Legends can now be made on YouTube. Anyone can package a couple of highlights on a home computer, upload a file and the world can discover the kind of talent that they didn’t know existed.
But for those who had the opportunity to watch Chris Ohiri play soccer for Harvard in the early 1960s, the replays are only in their mind’s eyes. They struggle to articulate how special he was. Those who didn’t see him play are left to trust those stories as yellowing paper with amazing numbers next to Ohiri’s name remains the best evidence of his greatness.
He scored eight goals the first time he suited up for the Crimson. Before the freshman season was over, he had found the net 36 times in just nine games. Football fans were reportedly leaving games at halftime to watch the Nigerian assume total control of the freshman games. “We don’t keep track of those records,” Baaron Pittenger, then Harvard’s Director of Sports Information told the Harvard Crimson, “but you can bet that’s a record. Nobody scores 36 goals in a season.”
Although he had yet to play a varsity minute, he was becoming a mythical character. His soon-to-be varsity coach, Bruce Munro, watched Ohiri play against MIT and saw him sprain the goalie’s wrists with a single shot. The Crimson reported that Ohiri knocked four goalies out of games that year, leaving one unconscious. Roommate David Straus remembers him being so far above the talent level of everyone else that he’d “come to the sidelines with the ball and say, ‘Watch this,’ and then go score.”
Ohiri was a man among boys in that fall of 1960. He was 22 years old and had played in an Olympic qualifier for Nigeria, the West African nation which had recently gained its independence from Britain. With decolonization proceeding, a few American university administrators — including David Henry of Harvard — created a makeshift scholarship program which would develop into the African Scholarship Program of American Universities (ASPAU).
Ohiri, who came from the town of Owerri, was among the first students chosen. Henry knew he was a good soccer player, but he may not have known that he was also a national champion in both boxing and the decathlon. He could have competed in the triple jump at the 1960 Rome Olympics, but wound up leading the soccer team with two goals in a qualifying loss. Also competing in track at Harvard, he owned the school’s triple jump record for more than 40 years until Samyr Laine broke it in 2005.
“He could’ve played on any team in the world,” teammate John Thorndike told Greg Lalas of Boston Magazine in 2001. “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.”
It was easy for Ohiri. He once said, “I think I’ve scored as many goals with my left foot as with my right. In the first few minutes of a game I test the goalkeeper by kicking a few easy ones. If he dives well to his right, I’ll use my left foot. If he dives well to his left — which is rare — I’ll use my right foot.”
Over the next two seasons, he would struggle with injuries. Yet he would perform at a level that has kept him among the all-time leaders, not just at Harvard, but in NCAA history. Ohiri averaged 1.47 goals per game in his career — a figure that has been bettered by just a single player in the nation in the last 30 years (Thompson Uslyan of Appalachian State, 1977-80). He twice scored five goals in a game and would have done so a third, if not for a referee’s decision.
Soccer broadcasting legend Seamus Malin, a teammate of Ohiri, remembered. “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.”
By now, the Crimson would notify potential spectators about Ohiri’s injury status. “Harvard will probably beat Princeton in varsity soccer today,” it once read. “but the game won’t be very exciting. Chris Ohiri, the Crimson’s high-scoring center-forward, will be out of action for a week…”
Ohiri’s health improved his senior season as he led the Crimson to its third consecutive Ivy League title. In the clincher, a 3-2 victory at Yale, Ohiri scored twice, thus finishing his career with goals in 13 consecutive games. Only two players in the history of college soccer have had longer scoring streaks. But there was no joy in that final victory as President John F. Kennedy was assassinated that afternoon.
As a scorer, Ohiri has no Ivy League equal and still people wonder about his real potential. Coach Munro, who once said that Chris played just two varsity games while completely healthy, had an immediate reaction to Ohiri’s inclusion on the All-America team after his senior year. “Ohiri’s recognition has been a long time in coming,” he said, “he has deserved the award every year he has played.”
Away from the field, Ohiri was equally respected as his teammates revered him, according to Lalas’ Boston Magazine feature. “Chris had a noble bearing,” said Stephen Sewall, “He was an angel.” Malin said that he possessed a “seriousness of purpose,” while Straus thought he was “a Mandela type of person.”
Sadly, the magna cum laude graduate didn’t have the chance to fulfill that promise. While a student at the Harvard Business School in 1966, he collapsed on the tennis courts one day and was diagnosed with what some reported as lung cancer and others leukemia. He returned to Nigeria to die at home, passing away on Nov. 7, 1966.
Seventeen years after his death, the soccer field at Harvard became Chris Ohiri Field and the inscription on the plaque at the field reads:
Chris Ohiri Field
in affectionate memory of Christian Ludger Ohiri, A.B. 1964, this field is named.
Eager scholar — loyal teammate — skilled athlete in soccer, track and field.
His college generation remembers here a man generous in friendship who loved God and humankind and faced the conflicts of life with honesty, enthusiasm and courage.
This story was written by Brett Hoover in 2007 in conjunction with the Ivy@50 celebration.