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OHIRI: Lion of Harvard

Visit Havard University, Boston. You will see Ohiri Field Stadium named after Chris Ludger Ohiri, the man who sent four goalkeepers to hospital as a freshman in 1960 and was All-Time Best for 50 years until another Nigerian, Andre Akpan, equaled the feat in 2010.

Ohiri’s Triple Jump record lasted for 40 years from 1965 until Samyr Laire came in 2005. The Lion was boxing champion, Decathlon champion, and arrived in the United States from Port Harcourt where he had won Nigeria’s soccer Challenge Cup in 1958 with Red Devils.

As a freshman at Harvard, he stunned the combined Oxford/Cambridge University team in a competition against Harvard/ Yale Universities. Ohiri beat the British captain in Long Jump. The loser was a former captain of the Harvard Track team.

To understand how dreaded the all-rounder was, I just have to quote some of the people who were close to him. Testimonies came from teammates, roommates and Harvard officials.

“As a fresh student, he knocked four keepers out, one was unconscious. In his first match, his shot took the keeper to the hospital for X-Ray. He was far ahead of anyone else around.” This came from David Straus, Ohiri’s roommate in Eliot House.

Seamus Malin, a teammate said: “ Chris was hitting rockets, breaking goal posts and knocking goalkeepers out.” Another teammate, Stephen Sewall added: “Unlike most of us, he was comfortable in public. He was an angel. And a lion on the soccer field.”

Coach Bruce Munro described Ohiri as “probably the greatest soccer player in the US. It was like a man playing with boys. No one could touch him.”

Athletics Director, John Reardon, said: “He was not in the usual form of recruited athlete. But he arrived here and he could kick a soccer ball like you can’t believe. He scored a ton of goals, and you would not like to be on the other side of the ball coming at you.”

Ohiri’s buddy, John Thorndike, summed it all up: “He could have played on any team in the world.” All his years with the Harvard soccer team, Crimson, the star was the leading Ivy League scorer with 47 goals. Akpan achieved the same in November 2010.

The journey to America was ignited in 1959 when David Henry, Director of Admissions, Harvard visited Nigeria. At the time there was only one University in Nigeria, the University College, Ibadan which was just a campus of the University of London.

Stephen Awokoya, a minister in the Education ministry pleaded with Henry to take as many students as he could. Those who got lucky were 24 including Ohiri who a year earlier, had won the Challenge Cup with Port Harcourt Red Devils.

That was when the Pitakwa All-Stars boasted of players like Albert Onyeanwuna, Elkanah Onyeali, John Onyeador, David Okoroji, Ray Ohaeri, Francis Uwalaka, and Walter Okala.

Ohiri was in the Green Eagles team that fought for a slot at the Roma ’60 Olympics and had scored two goals in the qualifiers but Harvard was a bigger dream. He was strong enough combining sports and academics and earned more than a degree.

Unfortunately, tragedy struck. In 1966, he fell on the Tennis Court of Harvard Business School. Diagnosed of terminal Leukemia, Ohiri knew it was difficult to come out of the ailment. He weighed his options and chose to return to Nigeria.

The Harvard star had worked at the United Nations [UN] and International Business Machines [IBM]. He also found a wife in Shirley. Both embarked on the journey back to Africa. Ohiri was just 26.

The year 1966 was full of crises in Nigeria. The military struck on January 15. President Nnamdi Azikiwe, who played football and was also an outstanding athlete at Howard University escaped death. Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, was not as lucky.

On July 29, 1966, there was a counter-coup. Head of State, Gen. Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi, was assassinated. What followed was genocide. There was no government in the country. Lt. col Yakubu Gowon assumed office ahead of some of his seniors. Lt. col Emeka Ojukwu would have none of it.

Ohiri dared death. He had cancer already. Accompanied by his wife, he landed in Lagos. At that time many Igbo lives were in danger. The military authorities detained the returnee. Shirley probably had not seen soldiers carrying guns around in the United States.

Some accounts say Ohiri died in detention. However, he managed to get out of confinement and made it to the Eastern Region. On November 7, 1966, the man died. Shirley could not bear it. She rushed back to America and has not made contact with Ohir’s friends ever since.

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