Forty years ago, before Major League Soccer, the Charlotte Hornets or the Carolina Panthers ever existed, Charlotte witnessed the birth of its first soccer superstar.
His name was Tony Suarez, and you’ve probably never heard of him.
He was the handsome, homegrown, ridiculously fast, out-of-nowhere star who led the Carolina Lightnin’ to a minor-league championship in front of 20,163 fans in Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium in 1981. In a few short months, the 25-year-old rose to regional fame. His joyous smile beamed from the city’s two newspapers. His goals were replayed on local TV stations. The home crowd would chant “Ton-eee!! Ton-eee!!” when No. 18 found the back of the net yet again.
It was a spectacular season, the kind Charlotte’s new group of MLS players can only hope to achieve.
Tony Suarez’s backstory — from the team’s bus driver to its leading scorer — was a fairy tale.
When he first attempted to make the Carolina Lightnin’ at an open tryout in 1981, Suarez failed.
But he talked team officials into letting him become an unpaid member of the practice squad and also volunteered to drive the team bus. After several injuries, he got his chance to play. From there, Suarez morphed into an overnight wonder and the league’s rookie of the year.
“When Tony got on the field... he became famous, you know?” said Ana Suarez Fleming, Tony’s youngest sister. “Locally famous. He was good looking. Girls loved him. And I really think he helped get people to games.”
What was Suarez like then?
Said Rodney Marsh, the Lightnin’s coach at the time: “A lovely, naive boy. Trusted everybody. Laughed all the time. Just wanted to play soccer.”
True fairy tales, though, don’t always end happily.
And Suarez’s story was not a Disney-fied tale, but a Grimm one.
‘Tony was so used to being No. 1’
After that glorious season and his eventual retirement, Suarez searched for something that could duplicate the rush of scoring a goal in front of a screaming crowd. Sometimes he found it. Mostly he didn’t. His life was a cautionary tale, intertwined with moments of delight.
Suarez eventually found himself in a North Carolina prison for two years. He had trouble staying married or keeping a steady job. Once he took off his light blue and gold jersey for good, Suarez’s carefree personality got trampled by the world.
“Tony was so used to being No. 1,” said Carlos Suarez, Tony’s brother. “And that meant that anything after his playing years was hard.”
As for the fact that Tony Suarez died in 2007, at age 51?
That still haunts everyone who knew him.
But during “Tony’s season in the sun,” as former teammate Hugh O’Neill describes the year 1981, Suarez was a comet. He streaked across the Charlotte sky when the city was looking for a sports identity and, for one sweet summer, found one in the Lightnin’.
Charlotte was often confused with Charleston, S.C., or Charlottesville, Va., back then. The city had no NFL team, no NBA team, no MLS team and no uptown nightlife. It was a time when entertainment options were limited, when more than 20,000 people would pack a stadium for a minor-league soccer team’s championship game on a Friday night, even when a lot of them didn’t know a corner kick from a cornerback.
On the morning after the Carolina Lightnin’ won its championship in 1981, Charlotte Observer sports columnist Bob Quincy wrote: “There hasn’t been a night like it in Charlotte sports history.”
Tony Suarez was that team’s unquestioned star. For one year, he was as big locally as the showboating grapplers in Charlotte’s then-thriving pro wrestling scene, or NASCAR drivers Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty.
“Tony was one of the early sports stars of Charlotte,” Carolina Lightnin’ teammate Dave Pierce said. “And our team? We took the headlines away from everyone, even pro wrestling. Even Ric Flair was probably getting pissed off. Tony was a local boy made good in a huge way. And then ... things happened.”
Yes, things happened. And on the eve of an MLS expansion team beginning play in Charlotte in early 2022, Tony Suarez’s improbable journey is a long-forgotten story worth telling.
Castro, Cuba and the Suarezes
Roberto Suarez was the patriarch of the Suarez family and the reason Tony came to Charlotte. A member of a well-respected Cuban family, Roberto had gone to a private high school in Cuba. Fidel Castro was a classmate and friend at the time.
