The Opportunity: A conversation with Martin Offiah

by Michael Volpe

Martin Offiah, English Rugby League’s greatest ever try scorer with over 500 career tries (and third highest ever in the world of all time), has enjoyed a superstar career of glittering highs and accolades. The numbers rack up relentlessly in his record and there is no honour he cannot claim from his sport, representing England and Great Britain. He is still — rightly — immensely proud of his induction into the Rugby League Hall of Fame in 2013 when a statue of him alongside other great rugby league players was erected outside Wembley Stadium. ‘There aren’t many black people with statues to them outside Wembley,’ he tells me, laughing loudly.

Martin was born in London to Nigerian parents and grew up in Hackney before being offered a place at Woolverstone Hall, a very special grammar school for inner city boys in Suffolk. And that’s where I met him, a year younger than me and preceded at Woolverstone by his brother Chyke who was in the same year as my own older brother. Rugby was the school sport — and in some respects the rest is history. Martin cites Woolverstone as the first great opportunity and the one that put him on the path to, literally, legendary status. Woolverstone produced a plethora of successful and famous people but Martin’s achievements perhaps sit above all of them — he is to my knowledge the only one of us to be cast in bronze. Astonishingly, Martin’s brother was also a lavishly gifted sportsman and I ask Martin if he felt the pressure of knowing how highly regarded his brother was.

‘It spurred me on actually. I loved attention and having Chyke as my brother meant that people wanted to see what I was made of. It gave me the determination to do well.’

Like many of us at Woolverstone, being taken from our home environments and put into the wilds of Suffolk rarely felt at the time like an opportunity. ‘It was a huge inconvenience,’ he says, ‘but Woolverstone was clearly a major moment in my life — there was no rugby going on in Hackney.’

Opportunity isn’t enough on its own though. Martin says that he resolved at around the age of 14 or 15 to be a professional sportsman and had a single-mindedness to achieve that. He still proselytises about taking those opportunities with both hands;

‘You have to find it within yourself to make the most of the opportunities that come your way — and opportunities ARE out there for all of us. We just don’t see them sometimes.’

People who achieved their successes at the very highest level of elite sport are probably among the most focused and intensively competitive people you are likely to meet, and it’s a special brand of determination that craves expression and outlet once the boots are hanging in the cupboard. Even during our online conversation the energy and belief is relentless and unremitting. However, Martin found himself a little rudderless after his career came to an end and felt he stood still, but again, he believes he had to seek out the opportunities for himself.

‘I was in the wilderness for a while — just not knowing what to do and missing all that wonderful reward of sport. Although one thing people always ask me is what was it like to be so famous and successful and I always say that in many respects I enjoyed Woolverstone more — because it was the journey that I took most pleasure from.’ Was there just a desire to go higher, as though addicted to the success and, in his case, genuine adoration?

‘I don’t think so — it isn’t like a drug. I just wanted to improve myself all the time, to keep the journey going forward.’

Martin now works with a company called Connected Kerb, a firm that is seeking to innovate and normalise the charging capabilities of city streets in order to help the growth of the electric car.

‘I find that the opportunities are still boundless if you look for them. I am especially interested in the environment and our planet now,’ he says.

Martin will never forget the opportunity that Woolverstone represented but he is very mindful that people have opportunities and forego them too easily. He just wasn’t going to let that happen and his career — that went from club Rugby Union to a sudden change into the professional Rugby League game, primarily with two giants in Widnes and Wigan — is a case study in how to maximise one’s potential.

We talk about the possibilities that Nova New Opportunities offers its clients and Martin isn’t prepared to step away from the mantra;

‘To get the opportunity to educate yourself later in life is fantastic — but you have to take it, you have to believe in yourself and find the strength within to be what you want to be.’

We talk again about the remarkable — extraordinary — achievement of a statue outside the home of British sport and his pride is evident. The statue is a depiction of him on his knees, face in hands, at the moment he had just touched down for what is widely considered to be the greatest try in Rugby League Challenge Cup Final history; a mesmerising run of nearly 100 metres, weaving in and out of attempted tackles (see link below). I recall watching it live at the time and feeling immensely proud to have known him and shared school with him. Old Woolverstonians ALWAYS took vicarious pride in the many people who found fame and success — we all came from the same place mainly, the same tough lives and hardships of one kind or another. Each of those successes was a two fingered salute to the world that might have wanted to eat us and spit us out. In Martin, here was one of us who had made the absolute most of his potential — only in his case, he had reached a most glorious pinnacle in front of 100,000 screaming people and millions on TV. He was legend, and kids, just like we were as we found our feet at our school, will be taught about him for generations. I wonder how that must feel. I think I will always wonder how that feels.

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The Opportunity

In people’s lives, ‘opportunities’ can come in various guises, some can be clear and obvious and others may not be evident until after the passage of time. At Nova New Opportunities, we aim to create the conditions for people to take new life chances, and to see where it may take them.

‘The Opportunity’ is a series of discussions with successful individuals who recall a particular moment — or opportunity — that changed the course of their lives. Sometimes it wasn’t obvious that a particular moment would prove so important to their future, at others, it was a blazingly clear juncture that they knew had to be grabbed with both hands. It could be deemed ‘a stroke of luck’, or it could just have been that someone, somewhere showed a little faith, but these moments are when we recognise the turning points in our lives.

Welcome to Nova. We are a small diverse charity with a big reach and novel approach to social change.