By Benedict Nyankun Wisseh
Liberia's National Team During the 1960's
As if we are programmed, when conversations about football take place, our focus is placed on players who score goals for our teams. In this case, we celebrate forwards and midfielders whose responsibility it is to score goals and ignore defenders and goalkeepers except for their mistakes that lead to the defeats of our teams. For goalkeepers, such was the case in 1972 when William Nah, while his team, IE, was ahead of Bameh one goal to zero, conceded the equalizing goal. A pass to him by John Joseph had fallen short of the required speed and was chased by Pentil Tarpeh of Bameh, a rookie centre forward from Cuttington College, who was making his first appearance on the national stage. Having realized that the ball had fallen short of entering the eighteen yard box where he could have caught it, Nah ran toward the ball to kick it. But mysteriously, he completely missed the ball as he tried to kick it, leaving Tarpeh to score one of the easiest goals in Liberian football history. As a supporter of Bameh, I celebrated the goal and have since remembered Tarpeh for scoring it. But the error, in the examination of Nah’s ability, was an aberration.
William Nah, at the time, was the number one goalkeeper for Liberia’s Lone Stars. He was nicknamed the “flying saucer” and “the cat” because of his impossible reflex saves and ability to suspend his body in midair in pursuit of a ball perfectly placed in the upper corner of the goalposts. To add to his mystique, he wore black cap and black uniform as he stood between goalposts and commanded the six yard box behind a Lone Stars’ defense anchored by the remarkable Borbor Gaye. Out of his football uniform, Nah was reserved, dressed well and polite. Since the venerable David Momoh, Liberians had not unanimously embraced a goalkeeper with an unequivocal confidence in his goalkeeping ability until Nah came on the football stage. Every time he stood between the goalposts, he rarely disappointed their confidence in him. But while in the prime of his football career, still under 25 years old, something terribly bad happened to William Nah in 1973 that transformed his life forever.
William Nah began his playing career with St. Joseph Warriours, founded in the Monrovia borough of New Kru Town by one Joseph Marino, a Catholic from Spain, who went by the name Brother Joseph. His area of service with the Catholic Church was healthcare. Some of Nah’s teammates were Sylvester “Red” Weah, Major William Jebbor, Bai Freeman, Michael Tarplah, Borbor Dee, Alexander Rockson, Henry Seke, Anthony Nagbe, etc. William Nah began his goalkeeping career as an understudy to William Wleh. William Wleh, also known as Mwanah Wleh, was a capable goalkeeper. But the eccentric conduct, others will say wackiness, he displayed in goal during games left his teammates and supporters bewildered, disbelieving and nervous during every game he played. As a result, by all accounts, coaches of the national team were not inclined to call him up for the national team. Not only did Wleh’s eccentric behaviors discouraged coaches to call him up to the national team, it opened the doors for Nah to play regularly for St. Joseph Warriors, winning the confidence of the coaching staff through spectacularly brilliant performances to be number one.
By the time the 1960s ended, David Momo, Alexander Peal and Alfred weeks, the prominent goalkeepers at the time, withdrew from playing. Peal and Weeks went into retirement while Momoh carried on playing as a central defender for IE and later for Bameh. This vacuum catapulted a new generation of goalkeepers onto the national stage, led by William Nah, Christopher Nippy and George Tarpeh. Nippy, now a Liberian diplomat at the Liberian Embassy in Washington, DC, and Tarpeh shared duties as goalkeepers for IE. But sometimes in 1971, Tarpeh and Nippy left IE, Tarpeh for America and Nippy for Barrolle. The sudden departures left IE without an accomplished goalkeeper to commensurate its reputation. Therefore, Nah was promptly recruited and convinced by Samuel Burnette to join IE. As a regular for St. Joseph, he was generally composed and admirably unflappable throughout any unnerving episode on the field in the eighteen yard box. That did not change when he went on to play for IE.
Sometimes in 1973, while the Lone Stars were preparing to travel to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to play Sierra Leone, Nah took ill. But his illness was not an ordinary one. It was announced, to the shock of the Liberian football community, that he had developed psychiatric illness. According to Daniel Koffa, then an aspiring footballer with St. Joseph Warriors, it began at nightfall in New Kru Town, the time at which women, struggling to make ends meet, settled at their favorite spots at the street corners selling fried fish, chicken, potatoes, plantains, karlar, boiled eggs, roasted meat and cassava to passersby. Located from one of the streets leading to Duala was the Samuel Doe Pentecostal Church (no, not that Doe you are thinking about). There, in the church, Nah’s life began to spiral downward.