Castro was one year older than Suarez, and the two played together on the school’s basketball and baseball teams. They both were mentored and coached by the school’s athletic director, Otilio “Cappy” Campuzano, a Cuban sports legend who starred in multiple sports and was inducted into the country’s sports hall of fame.
“My father was really the Jim Thorpe of Cuba,” said Miriam Campuzano Suarez, 89, who was Coach Campuzano’s daughter and eventually became Roberto’s wife and Tony’s mother. “Fidel would come over to our house all the time when I was a girl. But it was Roberto who I knew I would marry, even at age 9.”
The couple wed in 1950 and had 12 children in 14 years. Tony was child No. 4. Packing school lunches, Miriam Suarez said, was like preparing to feed an army five days a week. And it was rare that all the children were trouble-free at the same time.
“Now everybody’s an adult,” Miriam Suarez said. “But it used to be when the phone rang, I would say, ‘What happened?’ even before ‘How are you?’ ”
Roberto Suarez went to America for college and graduated from Villanova in 1949. He returned to Havana in the 1950s, believing Castro’s plan to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista and install a more democratic government sounded promising.
Suarez helped Castro in his 1959 Cuban revolution, believing his former classmate’s new government would be much fairer to the Cuban people. After Castro took power, he placed Suarez as the leader of the country’s most powerful bank.
But Suarez quickly grew disillusioned with Castro, whose government turned out to be even worse than the one it replaced. “It made the Batista regime look like boy scouts,” Suarez wrote in his unpublished memoir.
Remembered Rolfe Neill, The Charlotte Observer’s publisher from 1975-97 and a longtime friend of Suarez’s: “It didn’t take Bob very long to say ‘Hey, this man Castro is a communist!’ He was stunned to find what Castro’s political beliefs really were.”
Suarez would always regret siding with Castro initially and switched course, working against Castro’s dictatorial government as part of a resistance movement. The work was dangerous. At one point, Suarez was part of an underground group that planned but couldn’t pull off an assassination of Castro.
Roberto and Miriam Suarez already had eight children at the time, and he sent his wife and children to Miami in 1960 for safety’s sake. Tony, who had been born in Havana, was 4 years old when he got to America. Eight months later, fearing for his life and worried about his family, Roberto Suarez wangled his way onto a plane and sneaked out of Cuba. He had $5 in his pocket — all you were allowed to take out of the country — and was able to join his family in Miami as a Cuban refugee.
Coming to Charlotte
For most of the next decade, the Suarezes lived in Miami. Roberto began work in the mailroom of the Miami Herald. His finance degree from Villanova made him over-qualified for the job, but at the time it was all the work he could get.
“Miami had these stainless steel chutes that the papers theoretically tumbled down in bundles,” Neill said. “But they would get jammed. Bob was sometimes used as the human bomb, sliding down the chutes, to break up the bundle jam.”
Suarez rose through the newspaper’s business ranks and eventually got offered a new job in Charlotte in 1972 on the business side — both newspapers were owned by the same Knight-Ridder company at the time. The family found Charlotte on a map and took off for North Carolina. Roberto Suarez eventually became The Charlotte Observer’s president, running the company’s thriving business side and cooking paella once a year for the entire staff. He worked for The Observer from 1972-87 before leaving for another big promotion in Miami.
Tony Suarez was 16 when the family moved to Charlotte, and he lived in the city for most of the next 35 years. He attended Myers Park High, where he became a star on the soccer team. Although Tony was the best soccer player in the family, most of the Suarezes played soccer at least at the high school level.
“Every year when The Observer would publish the all-county soccer teams, it seemed like about half the team was named Suarez,” Neill said.
The family often spoke Spanish in the home, and Tony was nicknamed “Flaco” — the Spanish adjective for skinny — by his family. At 5-foot-11 and 150 pounds, he went to Appalachian State to play college soccer.
“But he kind of flunked out there,” said Ana Suarez Fleming, his sister. Suarez transferred to Belmont Abbey, where he kept playing soccer in the late 1970s.
“For Tony, it was all about soccer,” said Pierce, Suarez’s teammate at Belmont Abbey and then later with the Carolina Lightnin’. “School really wasn’t his thing. He did what he needed to get by.”
