I arrived at the university which was buzzing with activity as excited graduands prepared to reap the fruit of their labour at the July 5 graduation event. The well-mowed football pitch had lost its identity as floods of people, organised symmetrically in lines, sat in the tents which were white enough to deflect the sun and wide enough to protect from rain. Somewhere inside one of the dozens of tents sat Phillip Wokorach himself, the champion, as The Standard’s Benezeri Wanjala writes.
As he leaves, the university community will miss a sportsman of his calibre. UCU has benefited tremendously from Wokorach’s time at the campus. Wokorach inspired many players on the UCU Shepherds, the university rugby team, whom he occasionally trained with, and he inspired thousands of students that saw him live in the flesh on a daily basis. However, most importantly, many were touched by his unwavering faith in God, whom he always credited whenever he shone.
After I located Wokorach at the graduation venue, I escorted him to the extreme end of the football pitch where the blaring speakers wouldn’t disrupt us. Throughout our 30-minute long engagement, more than 15 people called him on his iphone X; he didn’t pick even one.
When I encouraged him to, he said he’d call them back afterwards– a polished gentleman. By the time we were halfway, the graduation’s best-kept secret had been discovered and a bevy of graduands and journalists kept themselves busy not far from where we were, and kept peering over their shoulders, as they waited for their turn.
As Wokorach graduates, he leaves an indelible mark on the university. Humphrey Ogwal, a former UCU Shepherds player, recalls the impact Wokorach had on the team. “He was always in the gym. Every time I went to the gym, Wokorach was already inside, working out. That told us a lot about putting in the work like a professional,” Humphrey says. “I got a chance to play with him during the inter-university games. He always played for UCU and our opponents lost mentally, even before the game, whenever they saw him.”
“I’ll never forget when I’d just joined and we had a freshers’ game against the university team in first year. The freshers had never won that game in the history of UCU. But together with Allan Bijik, Phillip Wokorach led us to victory,” Humphrey recalls.
When Wokorach was approaching the tail end of his high school, he approached the administration of Kyadondo Rugby Club, the home of Heathens Rugby Club, with an ultimatum. “Wokos”, as he was fondly known, was a bona fide superstar, having conquered the prestigious Super Eight rugby tournament which brought together the most elite rugby schools in Uganda. He went on to conquer the region as well, where he led Hana Mixed School to victory at the Safari Sevens in Nairobi, the same year (2011). When he went to play at any high school in Uganda, students in their hundreds thronged the pitch to see the prodigy live. His reputation preceded him wherever he went.
National team players were lobbying for him to join their clubs, especially the Heathens players who knew that he was already emotionally invested in the club. He had played at Kyadondo Rugby Club since childhood.
“Kyadondo had a Totos programme and they pointed us in the right direction during our childhood,’’ Phillip says. “They brought rugby to school and insisted that we remain in school. In the evenings and during holidays they organised tournaments for kids. So they monitored us closely and endeared themselves to us, winning our love and trust.”
However, he had a carefully thought out ultimatum that he planned to present to the management of the Heathens at Kyadondo. He knew he was in a good bargaining position. He told them that he would play for them on the condition that they pay for his university tuition, on top of his salary and other allowances that the other players were earning. After sitting to discuss this unprecedented proposition, the board consented. Phillip hadn’t even sat for his high school finals yet.
He eventually did the exams and did well enough to join university. His plan was to go to MUBS to study a Bachelor of Business and Administration. MUBS was very near to the rugby grounds and so balancing would be simpler, he reasoned. However, God had other plans.
“Just before I put in my application, I happened to meet David ‘Bunkens’ Bukenya, the rugby legend who was at Uganda Christian University in Mukono,” Phillip narrates. “He told me that I should check the university out, before I make a decision. When I went to see the place, I fell in love with it.”
The benefits of being under his hero’s tutelage outweighed his earlier negative perception about its distance. The decision paid off. He was able to get additional training and tips from “Bunkens”, to supplement his regular Heathens training. In the end his game was greatly improved. Heathens kept its end of the bargain, even though UCU’s tuition was going to cost about three times more than MUBS.
When Phillip began school, he was recovering from a career threatening injury. He soldiered on, with his crutches, in what he admits was a very trying time.
“I was lucky because I’d already started playing for Heathens, so they took care of my treatment for all the eight months”, he recalls. I ask him to take me through the process of recovery. “When you’re injured, you’re depressed. And when you’re depressed, you lose weight. I was already skinny but I became even skinnier and yet in rugby you need the weight. But with counselling from doctors and therapists, I regained my confidence.” He says he remembers being advised not to attempt to rush the healing. If it heals naturally, they told him, it will heal completely.
In 2015, he broke a leg again while doing trials in the United Kingdom. With the background of his first experience, he was able to heal again without despairing.
This second injury came quick on the heels of another huge blow. In 2014, after the Commonwealth Games in Scotland, he was informed that the Aegrotat exams that he had done had gone missing. However, he was advised to continue studying as the matter got sorted out. Around the same time, management at Kyadondo changed and the funds for his tuition weren’t trickling in anymore.
“It was hard because Kyadondo started to think that I wasn’t doing well at school anymore and that I had lost focus,.Maybe that’s why they stopped sending money,” he recalls.
He began saving from the money he was earning from playing rugby and he started playing in more invitational tournaments to raise money to pay tuition for the rest of his school. He didn’t give up.
In 2016, after his final semester, when he was supposed to graduate, he received bad news. They hadn’t found his missing papers, and therefore he was going to have to redo an entire semester. By this time he had signed a new deal with one of the best Kenyan teams named Kabras Sugar Rugby Club. Fortunately for him, his semester happened during the off-season and so he would return to Uganda and do the required papers whenever he had to.
Wokos being Wokos, he didn’t just play at his new club. He dominated. In his third season this year, he has won the league with them already. He has also been the top try scorer of the league with over 20 tries. He’s won MVP and he’s also been the top point scorer. He’s been recognised by Uganda Sports Press Association awards consistently for a number of years. He was named Player of the Tournament at the Amsterdam 7s for Samurai Rugby Club. On the national front, he represented Uganda at the Hong Kong 7’s World Cup and won the admiration of international scribes and scouts. Space won’t allow me to exhaust all his exploits.
However even with that glory, he says his happiest moment occurred as he prepared to play in the final of the Kenyan Rugby Cup. He received a call from the university that he had made it onto the graduation list. “That was the best moment of my life because I knew that I was going to make so many people proud, including my mum.”
The only two other moments that can top the elation that he felt on his graduation day are being signed by a professional team, and helping Uganda Rugby Cranes to the 15s World Cup. These objectives, he says, make up his five-year plan. After accomplishing them, he might even consider retiring.
I shake his hand, thank him and make way for other journalists to have a go at interviewing him.