The former Kenyatta University player wants to win the Europe Hockey League and guide Kenya to the 2024 Olympics.
Griffin Okombe has one set of goals in mind every time he suits up for the Hockey Club Potenza Picena: to be the best he can be, help his team win, make his family proud and leave a legacy.
Those goals mean a lot to him. They fuel how he plays. The same player, who is calm and collected off the court, has a fiery passion to play his heart out in practice sessions and during game nights.
Once a shy freshman, who had trouble adjusting to life in the varsity hockey team, his professional career has blossomed into something he hardly imagined.
From playing for the Kakamega High School second-string team, to starring in the Kenya Hockey Union (KHU) Premier League for Kenyatta University, Okombe has progressed to be one of Kenya’s finest players.
After a two-year playing stint in the premier league, his determination and ambitions saw him drafted in the Kenya national team, which further opened a bigger door; an opportunity to play professional in Italy for Hockey Club Potenza Picena, in 2018.
As is with any epic tale, one must start from humble beginnings, which in this case, was Eldoret, where Okombe was born in September 1994.
Born in a family of six (fifth born), Okombe grew up with a passion for drama during his childhood years at Aligula Primary School in Soy, Eldoret.
“In primary school, I studied with guys who were way older and bigger than me. I did not have the body to compete with them in sports. So I resorted to drama, though deep down, I had the liking of playing football,” says the 26-year-old player.
The success began when Okombe joined Western region giants Kakamega High School in 2009.
Though popularly known for rugby and football prowess, Kakamega High moulded Okombe to be the player he is today.
“Kakamega High is a football and rugby powerhouse. I could not make it to the school’s football team and therefore, opted for hockey, which was not very competitive. I wanted to play any sport just for fun,” he said.
Okombe credits the school’s games master Peter Cetera and some senior players for helping him to be a better player.
“I’ve learned a lot from Cetera and the senior players,” he said. “They used to give me a lot of advice, which helped me through the game.”
“Nicknamed ‘carrot’ because of his pint-sized body frame, Okombe soldiered on from the school’s second-string team to break into the first team when he was in Form Two.
He went on to guide the school to a third-place finish at both the Kenya Secondary School Association (KSSSA) national Term One games and East Africa games in 2011.
He was also voted the Most Improved Player during the 2012 KSSSA games.
For Okombe, however, playing real hockey began after he joined Kenyatta University in 2014.
“When I joined Kenyatta University, I was lucky because they had a hockey team competing in the Kenya National League and Kenya University Sports Association (KUSA).”
“Since I was a freshman, getting to play just one match as a bench player was a big achievement for me. The team was full of talent, a lot of competition and I knew that called for commitment,”he said.
“I had to settle for the KUSA games because the National League required more experience.”
The KUSA tournament offered him the chance to push things one-step further.
It was Moses Kagochi’s appointment as the head coach in 2016 that acted as a catalyst to his game’s improvement.
“He introduced new systems and modern hockey playing styles. He really pushed us and especially me, whom after showing my commitment to play, he was really at my back guiding me in every step I made in the game.”
His loyalty and determination would came in handy in 2018 when coach Kagochi shared some of his videos with Italian scouts at an International Hockey Federation Seminar in Tanzania.
“Kagochi was part of an Educator Bench during one of the hockey seminars in Tanzania and he called to inform me that I have been selected by a team in Italy, who wanted to sign me.”
His dreams came true in June 2018 after he signed for Hockey Club Potenza Picena, which plays in the Italian Serie A2 (super league).
Life in Italy was new to Okombe, who made his debut three days after arriving at Marche Region, Picena City. Language barrier was a big hindrance to his performance.
Understanding his teammates was also a challenge but he soldiered on.
After just three matches, fate conspired against him as he broke a finger, which saw him sidelined for two months. He then returned back home.
“It was painful to be out for two months just when I had began to get used to my teammates. However, it was during the start of winter games and I did not miss many matches since most of the matches were played in-doors.”
After healing, he went back to Italy and picked up from where he had left. In 2019, he became a regular in the starting line up, where he played as a utility midfielder.
He was so aggressive and full of potential that saw him being voted Serie A2 Player of the Month for November 2019. He was also included in the Serie 2 Team of the Week in October.
Picena is currently third in the standings with 14 points in the 2020 Serie A2 season, but the league has been halted due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Picena head coach Stefano Muscela describes Okombe as the engine of the team, which the crowd hardly notices, but has a great impact in the game.
“Griffo is the kind of player the crowd won’t normally see, because he works hard, runs a lot, does the dirty job, while his teammates are struggling to create a goal.”
“His impact in the team is big.”