Love of soccer kick-started his higher education
By Judith Stiles
When Ohionameh Aregbeyen played soccer in Ibadan, Nigeria, he and his brother Aigboje used a pair of sneakers for goals or two piles of grass if there were no sneakers. Their father brought back a soccer ball from the 1986 World Cup and it was the only ball in the neighborhood for the kids to play with. The brothers picked a third kid from the village to be on their three-person team and off they went to challenge the older, better kids from the area to a 3-v-3 match.
We lost badly and they were making fun of us, making up songs to mock us, said Aregbeyen, smiling philosophically.
In those days in Nigeria, there were no leagues, no coaches, no
uniforms, no clubs and no spectators, and the games resembled endless sandlot baseball in the U.S. Aregbeyen, who is known as Ohi, and his buddies would come home from school, watch one cartoon on TV, and then at 4:30 they would play soccer until the sun went down.
Since I was 5 years old, I learned the game from just playing, said Aregbeyen. In Nigeria, we really improved from playing with older kids, and at 11 years old it was great if we got a chance to play soccer with college guys.
When he entered high school, 11-man teams were formed for tournaments, strictly by alphabetical order, not by ability. Since there were so many As, Aregbeyen was put on the team of Bs, which wound up coming in first place, beating the Gs who were favored.
The way I learned to play soccer back home had great advantages. At a young age we never had a coach or spectators, so we were creative on the field, and we were not afraid to discover new things by just trying them, said Aregbeyen, contrasting this learning process to the overstructured, hyper soccer programs for kids in the States today.
Young Aregbeyen chose not to attend college in Nigeria because, in his view, there were too many strikes and a student could easily lose an entire year waiting for the strike to end. After high school he came to New York and bussed tables in restaurants for a few years until he found out about Borough of Manhattan Community College and Coach Kennichi Yatsuhashis CUNY soccer team.
After being accepted to B.M.C.C., he studied diligently and made the deans list three times, maintaining a 3.97 grade-point average in liberal arts. However, on campus, he is better known for his major accomplishments on the soccer field. Although Aregbeyen saw himself as a striker before he got to B.M.C.C., Yatsuhashi put him on defense because of his incredible speed and skill with the ball.
Ohi is an outstanding athlete with ability to win the 50/50 ball and dribble though many opponents, said Yatsuhashi. Keeping Aregbeyen on defense paid off because he was a major force in bringing the mens team to national prominence when they reached the Division III National Junior College Association Final Four in Herkimer, N.Y., in 2005; they suffered a heartbreaking loss in the semifinals, but went on to finish a formidable third in the country.
Yatsuhashi said that as the team captain, Aregbeyen led by example, often studying on the team bus, not only focusing on what he needed to do, but he also looked after his teammates.
For his stellar accomplishments on the field, Aregbeyen was named a Second Team All-American, after being named a First Team All-Region selection. This month, he received the prestigious 2007 Michael Steuerman CUNY Athletic Conference Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award.
This summer he is headed back to Nigeria for a visit and will return in the fall to attend the American International College in Springfield, Mass., where he plans to study physical therapy.
It has been a long and winding road from his days of playing street soccer in Ibadan, Nigeria, to receiving a college scholarship to play at American International College.
As Aregbeyen looks back, he recalls a day on the soccer field that made a great impression on him. He vividly remembers when he represented the U.S. in the CUNYAC Goodwill Tour of Mens Soccer in South Africa, the moment when Jhonny Osorio of Queensborough College took off his cleats and just gave them to one of the youngsters who attended a clinic the team held in Capetown. The kid was speechless and totally thrilled. Watching that moment, Aregbeyen realized he had come a long way from being the barefoot kid from Ibadan to the player from the U.S. who signed autographs. It seemed fitting to give the upcoming players from Capetown cleats from America, the land of opportunity.
I will never forget that day, said Aregbeyen with a burst of emotion, as he hurried home to study for an exam.