Fentuo writes: How Christopher Opoku brought out the commentator in me

The late Christopher “Columbus” Opoku represented many things to many people: a religious man, a  hardworking professional, an incorruptible journalist and an impeccable broadcaster. But for me, he will always remain the man that first gave me the confidence to become a commentator.

I looked up to two people as a young journalist – Christopher Opoku and Yaw Ampofo Ankrah. My love for the two was cemented during their perceptive coverage of Ghana’s first ever appearance at the FIFA World Cup in 2006.

I was a first-year student at the University of Ghana and had the privilege of listening to Chris on Asempa FM every morning when he took charge of their sports morning show. I could barely speak a word of Twi back then but still tuned in every morning because of Chris. It was almost as if he knew I was listening and for my sake, would sneak in more than a few lines of his impeccably carved English.

I could go on and on about how many more times I’d gone on to watch Chris on TV or listen to him on the radio. But that would take months to finish.

After I graduated from school and moved to Kumasi for my year of national service, I was also racking up internship hours at Kapital Radio’s sports department; working and learning from Listowell Yesu Bukarson, Nathaniel Abankwah (Natty Bongo) and Benjamin Yamoah.

While I got better at sports news writing and broadcasting, I never quite learned how to commentate. I consistently turned down opportunities to do commentary with flimsy excuses. I was afraid of performing so abysmally, I’d disappoint my bosses. I could speak fluent English; I just couldn’t figure out how to string words together to spontaneously describe the ongoing action.

It was a painfully harrowing experience. It was a fear I could never overcome up until I quit Kapital to focus on the teaching job I was offered after my national service.

Between 2011 and late 2013, I was out of the media. And in November 2013, I got an offer from Ultimate FM for a part-time job as a sports broadcaster. Most mornings, I would listen via TuneIn radio to Chris and his Power FM crew as they doled out some of the best sports discussions Ghana has ever seen.

Ultimate FM only ran short bulletins. There was no commentary show which meant my commentary weakness would not be exposed. I was partly relieved because my bosses were under the assumption that I was by default, a fantastic commentator. But deep down, I was insecure.

But not for long. Five months later, I had my date with commentary. It was May 2, 2014 at the Baba Yara Sports Stadium. The game between Great Olympics and Tema Youth was a crucial one with the winner guaranteed a return to the top flight of Ghana football for the 2014/15 season. On a hot Friday afternoon, I was not to miss a game of that significance.

I went to the stadium to watch the game and get a few post-match interviews after. Ten minutes before kick-off, Kwaku Ahenkorah, the venue media officer at the Baba Yara stadium came over to inform me Chris was on the other end of the line and wanted to speak to me. I was confused.

But then Chris asked my name and proceeded to ask how I was doing. Then he told me how his commentator had disappointed him by not coming to the stadium and then politely asked if I could run commentary for Power FM in Accra. My heart missed a beat; not only because my broadcast idol was asking for my help, but because I was ill-equipped to help.

I remember saying excitedly; “Yes, I’d love to”, before quickly adding, “I’ve never done commentary before.” The conversation that followed was similar in tone if not in style to General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s speech when he ordered the Normandy Invasion in 1944. And I needed that speech because running commentary was a battle I was often too afraid to fight. I needed a General to lead me into battle. Chris was that General.

“Do you speak English?” was the next question he asked me when I told him I had never done commentary prior. “Fluently, sir,” I responded. “Do you believe you can do it?” He asked again. “I don’t know sir, I’ve never done it before,” I retorted. “I said do you believe you can do it?” Chris pressed on. “I will try, sir,” I responded. “I don’t want you to try. I want you to tell me you can do it,” Chris hit back, with his voice rising in tone. “Ok sir, I can do it,” I replied, out of abdication rather than in real belief of the words I uttered.

Then Chris hung up the call and told me to get ready in the next five minutes and expect a call from the studio soon after. I hurriedly got a team sheet, found myself a nice spot, and waited for the call. When the call came, it was Henry Asante Twum, another broadcaster I had only watched on TV and admired from afar. He introduced me as “Pentuo Tahiru”. I heard him say my name wrong but I was so nervous I missed out on the chance to correct him.

This was just so difficult on so many levels. Not only had I never done commentary before, I had not watched Olympics or Tema Youth all season, and didn’t know any of their players. But somehow Chris made me believe I was capable. In the opening 30 minutes of the game, I swore I was merely putting English words together, barely running any half decent commentary.

At halftime, I was expecting Chris to call and destroy me for a poor job done, or that better still he had found his commentator and would be more than happy to dispose of the garbage commentator that I thought I was. But no. He called alright, but to tell me I was doing a decent job; told me to slow down a bit; only describe what I see and move the phone away from my mouth because it was giving bad feedback.

By the beginning of the second half, the Power FM commentator had arrived and he only acted as a summarizer as I completed my first 90 minutes of commentary in what was a very controversial game which Olympics won 2-1 while Tema Youth threatened to abandon the game over poor refereeing decisions by referee Joseph Lamptey.

After that game, my commentary fears were conquered. I’ve since gone on to run commentary for all sorts of matches – from Ghana Premier League games to La Liga matches and everything in between. When I attempted my first tennis commentary, I was not afraid. When I did my first basketball commentary, I was not afraid. When I did my first squash commentary, I wasn’t afraid. And because of Chris, when I attempt my first rugby or cricket or boxing commentary, I know I will not be afraid. Every time I turn on the microphone to run commentary, I’m on a path to make Chris proud.

Chris believed in me so much to offer me a writing role at his website footy-ghana.com. If there’s one thing I learned writing for footy-ghana.com, it’s “accuracy over speed”. Chris always emphasized the need to be accurate with reports instead of rushing to be the first to break a story that would later turn out to be false. That compromises your integrity, he always said. And Chris never compromised.

Of the new generation of sports journalists, not many have had the privilege of personally working with this great man. I did and I’m truly honoured by that. Everything he stood for – truth, honour, integrity, accuracy without fear or favour – the best way to truly honour his absence is to stand for these things.

Chris spent his last years as a journalist in the Citi FM newsroom. I’m honoured to be working at the same place he once did. I feel sad that I did not come in early enough to work closely with you.

I will miss your counsel; your sense of humour; your wisdom and above all, your kindness. You will never be forgotten, Chris.

Happy Birthday, Christopher Colombus! Continue to rest in peace!

By: Fentuo Tahiru/citinewsroom.com/Ghana