As the business women were trading and interacting with their customers, the news broke that somebody had broken into the church, half-dressed and running around, destroying everything in his way. Curious about the identity and motive of the person, but certainly outraged to hear that the person was committing sacrilege in the church, residents and street revelers rushed to the church. Undoubtedly, all suspected that these sacrilegious acts were being committed by an unknown pedestrian person. But to the shock of those who had gathered there, it was William Nah, Liberia’s number one goalkeeper and, perhaps, New Kru Town’s most popular resident who was affectionately known to them only as “Willingo.”
Throughout the night, the news that Nah had broken into the church spread like bush fire in New Kru Town to the shock of everybody. While the residents of New Kru Town were trying to make sense of what has happened to Nah, relatives and friends took him away from the view of the public to an unknown place. The next day, the news spread throughout Monrovia with football enthusiasts in disbelief as they discussed what they have heard about the goalkeeper they called the “Flying Saucer.” The news was shocking because no one thought and believed that the goalkeeper, who threw himself around between goalposts playing for Liberia without regards for injuries, was subdued by mental illness. About two or three months before, he had kept the goal for IE in the 1972 Rally Time football tournament chaired by C. Cecil Dennis, Jr. During the games, he did not display any eccentric behaviors to forewarn anyone of what was to happen to him. While the public speculated on the sources of his illness, Nah’s family struggled to provide treatment for him.
While the family was struggling to find treatment for him, the Lone Stars were preparing to travel to Sierra Leone without its number one goalkeeper. This created a general apprehension among Liberian football fans, even though the team was going into that game with another capable goalkeeper in Christopher Nippy. On the front page of the Liberian Star newspaper, Zack Wleh Humphrey, one of the country’s best sports writers, led with the headline, “Liberia to Play Sierra Leone Without its best Goalkeeper.” Jack Blamo Robinson, another renowned journalist, wrote in the Liberian Age “William Nah’s Absence, a Worry for Lone Stars against Sierra Leone.” The Lone Stars travelled to Sierra Leone by land during the season of the West African torrential rain while the football administrators travelled by plane. Liberia lost 1.0. This would be the last time Nah’s name was associated with the Lone Stars in a newspaper’s headline as a player.
Nah’s family and friends, somehow, struggled to find treatment for him, taking him to traditional, religious and medical sanatoriums. Under the care of one of these centers, Nah appeared to have regained his sanity as he returned to playing, this time with St. Joseph Warriors, again. For about a year, he kept goal for St. Joseph Warriors, occasionally demonstrating flashes of his brilliant past that left no doubts why he was fairly a regular feature for the national team as its number one goalkeeper. These performances and our ignorance of mental illness convinced football fans that Nah had recovered completely. But what appeared to be a full recovery to football fans was actually a natural sham. Slowly, without proper professional care, the illness returned and Nah drifted away from playing football on the bigger stage at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium to keeping goal for picked-up teams constituted by young aspiring footballers and the ones whose aspirations were confined to just playing football in New Kru Town only. So, too, he was forgotten by the general public, the one outside of New Kru Town that did not see him as he lived the rest of his life under the destructive control of mental illness.
Generally, he was not attached to any particular team in New Kru Town. He frequented the football ground and played only if a team needed a goalkeeper in the absence of its regular goalkeeper. He kept goal in street clothes that he wore repeatedly as he walked the dusty streets of New Kru Town. In the world of his mental illness, he did not see anything unusual about himself and what he was doing. The picked up games, played on black sandy fields, offered psychological succors. After the games were over, individuals, out of the generosity of their hearts, took him to a shop and purchased food-bread and butter and a Coca Cola or Fanta- for him to eat, a very good meal in his case. It can also be said that this was the only time he was able to eat a good meal. But where he slept was beyond what they could do for him. For someone who was once the toast of the national football team and the Antoinette Tubman Stadium and dressed well, it was painfully sad to see Nah playing in these games disheveled in old ragged clothes and reduced to mockery. While he suffered, the Sports Commission and the Liberian Football Association did nothing to help him.
