Please allow me to take literary license and write about Lee Edward Evans again this week.
On Tuesday, May 17, some 15 minutes to midnight, the man died.
It must never be said that one of the greatest athletes in the history of sports in the world died and bells were not rung to make the announcement.
This is my humble announcement, a recall of my experiences of the man outside of sports during a period that he finally found peace with his restless spirit.
Lee loved his grandson in America with a passion. He always talked about him with pride. He believed the young lad would be a supreme athlete, a gift to the world of sports who would replace him one day on the tracks. Lee Evans’s dream was to watch Keith’s son, his grandson, race at the Olympics.
He also talked often about his mother and her overwhelming influence on his life: how she made him love gardening, and to know a lot about plants and their uses, and how she developed his social character.
He often spoke fondly about his siblings and their growing up years in California.
Through all these, he loved that I would sit and listen to him in the evenings, outdoors in the front yard with glittering stars above our heads. We were mesmerised by his stories, his infectious laughter echoing in the still night, infecting all of us in the small, daily assembly of 2 or 3 of my friends that became his own friends, at our communion of grills – corn, prawns, guinea fowl, fish or chicken, yam, potatoes, everything ‘grillable’, downed with chilled drinks.
Lee would explain the different uses of the several plants he planted around the perimeter of our walled fence – mustard seed, bitter leaf, pineapple, King of Bitters, Goron Tula, and a few others he nursed and watered at dawn to start his daily routine.
He spoke of the peace he now enjoyed after finally surrendering to the spirit that had troubled him for years since he realised, as a young student, that he was a descendant of the Black slaves in pictures and paintings shackled in chains, who originally came from a distant land called Africa.
His decision to go to Africa when the opportunity came as a coach was to appease that agitating spirit that would not let him rest.
He finally found peace when he returned to the land of his ancestors that were forcefully shipped to America and other places to become slaves and builders of new worlds. By returning ‘home’, he had chosen a path that led to service, to living and to dying in Africa.
He found purpose for his life when he started to discover young talented Africans and honed them to become the best they could be in athletics, using his influence to get them into the American collegiate system to get educated and to become sports champions.
After traversing and experiencing much of the world, he accepted entirely that his final ‘home’ would be Africa, particularly Nigeria, where science revealed his genes were 23% of the southern Nigerian stock!
At the end of dinner every night, Lee would bid us goodnight early, return to his room, and take his ‘sleeping pill’ – bedtime chit chat on telephone with his partner in Calabar and their 3-year old son, Destiny. He loved those chats, loved both of them dearly, and shielded them like a lioness would shield her cub.
When he and his African/American friend, John Cashing, accompanied me to the Segun Odegbami International .College and Sports Academy, SOCA, in Wasimi Orile some years ago for the first time, they saw the environment and their faces lit up, speaking more than a thousand words could ever have done. They loved it. To Lee, this was the home he had been looking for, the ‘lost’ paradise, the Garden of Eden now found. They saw beyond what I could ever have seen.
When I offered that Lee could spend his idling time to come and teach the children how to run whilst he was still battling his 6- year old court case to clear his name of a concocted allegation that he assisted a teenage athlete to dope, he excitedly and readily accepted.
I had followed the court case since it started and I believed he was the victim of some dangerous conspiracy. The case could have broken him, and destroyed his reputation forever, but like the determined athlete that he was all his life, he patiently fought it for 7 years. He was finally vindicated when he won in court and his name was finally cleansed of that ugly stain and stench.
That’s how he moved with me to Abeokuta and adopted SOCA as his personal project, to train and run with the lives of its students to sports success!
Within weeks, we were conjoined in living the dream of the biggest and best high-level sports training center in Africa. Lee started to dig up all his old friends in positions of authority in international sports, asking for support for the academy as well as scholarships for the students into American Colleges.
John Cashin embarked on researching how the scattered bamboo plantations in the environment could become useful raw material for a Bamboo Village in Wasimi Orile where returnee African/Americans could live whilst investing in the vast agricultural opportunities that lie wasting in the environment.
