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Grieving footballer turns pain into strength

(Photograph by Akil Simmons)Tokia Russell Jr

A young football talent will showcase his sparkling skills in Sweden this month, just weeks after enduring a family tragedy.

Tokia Russell Jr, 16, will play nine games from July 17 to 27 as part of a tour organised by football company Pro Soccer Consulting — after impressing in trials in Texas in mid-June.

The Warwick teenager and PHC Zebras first-teamer is the son of Tokia Russell, the renowned Bermuda footballer who died in a motorcycle crash on Middle Road in the early hours of June 22.

When he was born, Tokia Jr’s father gave him the middle names Enrique Zidane — after legendary footballers Luis Enrique and Zinedine Zidane, who now manage Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively.

“He was on a field as soon as he could walk, and I’ve been a soccer mum ever since,” said his mother Tanya Darrell, who will accompany her son on his Swedish tour.

Ms Darrell added that her son, a centre-forward and winger, has a playing style which strongly resembles that of his late father.

“I get so much joy out of watching him play,” she said. “He’s very enthused and motivated about the tour. He said that he’s going to turn the pain of what has happened into strength.”

Tokia Jr, an Arsenal fan, won his spot at the tour after participating in PSC trials last month at the ground of Major League Soccer team Houston Dynamo. Despite being among the youngest of 200 participants, he scored a hat-trick in his first game, then grabbed the winning goal in the elite game on his third and final day.

“My daddy was my inspiration; he was everything to me, and he inspired me to get where I am now,” he said.

“Now that he is gone, that’s my motivation — it makes me want to do everything extra. He wanted that for me.”

Tokia has seen much of Europe, particularly having been called in for trials at Barcelona at the age of 12 and being called back to play more.

From the age of 12 to 14 he lived in Barcelona and attended school there as well as playing football, learning smatterings of Catalan and French along with Spanish.

Being able to go to Sweden “opens up a lot of opportunity for me”, he said.

“This is a whole different place, a new venture and a new experience.”

His mother said she had been left “amazed” by the depth of response, which included a popular Front Street restaurant that had reached out to donate a few items from its menu to the fundraising cause.

“The response has been really, really good,” Ms Darrell said. “I’m almost scared I might not have enough for all the people that will come.”

As for accompanying her son on his tour later this month, she said: “I’ll be right behind his bus in a rental car.

“He knows I’m his biggest fan. I’m always right there, at all his games. I love seeing him play football. There’s nothing better.”

To help pay for his travel expenses in Sweden, a potluck dinner will be held tonight from 5pm to 8.30pm at the PHC Headquarters Building. A hot or cold plate of food will cost $20, while a mixed plate is priced at $22, with dinner items including mac and cheese, peas and rice, chicken, potato salad, corn, coleslaw and bread.

•For tickets to the potluck, call 504-6750 or 236-8718.