. He would move around with his car and share football kits. He loved showing kindness. For lack of the right word, he was just showing kindness to a lot of kids. It is not easy to forget a person like that.”
Former assistant captain of Flying Eagles, Paul Okoku, calls him a ‘patriot and no nonsense man.’ “When his club attempted to exploit his services to his beloved country and asked him for $45,000 before they could release him to play for Nigeria, he put an end to their demand and subsequently detached himself from their nonsensical hypnosis and went on to play for Nigeria on his terms using his lawyerly instinct. He was a midfield maestro, a fearless tackler who played his heart out at every opportunity he had playing for Nigeria.”
HIGHEST HONOUR YET
Sam’s highest tribute and praise, yet, has come from an unlikely corner; from the United States of America (U.S.A)-based international multimedia company, Google.
On May 19, 2019, to mark Sam’s 55th posthumous birthday, Google displayed his doodle, (a special, temporary alteration of the logo on Google’s homepages intended to commemorate holidays, events, achievements, and notable historical figures.) for 48 hours.
Ranking the late Okwaraji by Google among world’s inspirational figures like Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Louis Braille, Ella Fitzgeraard, Rene Magritte and Freddie Mercury, to mention but few, is a vindication that a prophet is not recognised at him home since the recognition was sadly coming from shores outside his fatherland.
To bring closure to his death, the federal government must fulfil all promises pronounced at his grave side, Patrick said.
“At times I feel awkward talking about what Nigerian government needs to do to immortalise him. This has been about 30 years. You recall that Sam was granted a national burial. There were reasons for that. You know what it takes for a country to pronounce a national burial for someone. I can’t remember the number of people who have been granted such honour. Sam was given a national burial, there were reasons for that. So I don’t think the family is in the right position to really address this issue.
“But we see it as an injustice. If you have the cause to accord somebody a national burial and honour, that shows that the person has a legacy worthy of him. He should be immortalised to make impact on the younger ones.
“At 24, Sam had a Masters degree; he was a soccer star and a patriot, a committed individual and a nationalist. What else can you ask for? How do you impact the younger ones? How do you motivate them? It is not the family that would say what should be done to immortalise Sam. It is embarrassing.
“You have to recall that this thing is 30 years. When you look at it from every angle, this is injustice. Something should have been done because at the time he died he was the breadwinner to the family. Aside that promises were made by government to this family. From employment, compensation, immortalisation; none has been done. This is injustice,” Patrick added, his voice rising with every word.
“We must take a cue from Google Incorporated. This is the biggest multimedia organisation in the world placing Sam’s doodle on their search engine. Sam was there for 48 hours with his biography.
“Google is accessed by over two billion people daily. If an organisation like that that is worldwide can deem it fit to honour a man that his country don’t even remember, what more can you say? Sam deserves to be immortalised. Nationalism is dying in this country. Patriotism is dying off. Commitment is dying and some of these things should be hyped to encourage the young Nigerians.”
Etim wants both his state (Imo) and federal government to institute national Under-17 championships in his name. “He loved the kids and this is the kind of things he would have been doing if he was alive.”
Okoku shares near-similar opinion.
“In his honour, the government can and should pioneer a yearly soccer tournament named after Sam and invite his family as the guests of honour to witness the finals and present the trophy to the winning team. In the same vein, it will not be farfetched to initiate and sustain a non-profit (NGO) in his name for treating kids with congestive heart problem for early detection and prevention.
“Finally, a federal road in the capital (Abuja) and his state of origin could be named after him. Make no mistake about this idea as it will have positive effects in the mindset of future players. It will be a motivation to other aspiring footballers to represent Nigeria knowing that, even after death, they will be appreciated beyond ordinary expectations.”
Patrick calls on President Muhammadu Buhari to right the wrong that has been done to Okwaraji and others like him.
“President Buhari is a credible leader with a sense of justice. He is a man of credit. I’m sure that if this should get to him he would act immediately. Thirty years is a long time.”
The first male child of the Okwarajis, who at a point assumed managerial role to his brother in Italy, said these gestures will allow Sam’s ghost to rest, finally.