The Swag Runner Has Come Full Circle!

It is towards the tail end of action on day 2 of the 2017 Driftwood sevens, we are seated under the gracious shade of a tree, at a far corner of the Mombasa Sports club, a few meters from a dejected looking tent.

The swag runner. (Photo – Michael Khateli)

Over the two days of competition, the tent had housed two sides who had come into the opening leg of the National sevens series with different goals, but were now united in failure. Even the fans that had sat next to them during the competition had moved away in search of happiness.

The sides were KCB and Western Bulls, the former having lost in the Challenge trophy final, the latter had been relegated to the second division. In the midst of the dejected faces however, one beaming face stood out. Though it tried to mask itself with the disappointment of its team’s fortunes, the joy was evident to a keen eye.

That face was none other than Jacob Ojee’s, who two years ago had seen his promising career flash in front of his eyes after breaking his leg at the adjacent Mbaraki Sports Club turf, during a similar tournament. Two surgeries and a couple of setbacks later, today the swag runner had come full circle.

“The feedback was not always positive, at times it was it was brutal. I guess handling peoples’ expectations at that moment was a bit hard. It was at such times that I questioned my own resolve and whether I should continue playing.”

Many had been skeptical of his return, especially after a bogged first surgery. Ojee’s injury had come at the peak of his career, he had won the Kenya Cup and Enterprise Cup double with club, had broken into the national sevens side and had made his mark in the Simbas squad, as part of a devastating back three which included Samuel Oliech and Darwin Mukidza.

Interesting that the more things change, the more they remain the same, he walked into the Mombasa Sports club almost 24 months to the date, on 2nd of September 2017, off the back of another league and cup double for his club and had just completed playing 8 out of 9 for the Simbas, finishing as the side’s top try scorer.

I sat down with the explosive full back turned blind side wing, right after the tournament, as we discussed his journey through the sport and especially his remarkable return from an almost career ending injury.

“I was around 12 years old, when I first picked up a rugby ball. My elder brother, Casey Adero, used to play rugby in High School, on holidays he trained and played for Kisumu RC, I’d always tag along when he went for his sessions.” Ojee fondly remembers how his journey with the sport begun.

He had played soccer through out his Primary school education, with a bit of athletics on the side. So what made him turn? “I started developing a liking for rugby after seeing the countless medals my elder brother used to come home with from the provincial and national tournaments, by class 7 I was already into the sport. But it wasn’t until I joined High school that it really grew on me.”

From then on, it has been an up and up rise for Ojee, following in his big brother’s foot steps and joining Kisumu RFC, he was part of the all star side that featured Kevin Keagan, Brian Bango, Marin Owilla, Richard Sidindi, the ‘Artur’ twins, Billy Odhiambo, Lameck Dunde, Godfrey Okoth among a host of others, before he made the move to join KCB in late 2011.

Ojee on national duty. (Photo – Gilly Topicha)

In the 5 years before his injury, he had obviously overcome tonnes of other small niggles, but none compared to the 18 month long lay off he had endured. On how it felt to once again play at the Driftwood sevens.

“It is surreal, I never really saw my self playing in the tournament, more so this year because the international season had just ended the week before. But when I was given a chance I didn’t see a reason not to. For me it was mostly to break the mental barriers more than anything else, I just wanted to put the ghosts behind me.”

I ask him whether there was ever a point during his 18 month lay off, that he had felt like giving up, probably focus on his clothing line ‘The Outlook‘. Yes, a lot of times. Was his immediate answer. “More so during the first few games that I played after coming back from injury.” He continued, with sadness almost engulfing his face.

“The feedback was not always positive, at times it was it was brutal. I guess handling peoples’ expectations at that moment was a bit hard. It was at such times that I questioned my own resolve and whether I should continue playing.”

A rusty Ojee made his full comeback during the 2016 Impala Floodies, after playing several assessment matches in the ESS and Mwamba cup competitions, running out in all these with metal implant plates supporting his leg.

So what kept him going during such tough times? The face again lit up, “The fam, bruh, I have amazing people around me. Right from close family members, teammates, coaches, friends from other teams and the fans. I got to realize how much trust and faith they have in me and how much they wanted to see me back playing. That is what made me push through everything.”

As mentioned earlier, it has been a remarkable come back season for the swag runner, a league and cup double, a successful run out with the Simbas.

I wanted to find out what his fondest memory of this period would be, in 50 years time, when he is old and wrinkled, telling his grand kids about a remarkable rugby career.

“Winning the Kenya Cup with the guys (KCB) was just amazing. I didn’t see us doing it at the start of the season, at least not with me in the team list on the final day. You see, I played half the season for the second side with a few minutes in between for the senior side, that was until the last 7 or so games.That is one moment I’ll definitely live to remember.”

“On the national front, I’d say, receiving the phone call to join the rest of team in camp, only went to show that the management still believed in me even after injury, it was now upon me to prove my self in training and gun for selection.” That he certainly did.

I just seek to improve in everything that I do, so they should expect me to do everything better than I did in the previous season.”

On what he plans for the future, a confident looking Ojee says, “In the sport, is just to play my level best for both club and country whenever called upon.”

For players in the process of coming back from injury lay offs or facing similar situations, Ojee’s advice is, “Keep the faith and believe in yourself. So long as you’re fully recovered and you have an OK from both the doctor and Physio it’s all about the mental strength.”

It is now getting darker and I am almost out of beer and Ojee needs to get back to the hotel. As we wind up, I ask if there were any special shout outs he would like to send out.

“Yes, my family. They gave me hope and strength in very hard times. The doctors and physiotherapists that worked with me during this time, Dr. Modi, Dr. Mbugua, Lamech Bogonko, Steve, Joseph Koli, my S&Cs from both club and country Mike Shamia and Richard Lukaya and a special mention to the coaches for never losing hope in me, Curtis Olago and Jerome Parwater. Teammates who always pushed me to work harder and last but not least, the fans. I have amazing ones by the way..” He says as he laugh out loudly.

So what can these amazing fans expect from him? “Good rugby, more trophies haha. I just seek to improve in everything that I do, so they should expect me to do everything better than I did in the previous season.”

We are now on our feet as we head out to separate ways, I could not let him go without asking this final question. I wear a serious face, look down once then at him, “So Ojee, tell me, have you ever practised your running style in front of a mirror?”

We all laugh out, “Haha wacha wewe!” He exclaims, “No! 100% no. I don’t think that I run any differently from other players, though it is a question that I have surprisingly been asked severally. I guess it’s natural.” He keeps on laughing.

We wrap up with the swag runner, as I dash off to the village (or what is left of it) imitating his running style across the pitch, he throws his towel over his shoulder amid a wide grin and heads for the exit.

KWISHA…Nimeruka Nje!!!

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