That’s how Lee Evans finally settled down with me in Abeokuta preparing for our full settlement on the campus of SOCA in 2022.
His next plans, in the order of priority, were to see his grandchildren in the US, to buy himself a truck he could use on a farm, to build a small home next to mine in the academy, bring his Nigerian family from Calabar to stay with him, invite Earnest Itche, his Cameroonian assistant based in the US, to join him in the academy to continue the breeding process of the next generation of world-class African sprinters and jumpers.
Lee was going to start an athletics revolution that would take young girls and boys from grass to grace, to mounting Olympic podiums after 3 years of the unique SOCA-experience. He was going to enjoy the rest of his life in that community, to die and to be buried beside his ancestors.
As I sit down this afternoon, all of these thoughts running through my mind, I am deeply pained that Lee is no longer around me to finish the journey we both embarked upon.
Last Tuesday night, at a quarter to midnight, peacefully in his deeply unconscious state, he embarked on another journey, alone, a terminal one on earth that is designed and understood only by the Creator of the Universe himself.
I am thinking of Lee as he journeys to his creator.
He loved children and athletics in equal measure. Talking to them closely about how they can become great athletes, and working out with them on the training ground and the tracks were his oxygen. Those things made him very happy.
He would wake up in the mornings and announce with seriousness and pride that: ‘I have a class in school today’.
He told me how he once scored a student 100% in a test when he lectured at the University of Ife, and the head of department summoned him and told him that no student was that good, and even if he answered every question correctly, it was preposterous to score him ‘perfect’. He had to take away some points from the student’s excellent performance. In sports that would never happen. When you win, you win completely.
Amongst the things that he also told me fondly was his love to dance. Three weeks ago, I saw him dance for the first time. Bored with sitting at home one Friday evening we decided to go to the Sports Lounge in Abeokuta, a bar and hangout place I own. The lockdown and COVID 19 restrictions had badly affected the place. It had been idle for over a year.
That evening, Lee arranged that the single staff left in the place should arrange some music, the kind of music the loved, music of the 1960’s and 1970’s – James Brown, U-Roy, Bob Marley, Fela Anikulapo, and a whole generation of other reggae artists.
As soon as the music rented the air, Lee hit the dance floor and started to move his feet. He was a real rocker, with incredible dancing feet. He had all the structured and measured moves of a tutored dancer. The only other people at the bar, a couple, joined me in watching and marveling at Lee’s mastery, his waist gyrating in sync with his feet moving in rhythmic patterns. He danced to every music that night – Reggae, Jazz and Afrobeat. It was the happiest I have seen Lee in a long time of our relationship. That was three weeks ago.
He lived to compete and to win. The moment he tasted the sweetness of winning big, he got hooked on winning like a drug.
To him winning is about coming first in every race. That’s why throughout his career in athletics, from the age of 19, he probably only ever lost one race, and, definitely, it was not to a White athlete. He was not a racist, but experiencing racial injustice in America drove him to excel in athletics and never to allow any White athlete defeat him in a race.
He grew up during the peak of the civil movement in the United States and was fed on the diet of social injustice, inequality and racism. He and his fellow Black colleagues took this with them to the 1968 Olympics, and if there was any tonic that made them run and ‘destroyed’ 5 world records in the process, that was it – to make the point that Blacks were as good and even better. Their stances, the black berets, the raised fists were all protests that changed the world of sports forever.
Lee’s complete story in Africa will still be told. His life in Nigeria and in SOCA, the institute he wanted to turn into the best training center for sports in Africa, has not ended. It is indeed a new chapter. His legacy, planted already in the academy, will sustain the Lee Evans story for a long time to come.
For now, in fulfilment of his wish, and with the acquiescence of his family and closest friends, the academy in Wasimi will be the final resting place of Lee Edward Evans, one of the greatest 400 meter runners in history. I believe that in that place he will finally rest and find divine peace in the land of his ancestors.