By Dr. Anietie John Ukpe
In football, you can always tell when the man with the ball is in trouble. I was in one – completely surrounded by opponents. Isang, my teammate knew it. “Give me! Give me!” he said. A sigh of relief! I whirled around to release the pass. “Do not give me again Oh! They have come. Go to the other side.” He chuckled at the player who had come to “mark” him.
In football, you read your teammate’s mind, but sometimes you do not. Uwem, a tall gangling player, made an expeditious incursion into our opponent’s eighteen-yard box. Fiery defenders, in hot pursuits, like American supersonic bombers on an air raid, encircled him and cut off his options. Uwem did an about-turn and headed for the corner flag. Isang was baffled by the retreat from the goal area. We were in the midfield, watching the action with keen interest. Isang turned to me, “What is in his mind? How does he intend to play?” I did not know.
Isang was fond to be around – on the football field and away from the field. There were instances when an opponent would be headed for our goal mouth, but from an angle, it would be difficult to score. Isang would order in mock seriousness, “Kick at once! Kick at once!” The player, under the pressure of the moment, may take the curious advice and shoot wide. Isang would chuckle and tell the player, “Well played, next time wider.”
There was never a dull moment with Isong Isang, who now belongs to the ages. He was a phenomenal midfield maestro in his playing days. All that he needed was to touch the ball before any opposing player and he would, with immense dexterity, hold on to it as long as it would take to make an intelligent pass. He could laugh at anything, and break any deadlock with humor. He was a quick-witted, self-assured, and easy-going gentleman who loved mental games.
“Football is an interesting game. I love it because you match your wits against others and you could make feints and dribbles. That is why I also love tennis and squash. In fact, I love such games,” he confided in me.
Tennis was also his forte. He was a midcourt player who had an uncanny ability to move his opponents like chess pieces all around the court. His ability to make adroit drop shots and mix them up with overhead lobs, slices (backhand and forehand), and drives were lethal weapons in his tennis arsenal. In a tennis match some time ago, his opponent could barely stand erect after the game. Standing in mid-court like the Rock of Gibraltar, Isang sent him cascading (with sweat) like a waterfall all over the court… constantly with that smile on his face. Facing him across the net in a tennis match was not for the fainthearted.
A good man at heart, he always looked out for the interest of the other party. When I started learning tennis, he obliged me with a match. He could easily have doled out 6-0 to me, but he mercifully took his foot off the gas pedal and started deliberately hitting the balls out. When I accidentally also hit the ball out, he turned to me and said, “Pastor, I am helping you but you are not helping yourself oh!” That was how I learned that a bagel (6-0) score in tennis attracts severe sanctions in the club.
Isang, a pharmacist and a former member of the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, had a nose for humor. When he was in the House of Assembly, he stood out as a stabilizing force. He appeared to have a smile pasted permanently on his round, handsome face. The smile dissolved often into a chuckle at the foibles of life. He was of average height and a little heavily built. He had a brisk way of walking, and a warm, direct gaze. He had a way of worming his way into the hearts of people – even those he was meeting for the first time. You could always tell where he stood on issues for he was a forthright man who would not call a rose by another name. He led a peaceful life and if he thought he had wronged you, he would make it up at the first chance of asking. In the truthful words of the interim chairman of Uyo Sports Club, Dr. Etuknwa, Pharmacist Isang was a perfect gentleman.
With his death, the football family is bereaved. Akwa Ibom politics is poorer because of his loss. Pharmacy has lost a pillar for he was a former chairman of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria, Akwa Ibom State Chapter. He was also a former President of Uyo Sports Club. A former President of Uyo All-Stars. He was a charismatic leader in every leadership position he found himself in. By his death, the world has lost a great specimen of humanity. But the consoling thought is that earth’s loss is Heaven’s gain.
In life, you cannot always tell how the pendulum swings. But suffice it to say that Isang is now surrounded by angels. Now he does not need a pass. Now, there is no one to mark him. He has exited the field of play and rests in the dressing room – in Abraham’s bosom.
Adieu, brother, and good night!