14 June 2019

Nigeria: Retired Sportsmen, Women, Who Found Life in Other Careers Through Education

Although it does not translate to wealth, education, the world over, is seen as a means to a good end. Talented sportspersons are often acknowledged and well appreciated for their accomplishments. They earn big salaries and have access to the best things of life. But the reality is that some of them fall on the wrong side of time a few years after retirement.

Some of these retired athletes during their days in the sun earned humungous salaries and also had deals running into millions of dollars. But time, as patient as it often is, inevitably plays its sad note on those who did not plan for life outside sports.

A study done by Sports Illustrated in 2009 found that 78 per cent of American football league players either file for bankruptcy or struggle financially once they retire. About 60 per cent of NBA players face similar financial struggles five years after they retire.

In Nigeria, some former superstars, who earned millions of dollars during their active years, easily fall into depression caused by poverty a few years after retirement. They turn around to blame the society for not caring for them 'despite all they did for the country.'

However, there are several other retired superstars, who have not been caught by the post-sports blues due to the way they carefully planned for life on retirement.

According to the report, "planning for retirement is key, and part of that planning goes back to saving and budgeting for your golden years.

"Staying on top of your investments is another way to protect yourself. There are countless incidents of athletes being taken to the cleaners by financial advisers they trusted after the funds they invested were either stolen or misappropriated."

Such planning, according to the report, depends on the athlete's awareness and understanding the fact that the money will not flow forever.

Dr. Patrick Ekeji, a former footballer, represented Nigeria at the International level and thereafter became a successful administrator, reaching the peak of his career as the director general of the National Sports Commission (NOC).

In an interview with The Guardian, Ekeji narrated how his strong academic background prepared him for life when he could no longer earn money from sports.

"I am now a retiree enjoying myself in Imo, my state. I have given my best to sports. God made it possible for my talent to be known nationwide. Because of that, one of the governments in the eastern states of Nigeria gave scholarship to those of us that played for the East Central State Academicals.

"I got my Bachelor of Science degree in Health and Physical Education (HPE) from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). When I applied for the 1974/75 session admission entrance examination, my first choice was Chemical Engineering and my second was HPE. That year, UNN could not admit candidates into my first choice, because it was yet to be accredited by the National Universities Commission (NUC). That was how I ended up studying HPE and so many things have happened since then."

From the outset, Ekeji had a clear vision of what he wanted to become in life and so despite the fame that came with his success on the football field, he did not derail from his chosen path.

"I did not allow my talent in soccer to confuse me, because I wanted to go to school. While I was playing, I had the best of exposure and all of that, but I knew that for one to get on in life, getting quality education was the key."

Most of Nigeria's retired sportsmen who did not make out time to get quality education when they were still active failed to do so not because they deliberately did not want to. Some are victims of a society that does not help its citizens to plan for the rainy day.

Unlike in some developed countries where clubs and sports councils have academies that groom their stars for post-competition relevance, Nigeria has no social policy that aids sportsmen to seek education while still active.

Some athletes, like Ekeji, Adokiye Amiesiamaka, Segun Odegbami, Felix Owolabi, Mary Onyali and Fatimah Yusuf, among others, are either lucky that they had mentors, who helped them to chart a path to success or they had the opportunity to travel abroad, where the system provides for athletes to combine sports with education.

"When I told one of my mentors at the P&T Vasco Dagama, where I began my football career, that I didn't know what the course, Physical Education, was, he called me and said 'go to Nsukka and when you get there, you will find out what Physical Education is.' That was how I went to the University of Nigeria when I had the scholarship. I studied Physical Education and came out with one of the best results in my set, and the rest is history."

Ekeji, who started his life after quitting active football with a role as coach of the defunct ACB Football Club of Lagos, went on to become the director of sports in Imo State before moving to the National Sports Commission as a director. He later rose to the highest position in the NSC, which is the director general, before retiring in 2014.

"I will always insist that young sportspersons should not make the mistake of leaving school for football. You can play all your football and do your running while in school, because at the end of the day that is the only instrument that you have to help you.

"I became director-general of National Sports Commission - in other words, the chief sports administrator in Nigeria - not because I played for Nigeria, but because I had the qualification to be there. And I tell you, the policies that I drew, policies that I made to happen, will be difficult for anybody to equal in this country.

"The environment of managing sports in Nigeria is very harsh. But that shouldn't discourage anyone because I found myself into sports administration not out of choice. I wanted to be a medical doctor and then I couldn't get to be a medical doctor because of what I will call God's direction for me. I also wanted to be a chemical engineer, again (I could not) as a result of God directing me," he said.

Another retired sportsman, who has made a success of his life outside the sports arena is Chief Segun Odegbami. Between 1975 and 1982, Odegbami was one of the most recognisable sportsmen in Africa. His fame went beyond Nigeria because he had the guile and showmanship that made for a true superstar. At the peak of his career, musician waxed records in his name because the 'mathematical' number seven had magic in his boots.

