Antonio José Suarez was born in Havana, Cuba in 1956, the 4th of 12 children. His father fought to stop Communism in Cuba, sending his family of 8 children at the time to Miami in October of 1960 and later joining the family in 1961 to start a new life. In 1969 the family moved to Honduras and then in 1972, to Charlotte, NC. It was during the three-year stay in Honduras that Tony learned the sport of fútbol, in the streets playing with the local boys.
The Suarez family became well known in Charlotte and Carolina soccer circles with eleven family members playing soccer! Supporting the family in its passion for the sport was their father, Roberto Suarez, who landed his first job in America in 1961 as a mail room clerk for Knight-Ridder’s Miami Herald Newspaper, eventually rising to become President and General Manager of the Charlotte Observer and later, Publisher of El Nuevo Herald and President of the Miami Herald.
Tony played at Charlotte’s Myers Park High School between 1972 and 1974, served as co-captain for two years and was named MVP during his senior year. After graduation, he first played at Appalachian State University and then transferred to Belmont Abbey College to finish his college career.
Before professional soccer hit the scene in Charlotte, Tony was a key player and star on five North Carolina State Champion teams with the famous Press Box and Lowenbrau Soccer Clubs in the 1970s. He was also involved in the development of Adult leagues in Charlotte, together with NC Soccer Hall of Fame members Ed Young and Larry Bosc, as Tony founded, managed and played on several teams in the late 1970’s.
In 1981 at the age of twenty-five, Tony tried out for the new American Soccer League team in Charlotte, called the Carolina Lightnin’. At first he did not make the squad, but he remained with the team to drive the bus and to do whatever else he could. As luck would have it, injuries and suspensions of players earned him the opportunity to dress out for a game and in his first appearance he electrified the fans with his style of play… outrunning all of the defenders. He didn’t score in his first outing, but in his second game he did and he never looked back, scoring nine goals in his first 12 games.
Tony became a local hero overnight in 1981, earning a spot in the ASL All-Star game, scoring a goal and being named the MVP of the game. He returned from the game to help lead the Lightnin’ to the ASL Championship game in its rookie season and for his efforts was named the league’s Rookie of the Year. Then, on one magical night in front of 20,163 fans, the local hero, Tony Suarez, joined his teammates in celebrating a 2-1 overtime victory over NY United to win the 1981 ASL Championship!
In 22 games Tony scored 15 goals and had 4 assists, placing him 4th in the league. He led the Lightnin’ in almost every offensive category: Most Points Scored in a Game, Most Points Scored in a Half, Latest Goal in Regulation Time, Shortest Time to Score 2 Goals, Most Goals, Points and Shots in a Season and Most Consecutive Games with a Goal. He truly was an overnight sensation that captivated the Charlotte and Carolinas media and fans, becoming an important catalyst for the growth and awareness of soccer in North Carolina.
In August 1981 Tony signed a contract to play with the Cleveland Force of the Major Indoor Soccer League in conjunction with the Carolina Lightnin’. During the indoor winter season, he had 4 goals in 8 appearances. But, just as Tony was earning a starting position, he tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee, ending his season, and he spent the 1982 ASL season rehabilitating his knee. He returned in 1983 for the Lightnin’ to score 4 goals in 7 games.
The American Soccer League disbanded at the end of the 1983 season and the Charlotte team joined the United Soccer League in 1984 under a new name, Charlotte Gold. Tony was ready to resume his career, but this time luck did not work in his favor, because he tore the MCL in his right knee early in the first season and ended his professional career.
Tony continued to play soccer in various leagues around Charlotte until the time of his death in April 2007. Soccer was the love of his life and for a special time in the early 80’s the name Tony Suarez resonated in the City of Charlotte. Everyone knew his name and his sport…..SOCCER!
Tony participated in numerous State Soccer Championships and enjoyed a spectacular professional soccer career. But perhaps his greatest legacy is what he did to elevate the sport. Whether it was through increased media coverage that translated into increased awareness of soccer, his personality and passion for the Game transferred to thousands of young children who shared his passion and became soccer players. Many of them watched Tony become a star and dreamt of becoming one too. Beyond simply being a great player, his impact on soccer in North Carolina will serve as a lasting legacy that all soccer lovers should highly value and honor!