From the Rev: Remembering Junior
This past week, Ghanian football forward Manuel “Junior” Agogo died in a London hospital at the age of 40. As I watch the different tweets and acknowledgments come from different clubs and teams that Junior played for, and as news outlets produce similar sounding stories, there is a sad feeling inside. While we might say “kudos” for the different clubs acknowledging Junior, how many with those clubs and news sources even were around to know him?
I knew Junior. Serving as an assistant for Public Relations for the Colorado Rapids, I met Junior when he came to the club in 2000. He was an exciting, dynamic player. I remember his quickness — it surprised many in the league and he scored several goals from his sheer pace and beating defenders to the ball. You can get a little taste of Junior from this archived article by Terry Frei of the Denver Post.
Junior was a few years younger than me. Born August 1, 1979 our birthdays were just slightly more than a week apart. For the past number of years, I have always made an effort to reach out to Junior on his birthday — a customary part of my chaplaincy. And, if I cannot find or communicate a particular player or staff member on that day, I make it a habit to pray for them and their family on that day.
Today, though, as I sit and reflect on Junior. I want to share a few distinct memories.
When Junior was with the Rapids, he would always like to show off his muscles. He was cocky and a bit of a braggadocio. He did have a strong upper body. I recall the fitness specialist back then telling him that he lifted too much. But perhaps his love of exercise was why, later in life, he opened his own fitness club in London where he did physical fitness coaching and training.
One day when Junior was in for a lift, I recall the banter starting to fly between him and a teammate and somehow, I got roped in.
How much can you curl?, he asked with a curious grin.
Man, I just did bicep curls yesterday, I replied. Leave me out of this.
Naw, c’mon. Just askin’? Heh, heh… I should have known that trademark Junior laugh, he was going to egg me on until I got suckered in.
I can hold my own. I tried to get around it a bit.
I don’t remember much more of the dialogue other than, soon, we had each grabbed 30 lb. dumbbells and were challenging each other back and forth. For the next ten minutes, we were trying to outdo one another. I think I only managed two curls with the 50’s and he started laughing his head off as he finished out 12 reps.
Heh, heh, you’re weak! Or something like that, came from Junior as he fancied himself.
I told you I lifted yesterday. I’m spent! But it didn’t matter. I had been “Juniored.”
Now recall, I was only the assistant PR guy. But even in my low position in the front office, the PR guys were the liaisons between the front office, the players, and the media. Junior was with the Rapids just for a short time, but even I knew that he had developed a bit of a reputation. This was always a bit of tough thing for me. And in those early days, I struggled with the darker side of sports. And to be honest, I was largely naive. It didn’t take long for people to talk about Junior and his struggles. Teammates whispered. Coaches rolled their eyes. Management got into closed door meetings.
To be honest, even now as a volunteer team chaplain, there is often little that I know about what way athletes get into — until it gets picked up by TMZ or unless someone confesses their indiscretion or sin (and sometimes they do). I wasn’t serving as a chaplain when Junior was with the Rapids, so he never knew me in that particular way. He might have noticed my Christian faith in other ways. I don’t recall any particular conversations with him, though I had conversations with others in the team, back then.
I really liked Junior — he was funny, bright. But I know that there was another side to Junior. And there was a part that was filled with hurt and pain. Maybe it was being so far from home. Maybe it was his desire to excel. Maybe it was the pressure
A few years after I began serving as the Rapids volunteer chaplain, I felt God impress upon me,
What about those that have come before me? How do I serve them as chaplain now, today?
Even for the players and staff that didn’t know me as chaplain (or didn’t know me at all), I felt that I needed to keep reaching out. I need to some how pursue them, to let them know that they weren’t forgotten. That God remembered them. God cared for them.
From that point on, I started to collect birthdays. I would reach out and contact people — whether they were here when I was a chaplain or PR guy or before and I would introduce myself, offer support, and let them know that I was praying for them, for their families, for the work.
But I couldn’t’ find Junior. He was lost (at least to me). I tried reaching out to him, but his email and contact info was dated. Many times when athletes and coaches from overseas come to Major League Soccer they get an American telephone number for a temporary time before they return home. But I kept trying. I kept reaching. And then I came across the website for a fitness club that he had bought into or owned. There was a form field to reach out via email, and I sent a message.
Now, Junior didn’t know me as chaplain with the Rapids. I re-introduced myself. I asked how he was doing. He told me about the stroke that he had suffered. I wish I had held onto the email. It would be a treasure for me, today. I told him that he was in my prayers. Perhaps, though, I took it for granted — I thought that one day, Junior and I would see each other. In a gym or coffee shop in London. I didn’t know, but I felt it might happen. It has happened with others.
If I am honest, I probably feel differently about Junior because we shared that little gym challenge so many years ago. And my writing this is a step in catharsis for me — because I grieve knowing that Junior is dead. I have seen several other players from Ghana message and tweet their regret that they didn’t keep in touch. Perhaps, we all need absolution. We all need forgiveness for losing Junior. And truthfully, I have little right here. My time in Junior’s life is minuscule compared to others — teammates, friends, family.
But I love Junior. He was like a younger brother when I knew him. And I love Junior because God loves Junior. And I know that God was always reaching throughout the years. I believe that God was reaching beyond more than me. There were others, perhaps, always reaching, always lifting Junior to the Lord.
Today, as I sit and write and remember Manual “Junior” Agogo, I will lift him and his family once again to the Lord.