His goals at the 1980 African Nations Cup, which he was the highest goal scorer, helped Nigeria to win its first continental trophy in Lagos.

Odegbami was brought up in the northern city of Jos, Plateau State. He won 46 caps and scored 23 goals for the then Green Eagles.

'Mathematical' Odegbami was famous for his skill on the field of play, speed, and precision of his crosses from the right wing. He played his entire career for IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan between 1970 and 1984. And now he is a successful businessman, politician and sports promoter, who is credited for nurturing Chioma Ajunwa to win Nigeria's first gold medal at the Olympic Games.

At the country's last general elections, Odegbami contested for the office of governor of Ogun State and even though he did not win at the polls, his campaign was adjudged as one of the best among the governorship candidates across the country. Today he is a fulfilled man. Odegbami describes himself as lucky to have had the opportunity to go to school during his active sports days.

Sports and academics, he said, went together in his time, adding that before Nigerians started migrating to Europe for professional football, even parents discouraged their wards from playing football.

"Sports were an extra-curricular activity in secondary schools in particular, and some tertiary institutions as well. So, it was nothing special, really. I knew that education was very important and critical for success in life. My father had always told me that sport was never going to be an alternative to good education in my life. Sports just helped me even to go through school as an undergraduate, never impeding anything. I was not going to be a professional player because it was not fashionable then. Although sports took some of my time for studies, it was not enough to adversely affect them."

Odegbami described his attempts to start any enterprise outside of sports and getting any attention by the public as his biggest challenge yet. "It meant that to succeed in life with my fame, I had to find work within the sports industry that was at its infancy in Nigeria. Sports had no grounding as a business in the country. There was a serious limitation to what I could do to survive in this environment within the sports sector. So I had to pioneer several aspects of the sports business in Nigeria," he added.

He picked his attempts to branch into partisan politics as the highlight of his life so far, adding, "partisan politics is a sector that was considered anathema to sports, and yet without it, sports cannot grow.

"I have laid a foundation upon which the future rapid growth of football shall be anchored: sports persons with a name and reputation must go into politics to implement their visions for sports in Nigeria. Politicians of today cannot see what we have been proclaiming as the power of sports that can change our entire country for good."

The man nicknamed 'Owo Blow', Dr. Felix Owolabi, holds a doctorate degree in Physical Education. He adorned the green and white jersey of the senior national team for many year and was also a member of the dreaded IICC Shooting Stars, which became Nigeria's first club to win a continental championship in 1976 when they won the African Cup Winners Cup.

Owolabi played for the Green Eagles that came third at the 1978 African Cup of Nations. He also played at the 1980 Summer Olympics. He capped it with the African Cup of Nations victory in 1980.

During his active days in club football, he played for Rocks of Kaduna, Raccah Rovers of Kano and the IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan. He was with Shooting Stars for 15 years, and also helped the club to win the CAF Cup (now known as the CAF Confederation Cup) in 1992.

"I started my primary education in the North, in Kaduna UNA Primary School. I went to the Government Secondary School, Dutsinma in the North Central State, from where I proceeded to Kaduna Teachers Training College. But in the course of acquiring education, I had the privilege to be in the Catholic Mission and I was close to a lot of reverend fathers who showed me love by introducing various sports to us. Part of the idea used by the missionaries to make people believe and accept their religion was to introduce a lot of sporting activities to the children. We were introduced to sports facilities that included football pitch, volleyball court, tennis court, basketball court and hockey pitch. Incidentally, all the schools that I went to, for example the UNA Primary School, had talents who finished from the school.

"As a youth, we played a lot of competitions in the primary school, then it continued up to the secondary school level, where I had the opportunity to play for the Kaduna Rocks Football Club. The club was a department of the Federal Geological Survey. The management at that time took interest in football and when they discovered me, I was asked to I join them. I won the league with Kaduna Rocks as well as lots of championships from the core North."

Owolabi counts himself lucky to be in a community that cherished education above all other things. He said: "I went to school by the grace of God, not because I was intelligent. It was simply God's mercy, grace and favour that worked for me."

He explains: "While playing for the Kaduna Rocks then, Kano Racca Rovers came calling. I did not spend up to six months before I was invited to the senior national team in 1976, where I met the likes of Segun Odegbami, the late Muda Lawal, Kunle Awesu, Christian Chukwu, Aloysius Atuegbu and the rest of them.

"My invitation to the Green Eagles marked a milestone in my journey in life. I needed to leave the North after I had spent 15 years because I wanted a change of base. My homecoming was something that had bothered me since I felt that I needed to come close to my parents, whom I have been away from for a very long time.

