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
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!