After college, Suarez was at loose ends. He hadn’t graduated. He worked some odd jobs while playing on a high-level amateur soccer team in Charlotte and dreaming of getting paid to play the sport he loved.
When he heard about the Carolina Lightnin’s open tryout in early 1981, he knew it was his chance.
The bus driver
Ed Young has long been a key figure in N.C. soccer, as well as a fine goalkeeper for some local teams. Young and Suarez had played together for an amateur soccer team sponsored by The Press Box, a Charlotte restaurant, and Young had been astonished by Suarez’s speed. When Young made a save, he’d do the same thing every time.
“I would punt the ball as far as I could and Tony would just outrun everybody,” Young said. “It was like a Hail Mary. Half the time it seemed like he’d get a one-on-one with the goalkeeper and he’d score. I got a few assists that way.”
In 1981, local Charlotte sports entrepreneur Bob Benson decided to bring a minor-league soccer team to Charlotte. It would be called the Carolina Lightnin’ and play one rung below the major-league North American Soccer League, with a talent level analogous to Triple-A baseball.
Young was tabbed as the team’s director of operations and Marsh, a former English soccer star, as the coach. For the team’s open tryout, Young seeded the field with some of the best players from the Press Box amateur team, including Suarez.
Marsh wasn’t impressed, and it was he who got to pick the team. He didn’t like Suarez’s technical skills.
“Tony had a poor first touch,” Marsh said. “One of the things you look at, as a forward, is you’ve got to be able to control the ball and take a shot. He would stumble. The ball would get away from him. It wasn’t technically good enough.”
Thus, the bus.
“Tony didn’t make it, but he was very persistent,” Young said. “I said, ‘Tony, do you want to drive the bus?’ And he did.”
The bus-driving gig allowed Suarez to practice with the team, too. He was on the minor-league soccer version of an NFL practice squad, if that practice squadder also flew the team plane.
“He was a great player already, I thought,” Young said of Suarez. “And so driving the bus — that could be demoralizing for some people. He never felt that way.”
Tony Suarez’s big break
Suarez got his shot when a couple of the forwards got hurt early in the season. Marsh moved Suarez to the active roster and, suddenly, it became clear that the coach had made a mistake from the beginning.
“Tony got on the field and he was just dynamite,” Marsh said. “So quick. So good at putting the ball in the back of the net. Now, he still didn’t have a good first touch. That never changed.”
It was how fast Suarez was, though, that was the game-changer.
Said teammate Santiago Formoso, who would later become one of Suarez’s roommates in Charlotte: “Tony had the one thing they can’t teach: Raw, unadulterated speed.”
Suarez scored nine goals in his first 12 games. Marsh began calling him “Tony the Tiger” in interviews. Suarez was the Most Valuable Player of the league’s all-star game. He began getting asked to come on local TV and describe his storybook rise.
“I’m starting to feel natural on the field,” he told WBTV’s Paul Cameron at the time. “At first, I was scared and nervous. But so now, every game, I learn a little bit more and I’m just relaxing more.”
Said Ana Suarez Fleming, who at the time was 15 years old and going to her brother’s games with her family: “Can you imagine being 25 and out of nowhere, you’re just living a dream?”
Cameron, who had just gotten to WBTV in 1981 himself, quickly latched onto the Lightnin’ story and interviewed Suarez numerous times.
“Charlotte was so hungry for something it could call its own back then,” Cameron said. “You could feel it. We traveled all over the place at the station to cover things, but that’s the thing — we had to travel. Then suddenly here was this pro soccer team in Charlotte, and this young local guy scoring goals, and people coming to see him. When he ran, he had this flowing mane of long hair. Everyone seemed to love him. Tony was the kind of guy who seemed invincible. And I’m sure he felt he was.”
Suarez didn’t score in the championship game that the Lightnin’ won 2-1 over New York United on Sept. 18, 1981, generating front-page coverage in both of the city’s newspapers. The other team’s defense paid so much attention to Suarez in the game, though, that it allowed other players better goal chances.
“Tony was on fire that whole season,” said O’Neill, one of Suarez’s roommates in 1981 and the player who scored the winning goal in the championship. “He was passionate. He was local. It was Tony’s season in the sun.”