"At a time I felt I needed to further my education, and to God be the glory, I had the privilege to gain admission to read Physical and Health Education at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), which was another landmark in my educational pursuit when we came back from Ghana after the 1978 African Cup of Nations. "Thereafter, I went back to school to acquire my master's degree, then the Ph.D. in Physical Education. Thereafter, I settled in Ibadan where I worked as an administrator with the Shooting Stars.

"It was after I had settled down in Ibadan that I dabbled in a lot of things like animal husbandry, crop farming, piggery, fishery, and they have been my source of livelihood till now."

Adegoke Adelabu saw what happened to some older talented stars, who retired to penury, and decided early in life that his case would be different.

He said the turning point was when an active footballer begged him to pay for his food after a league game.

Adelabu said: "One of the top star players, after a football match, came to me asking me that I pay for his food at a restaurant. My experience with the player changed my course of life completely. I sat down later and thought that a day was coming when if I didn't leave this game, this game would leave me.

"Then I said to myself that I had to be up and doing in my education. While in school, I made sure that when names of the best students were mentioned, that my name was among them."

Adelabu was so devoted to his studies that it was taken for grated by his peers that he would make first class honours at the University of Ife. But to everyone's surprise he missed it.

"I heard that the reason I didn't make first class was because of football, as I was not attending tutorials.

"I read also that an average white man believes that we have natural and athletic ability, but that they have sports intelligence. So, I read about this very early and I discovered that the only way one can match up with them and, if possible beat them, is for us to go and claim the intelligence in the school, by obtaining formal education."

With all this knowledge why has he not used it to further Nigeria's sports development?

Adelabu said: " Most of us that went to school have not been allowed to proffer solutions to the myriad problems bedevilling the nation as far as sports is concerned because we were never given any platform to expand the operations of sports in Nigeria."

Adokiye Amiesimaka is a graduate of Law from the University of Lagos. The ex-international played for Enugu Rangers Football Club, Sharks Football Club of Port Harcourt, and Lagos-based African Continental Bank Football Club.

As a left-winger, Amiesimaka's pace and dribbles were distinguishing features of his footballing career.

He was also a member of the Green Eagles that won the African Cup of Nations in 1980 and played at the soccer finals of the 1980 Summer Olympics. He also represented Nigeria at the 1978 and 1982 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

Amiesimaka attended CMS Grammar School, Lagos, where, as captain of the school's soccer team, he won Lagos State's Principals' Cup in a much-talked about final that featured St. Finbarr's College, Akoka, Lagos. He went on to read law at UNILAG.

The former chairman of Sharks Football Club has the stadium in Ikwerre Council of Rivers State named after him. He was the Attorney General and Commissioner of Justice in Rivers, having served previously as Director of Public Prosecution in the state.

When asked about how he was able to combine sports with education during his days at University of Lagos in order to serve as a lesson to the currently active sportsmen and women, Amiesimaka said, "I don't have any comment because it is of no use. I have given up on Nigeria. What you just asked is just for entertainment. We are not serious people so I personally have given up on this country. We are not ready; when we are ready to get things done, we don't need to be prompted.

"I used to write for the Sunday Punch and I did that for many years. Today, we are talking about diverting players' allowances, not knowing how to build U-20 team in the year 2019, two decades into the 21st Century. We are not serious yet; when are serious, nobody will ask this kind of question. Thanking you very much for asking but I am sorry you won't get any answer from me," Amiesimaka said lamenting the sorry state of the nation.

One of the poster girls of Nigerian athletics is Mary Onyali-Omagbemi, who for many years held the record in African women 100 metes and 200 metres.

A multi-Olympian, Onyali-Omagbemi is currently the Executive Director, Technical, Nigeria Sports Development Fund Incorporation (NSDFI). She studied Telecommunications (Mass Communication) and Theatre Arts, and was one of the lucky Nigerians, whose talents attracted American universities to offer them sports scholarships.

Onyali-Omagbemi won bronze in the 4×100m relay at the 1992 Olympic Games and in the 200m at the 1996 Olympic Games. She also won the 1994 Commonwealth Games 100 metres title.

Onyali-Omagbemi performed especially well in the All Africa Games, winning a total of seven individual medals in the short sprints. She won 100m in 1991, 1995 and 2003 and took a bronze medal in 1987. Gold medals in 200m were taken in 1987, 1995 and 2003. Further, the Nigerian 4×100m relay team won all races between 1987 and 2003 at the African Games.

Born Mary Onyali, at the 2000 Olympics, she was known as Mary Onyali-Omagbemi, having married fellow Nigerian sprinter, Victor Omagbemi.

Her consecutive Olympic appearances from 1988 to 2004 made her the first Nigerian to compete at five Olympics. This feat was equalled by table tennis players, Bose Kaffo and Segun Toriola four years later in Beijing, China.

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