The Angel Lion

On a summer afternoon in the mid 1960s, New York City's Port Authority buzzed with the usual swirl of commuters and tourists, pickpockets, students, and whores. Steve Sewall was zigzagging through the crowds when he heard his name ring out.

“Hey, Stevie!” the voice called. It was a cheery, recognizable voice, the near-laugh in it unmistakable amid the white noise of the city: Chris Ohiri.

Several years earlier, at the start of what was to become one of history's most tumultuous decades, Christian Ohiri and Stephen Sewall had been wide-eyed freshmen on the Harvard soccer team. The 22-year-old Ohiri, having recently arrived from his native Nigeria, had been taking in the strange machine that was America, so fast and modern and sure of its inalienable rights. His homeland had endured decades of British colonial rule, and only then, in the fall of 1960, had independence been more than just a vague notion.

Young Steve Sewall, on the other hand, had been taking in Ohiri himself — the graceful, honed world-class athlete who radiated affection and scored eight goals during his first game in a Harvard soccer uniform. “Chris had a noble bearing,” Sewall says now. “Unlike most of us, he was comfortable in public. He was an angel. And a lion on the soccer field.”

The story of Chris Ohiri's life is not found in record books or alumni files. It's not told in a videotape archive. His is a folk tale, an imprecise collection of scenes and rumors forgotten and remembered countless times since his death 35 years ago this month. It comes word-of-mouth and pieced together and is mostly impossible to verify. But aside from statistics such as birth dates and goal tallies, what in life can ever be considered factual?

Stephen Sewall and Chris Ohiri embraced on that afternoon in New York. They spent a few moments catching up, and Ohiri let out what Sewall calls his “Nigerian laugh,” a loud cackle from the side of his mouth. Then they moved on. It was the last time they saw each other. It was the end of something.

In 1959, David Henry, then director of admissions at Harvard, traveled to Africa with a small, elite cadre of U.S. university admissions directors ready to offer assistance to the many newly decolonized nations. At the time, there was only one university in Nigeria and one in Ghana. The lack of infrastructure and institution, however, did not dampen the world's great hope for West Africa. Ghana had gained its independence in 1957, followed quickly by the French territories, and by the time of Henry's visit, Nigeria's independence practically shimmered in the hot air.

Some in power recognized the grassroots responsibilities of sovereignty. Stephen Awokoya, then Nigeria's minister of education, approached David Henry about placing Nigerian students in American schools. “I told him Harvard would take one or two,” Henry says today from his home near Portland, Maine.

“I've got a lot more than that,” Awokoya replied. “What makes you think they all want to go to Harvard?”

They chuckled together, two very different men with shared convictions — education as tantamount to success. Henry enlisted a circle of fellow admissions directors, including those from Brown, Amherst, and Bowdoin, and they set up a makeshift Nigerian scholarship program. (It eventually grew into the African Scholarship Program of American Universities.) Twenty-four students were selected. All that remained was to determine which student would go to which school. So, like kids on a playground, the directors held a draft.

While in Nigeria, Henry had encountered a young soccer player from Owerri, a town of 10,000 in the southeastern region called Biafra, who had already applied for the scholarship. “I knew Chris was a good soccer player,” Henry says. And with the fourth pick, he snagged Ohiri for Harvard. His friend and Amherst counterpart, Bill Wilson, was to choose next. “He yelled, 'Henry, you SOB — Ohiri was my number one,'” Henry says, laughing. It was a fateful turn of events, as Ohiri would go on to score four goals against Amherst in his sophomore season.

Chris Ohiri appeared on the Harvard soccer fields — an oblong swath of scrub green in the shadow of the football stadium on the Brighton side of the Charles — a man among boys. Ivy League rules excluded freshmen from varsity competition, so at 22 he had several years on his teammates and opponents. But more important was his vast experience, including playing for the Nigerian Olympic team and scoring two goals in the team's qualifying bid for the 1960 summer games in Rome. Ohiri's timing and quick decision-making were foreign to most players in America, where the best athletes usually went out for baseball or football. He was tall and strong, with massive, chiseled thighs that helped him run faster and jump higher than most anyone else on the field.

“He could've played on any team in the world,” says teammate John Thorndike. “After playing for the Nigerian Olympic team, he comes to a little backwater place like Harvard? He was the biggest thing that ever happened to us.”

That season, while the varsity enjoyed a decent year, it was Ohiri's mastery on the freshman field that excited Harvard Yard. The sidelines were mobbed with the curious, and normally staunch football fans wandered over to the soccer fields at halftime. Varsity player Seamus Malin, now a television soccer commentator, often peeked over at the adjacent freshman field. “Chris was hitting rockets, breaking goal posts, knocking goalies out,” Malin recalls. “And there were other players too,” namely, scrappy and artistic midfielder Bill Ward — one of this story's several ghosts — who left Harvard after his sophomore year and disappeared into his native Jamaica. Malin was almost giddy with anticipation for the next year.

By many accounts, Ohiri's play against Amherst during his sophomore year was a prodigal performance. His total domination enlightened everyone around to the true shape of the game, to its speed, its grace, its mystery. Although Ohiri scored four goals against Amherst, it was his disallowed fifth that Seamus Malin remembers. “The ball came in from the wing. I turned and saw cleats flash by my face. Chris buried the header from 15 yards out, and the Philistine of a ref called a foul and disallowed the goal. He claimed no one could be that high without leaning on a defender.”