Cameron once interviewed Roberto Suarez in the stands while the father watched his son play soccer.
“He’s on Cloud Nine right now,” Roberto Suarez said of Tony, “and he hasn’t come down. He’ll come down sometime soon.”
The end of pro soccer
Suarez had dreams of making it to the NASL, which was the top level of U.S. soccer and had employed such players as the legendary Pelé in the 1970s. His next step was to sign with an indoor pro soccer team called the Cleveland Force in late 1981. But in Cleveland that Suarez sustained his first serious knee injury, at a time when operations on knee ligaments were in their infancy.
“That was the beginning of the end,” Suarez Fleming, his sister, said. “Things were never really the same, because they couldn’t repair knees the way they can now.”
Suarez appeared on one of Cameron’s sports shows in January 1982, wearing an enormous cast on his leg and saying: “By June, I’ll be able to run.”
And Suarez was able to play again, for three more years in Charlotte: Two with the Lightnin’ and, after that team folded because of financial difficulties, one with the Charlotte Gold.
There were some nice moments in those three years. In 1984, whenever Suarez scored at home, the P.A. would always blare a song from the new movie “Footloose” called “Let’s Hear It For The Boy.”
But Suarez tore up his other knee during that period. And those Charlotte teams — although ahead of their time with promotions such as a postgame Beach Boys concert and an airplane giveaway — never won a league championship and didn’t draw nearly as many fans.
By the end of 1984, Suarez was just an average minor-league player, hanging onto the threads of a dream. Soccer — at least at a high level — was done for him, even though he wasn’t done with soccer.
“It took Tony until he was 25 or 26 to really get there,” O’Neill said. “And by age 28, it was over. And for every athlete that comes to the end of their career, there’s a void.”
A cocaine conviction
As soccer ended, Suarez needed to find something else to do. His brother, Carlos, was on the verge of opening the successful Suarez Bakery in Park Road Shopping Center, a business that has now been a mainstay in Charlotte for 29 years.
But Tony Suarez wasn’t interested in the bakery. He started working at Whispers, a local nightclub where he had hung out frequently as a player. He had a difficult time handling regular life.
“He had gotten so much attention,” Carlos Suarez said, “that I think it probably got to him a little bit. Your picture is in the paper, you’re on TV — and then that’s not there anymore.”
Said Suarez Fleming, Tony’s sister: “He wasn’t really good about sharing emotion. But I can only imagine he was kind of devastated at having to come back to reality and be a normal person.”
Suarez’s first marriage, to his college sweetheart, had ended after only a year. His second marriage produced a daughter, Autumn, in early 1990. But it was around that time that Suarez was using cocaine frequently enough that he also started dealing it to make enough money to support his drug habit.
By the end of 1990, Suarez had been arrested for conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute. He was a small-time player in a big-time drug sting, one called Operation Avalanche. Authorities said they had thwarted a $240 million cocaine smuggling operation, according to a Charlotte Observer report at the time, and arrested dozens of people in both North and South Carolina.
“Tony should never have done it,” Suarez Fleming said. “It was completely wrong. But he also never made millions of dollars dealing drugs, either. He made enough to, say, buy a nice couch.”
Suarez pleaded guilty, cooperated with authorities and eventually went before a local judge named Robert Potter in late 1990. The judge’s nickname was “Maximum Bob,” and he was known for handing out longer sentences than average. In 1989, Potter had sentenced the disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker to 45 years in prison for defrauding his followers, although that sentence was later dismissed on appeal.
Suarez’s attorney argued that community service, in the form of soccer clinics for youth, would be a better punishment than prison for Suarez. Said Suarez at the sentencing: “I want to give back to the community something I owe it. I’m very sorry for what I got involved in.”
Potter was unmoved. “I have to remember the victims of these drugs,” Potter said. The judge sentenced Suarez to four years in prison.
New marriage, new baby
In prison in the early 1990s, Suarez would sometimes write letters to his sister, Ana, describing his various athletic exploits behind bars. He had never lacked for confidence in his ability on any sports field.