By the early 1980s, Nah had completely disappeared from the conversations and concerns of the nation that once toasted him as its national hero. Except his family and some friends, everybody had abandoned him as his condition worsened and he walked long distances from place to place without any purpose. At times, by 1985, Nah was spending less time in New Kru Town. The nomadic life of mental illness left him homeless and took him from New kru Town to wherever his imagination and physical endurance led him. He slept wherever sleep overcame him. According to Roland Brown, a former Barrolle’s defender who took interest in Nah’s condition, Nah would disappear from New Kru Town for months and return later. “Whenever he disappeared,” Brown said “it was reported that William Nah was seen either in Paynesville, ELWA or Gardnerville by the roadside.’’ In this life, he was not recognized as the one time Liberia’s number one goalkeeper who strolled majestically between the goalposts and performer wonders even if it meant injuring himself. Rather, he was just another “crazy man” to passersby who saw him by the roadside as he walked, slept or ate.
The last time Brown saw Nah was sometimes in 1989 in New Kru Town. Brown recalled that as he walked away about ten yards from a grocery store, he heard his middle name, Toweh, called in Kru and followed by “my small brother.” And when he turned around, to his shock and surprise, it was Nah. Unshaven and disheveled, and speaking in kru, he said to Brown “small brother, I am hungry. I need something to eat.” According to Brown, he took Nah to the shop and purchased bread and butter with a Coca Cola drink for him. At the store, people came by and were shocked to see him. But they were happy to see him and, as it was in the old days, he was “Willingo” again. In a brief conversation, Nah told Brown that he had been away “travelling.” Brown concluded that “after eating, he politely thanked me and left.”
He continued this nomadic life until the civil war broke out in 1989. In the chaos of the senseless killings, William Nah disappeared and has since never been seen, heard from or about. What happened to him only found concern and sympathy in speculations by few friends and football colleagues who last saw him. One of them was the late coach Victor Sieh. Coach Sieh and Nah had played for St. Joseph Warriours and lived in New Kru Town together, as were Sylvester “Red” Weah, Nyanya Sarvice and William Jebbor.
In 1995, while I was visiting Liberia, I met coach Sieh and asked him about Nah. Coach Sieh told me that prior to the civil war, Nah’s condition had seriously spiraled downward that he was walking about without shoes or proper clothes on. He told me that the last time he saw Nah was in early 1990 in the area of the Monrovia City Hall, walking in the direction leading to Sinkor, Congo Town, Paynesville and ELWA, one of which was his possible destination. At this time, the armed rebellion was rapidly gaining credibility and rumors began to circulate that agents of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), pretending to be insane, had infiltrated Monrovia and gathering intelligence reports on security measures taken by the government. In reaction, government security officers, under the cover of darkness, were preying on the mentally ill homeless Liberians. In their brief conversation, Sieh said that he warned Nah about this and tried to convince him to return to New Kru Town. But Nah told Sieh that “I am trucking on to see my family” and left against the counsel of his former teammate. So, on he went, incoherent and detached from the reality of the fatal danger he was about to walk into. Therefore, about what happened to Nah, Sieh told me that he believed he had died, killed by government soldiers somewhere on the outskirts of Monrovia after having mistaken him, because of his condition, to be an agent of the NPFL who pretended to be insane.
At the time Nah became ill, E. Harding Smythe was serving as chairman of the Liberian Sports Commission while Carlton Karpeh, John Beh, and George Tubman ran the affairs of the Liberian Football Association (LFA). Before Nah got ill, these folks had organized football tournaments and raised money for political causes that kept them relevant politically. But they ignored Nah’s plight and did nothing to help him. Suffice it to say that when he took ill neither one of them cared to follow up on the progress of his condition by visiting his family in a personal or official capacity. They did not have to because they had no use for him, having been replaced capably in the Lone Stars’ goalposts by Nippy. But one should not be surprised, for these were the same administrators who travelled by plane to Sierra Leone while the players travelled by land on the bus.
It is more than forty years when the then Sports Commission and the LFA turned their backs on William Nah. When he experienced the first episode of his mental illness, he was not completely lost. He was within the reach of redemption. After he got sick, he returned to playing and did well, raising money for the Sports Commission and LFA. This fact left no doubts that had the Sports Commission and LFA acted promptly and provided the required resources and Nah had undergone the proper treatment for mental illness, his condition would have improved and he would not have suffered the humiliation of this illness and died anonymously. With the record of Liberian athletes falling victims to the neglect and abuse of their administrators, it is very sad and disappointing that the retired prominent athletes have remained muted on this instead of making the administrators to act accordingly.
About the Author: Benedict Nyankun Wisseh, a former footballer, is known for teaching Patrick Arthur how to kick with his right foot. Email: email@example.com.