Former Amherst defender Larry DeWitt had been given the responsibility of marking Ohiri. “We heard about him before we played him,” DeWitt says. “I played my best game ever, got a compliment from the Harvard coach. And I think he scored two or three goals.”

“He was so far ahead of anyone else around,” says David Straus, Ohiri's roommate in Harvard's Eliot House. “He was in such control. He would come to the sidelines with the ball and say, 'Watch this,' and then go score.”

The statistics of Chris Ohiri's athletic life are irrefutably astounding. In three varsity seasons, despite a constant struggle with injuries, he broke every school and league goal-scoring record and led the Crimson to three consecutive Ivy League titles. He still holds school records for goals in a game (5), points in a game (10), career goals (47), and career points (94). The fact that Ivy League rules allowed athletes only three varsity seasons renders his feats more remarkable. Furthermore, he lettered three times in track and still holds the school record for the triple jump.

Real, nonnumerical life was lived on the other side of the Charles from the soccer fields. Harvard, like much of America in the early '60s, was alive with optimism. Alumnus John F. Kennedy was in the White House, urging the U.S. to embrace the emergent Africa. “We watched the crumbling of the European colonial empires and celebrated the independence movements,” says David Straus, who spent a summer journeying through West Africa, where he met Chris Ohiri's father. Straus describes Ohiri senior as a “man of local distinction but not highly sophisticated. Seeing Chris's father made his transition so much more remarkable.”

Nigeria, having gained its independence in October 1960, exemplified the new Africa. It boasted a democratically elected parliament and vast natural resources. While the country was redefining itself, one of its most promising young lights was thousands of miles away, learning how to maneuver through the complexities of the modern world Nigeria was poised to join. His friends saw in him what Malin calls a “seriousness of purpose.” Ohiri worked in Harvard's international office. He held jobs at the United Nations and at IBM, where he reportedly was being groomed to spearhead the computer giant's efforts in Nigeria. After graduation, he won a traveling fellowship and later enrolled at Harvard Business School. Ohiri was methodically preparing himself for a return to a wildly different place from the one he had left. Yet he never discussed his country's new order with his Harvard friends.

“I never had political conversations with Chris,” says Steve Sewall, who cites their age difference and a lack of common context. “He probably could have [talked seriously about politics], but I couldn't.”

“There are a lot of conversations I wish I'd had,” says David Straus. “He was not openly activist, though clearly he was developing himself to go back to some significant role. He would have been a Mandela type of person.”

All that exists in the light of a new day may not last through dusk. Human nature will eventually insinuate itself.

The '60s ground on, and the world disintegrated into so much geopolitical chaff. The Soviet Union built the Berlin Wall. Kennedy was assassinated. The Cultural Revolution began to roll across China. Nineteen-year-olds were sent to Vietnam. And Africa became a Cold War chessboard.

As the global lines of conflict accelerated, so did Chris Ohiri's trajectory. Sometime after graduation, he married a young African-American woman named Shirley whom he had met in New York City. Before the wedding, they went together to Nigeria to receive his father's blessing, then returned to Boston.

In January 1966, Nigeria — with its three major and traditionally hostile tribes: Yoruba, Ibo, and Hausa — began a downward spiral that continues to this day. An attempted military coup saw the murder of Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. The coup failed, and the military assumed power. In July the military's commander was assassinated, and in October there were horrific ethnic massacres.

That fall, not long after running into Steve Sewall in New York City, Chris Ohiri — the explosive athlete, the magna cum laude student, the angel lion — collapsed on the Harvard Business School tennis courts, just a few yards from the varsity soccer field. He was diagnosed with leukemia.

No one is sure what happened next. He and Shirley traveled again to Owerri. Chris wanted to die at home. Supposedly, Chris and Shirley ran into some kind of trouble upon landing in Nigeria. One friend believes Ohiri was roughed up by military personnel on account of his being of the Ibo tribe rather than of the ruling Hausa. Eventually, they reached Owerri, and on November 7, just six months before a full-fledged civil war would plunge the entire country back into darkness, Chris Ohiri died.

Shirley, the person who could most illuminate her husband, who could resurrect the man in this story, returned to the U.S. and, several months later, cut all contact with Ohiri's circle of friends.

The Harvard soccer field is no longer a rough patch. It's smooth and green, and on fall afternoons the sun stays high enough to keep the football stadium's shadow at bay. It was renamed Chris Ohiri Field in 1983.

Coinciding with the sport's rise in popularity, college soccer has greatly improved since the '60s. Every player on the Harvard squad is strong and skillful. Sophomore Ladd Fritz stands 6'1″, 175 pounds, and has a shot that could rip through the netting. Freshman Jeremy Truntzer is tenacious and runs like the wind. They look fresh and innocent compared to the wizened faces in the black-and-white photographs of Chris Ohiri and his teammates.

When Ohiri's name is mentioned to third-year coach John Kerr Jr. after a game, he simply nods. He surveys Ohiri Field, the dispersing crowds of fans, and his own smiling, victorious players. This idyllic place on the banks of the Charles seems so far away from the war-torn villages of West Africa, so sunlit compared to the shadows of a man's life and death. Finally, Kerr sums up all anyone really knows of Chris Ohiri: “The legend?”