“He could be kind of arrogant,” Ana said.
“I’ve been playing basketball in the prison league,” Suarez wrote in one letter. “I’m known as the great white hope. I’m too much for this group. ... I run everybody ragged.”
But in a letter to another friend, Suarez sounded more down, writing: “Life here is still miserable. … I feel really good physically. Mentally, I ride a roller coaster, up and down.”
With good behavior, Suarez ended up serving about 22 months in prison. He also completed his college degree from Belmont Abbey while incarcerated, and the prison let him out for a day to go to his graduation ceremony.
Shortly after he got out of prison, Suarez’s second marriage crumbled. He would be an inconsistent presence in his daughter’s life after that.
In the meantime, he worked in The Charlotte Observer mailroom and returned to playing soccer in some local amateur soccer leagues. He also met his third and final wife. She was 12 years younger than Suarez and had gone to some of his Carolina Lightnin’ games as a middle schooler. Their families had long known each other, with both involved in the Catholic faith and attending some of the same churches and schools. They married in 1997.
“When I met Tony, he had just gotten out of prison,” Marianne Suarez said. “He was full of life. He sweetly wooed me. Then we got married. … Tony was a great guy. He just wasn’t a good husband.”
When there were disagreements, the couple didn’t really argue, Marianne said. “When we’d get in a fight, he’d walk out of the room,” she said. “We never talked through anything.... It was more like he’d get in the car and leave, and then we wouldn’t talk for 3-5 days.”
Sometimes, the two would be on the way to a Carolina Panthers game and argue in the car so much that Marianne would sell her ticket on the way into the game to another fan, leaving Tony to sit with whatever random stranger happened to buy the seat.
There were many good times, too. In 2006, Marianne got pregnant after years of hoping for a baby. They decided to name the baby for Tony and for the baby’s maternal great-grandfather — Antonio “Capy” Suarez. When the baby was born, in October 2006, they called him Capy.
But two months before Capy’s birth, in August 2006, Tony lost his job at The Observer in a dispute. He tried to start a new career, selling boats and working at a marina on Lake Norman.
Marianne and Tony continued to have marital problems. They briefly split up several times. On April 17, 2007, the two were in the Suarez Bakery, getting something to eat and visiting Carlos, Tony’s brother.
“Tony had brought the baby,” Carlos Suarez said. “He and his wife were arguing. And at one point he turned to me and said, ‘Man, I’m done with this, you know? I’m just done.’ I was thinking he meant he was done with his third marriage, because he and his wife were having issues. But that’s not what he meant.”
Decades before scooters whizzed all over big cities around America, Tony Suarez had a Vespa. He had seen them in Europe and decided he wanted one, and he frequently used it to zip between his office and the couple’s townhome near uptown Charlotte. Once again, he was moving fast.
Marianne Suarez was staying at her mother’s house on the night after the argument in the bakery. But Tony asked her to come over to their house and bring the baby, Capy, who was then 6 months old.
They argued again, and at one point Suarez took the baby into another room by himself. Marianne worried about what might happen. “I screamed: ‘You need to give me the baby right now!’ ” she said. “I didn’t know it at the time, but he was saying goodbye.”
Marianne left a few minutes later with the baby.
At some point later that night, Tony Suarez grabbed a blanket and pillow and went into his small garage. He closed all the doors to the garage, but didn’t lock them. He turned on the Vespa’s gasoline-powered motor and laid down on the floor.
At 11 a.m. the next day, Marianne stopped by the townhome, which the couple was preparing to sell. Tony was already supposed to be at work at the marina, but his truck was still in the parking lot outside. Marianne had a bad feeling.
“I knew the truck wasn’t supposed to be there,” she said, “and I thought: ‘I can’t enter this place by myself.’ ”
She called a friend, who came over so they could go in together. Marianne walked inside to the smell of gas and went straight to the kitchen, thinking something had been left on. There was nothing amiss there. She kept checking rooms. Nothing, nothing, nothing.
Then she checked the garage.
Her husband was on the floor. The Vespa was still running.
Marianne flung open the garage door and called 911, but it was too late.
Tony Suarez was dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. He was 51 years old.
‘He never disappointed us’
Tony Suarez, Charlotte’s first real soccer star, died by suicide on that day in 2007. He left three separate suicide notes — one for his daughter, one for his wife and one for his family. The common theme was disappointment. He wrote that he believed he had disappointed people for too long. He asked to be remembered for the happy-go-lucky man he once had been, the one who loved sports and just about everyone he met.
In retrospect, Suarez’s family and friends believe that Tony was clinically depressed. But the idea that he disappointed them, as his suicide notes read — they don’t buy that.
“Tony had his ups and his downs,” Ana said, choking back tears. “He wasn’t perfect. I just want people to know that he was a really, really good person who made mistakes like all of us did. But he never, ever disappointed us. And I think that’s what he thought, and that’s the hardest part to take.”
Suarez Fleming has established a charity called “Inspire To Live” that is focused on suicide prevention.
“I want to get more awareness out there about depression and mental health,” she said. “I want to break the stigma and want people to know that it’s OK to talk about it. And that life is worth it.”
It’s a cause close to her heart. She had another brother, Armando, who fought mental health issues for most of his life, according to several family members.
Armando Suarez went to Tony Suarez’s funeral and told some family members: “That should have been me.” Then he died by suicide in Florida four weeks later. The remaining 10 Suarez siblings are still living. Family patriarch Roberto Suarez died in 2010 at age 82 from Alzheimer’s disease complications, with his death notable enough to warrant coverage in The New York Times.
The year 2007, when two brothers died by suicide in four weeks, scarred the family permanently.
Tony’s death echoed in his own small family. “I wish things would have worked out better for us,” Marianne Suarez said of her marriage to Tony. “I hate that it ended how it did, because he’s missing out on two wonderful kids and three beautiful grandkids (Autumn, Tony’s daughter, is now 31. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and their three children). The first eight years after it happened, I was angry. But now I just have a sadness. And I miss him.”
Most Carolina Lightnin’ teammates still gather for reunions to celebrate their 1981 championship season. They did so again in September for their 40-year anniversary, a full weekend that included being honored at a Charlotte Independence game. They spoke lovingly of Tony one night at a local bar, wishing they could have helped him more.
“I’m getting a little emotional,” O’Neill said, remembering Suarez. “I miss him terribly. I’m sorry. It’s just, after all these years, it still hurts so bad.”
The stigma associated with admitting to depression or mental health issues was also a part of Suarez’s death, those close to him believe.
“Now people don’t hide depression as much,” said Young, the Lightnin’ official who first helped Suarez get a tryout. “But 15-20 years ago, people still hid it. It was a sign of weakness that you couldn’t deal with things, where people would say if you complained: ‘Hey, strap on your boots. Don’t be a whiner.’ Now we know a lot more. Then, it was more taboo.”
“Tony was our candle in the wind,” Marsh, the coach, said. “I have nothing but affection for him. I think we all feel that way.”
Capy picks a number
Stories from those Carolina Lightnin’ reunions serve as a tangible reminder to Suarez’s impact and stardom 40 years after his magical summer and 14 years after his death.
At nearby Hough High in Cornelius, there’s another reminder, too.
He’s a 15-year-old freshman, a very fast soccer player with dark hair. He’s skinny, as his father was, although his hair is cut a bit shorter. He plays forward. He led his JV team with seven goals in 14 games this fall.
He wants to play soccer in college and already has attracted some recruiting interest. Who knows? If he keeps improving, maybe one day he can play professionally for Charlotte’s MLS team.
Capy Suarez was 6 months old when his father died by suicide in 2007. He only knows Tony Suarez through stories and photos. But his mother sees an uncanny resemblance.
“In Capy, I see a strong young boy who is very focused on what he cares about,” Marianne Saurez said. “He definitely has his father’s eyes. And he has his soccer skills.”
Capy shares one more thing with Tony, too. On Hough’s JV team, forward Antonio “Capy” Suarez proudly wears the No. 18 on his black and silver jersey.
It’s a tribute to Suarez, his father, Charlotte’s first real soccer superstar and a man whose legacy still shines brightly, 40 years after his season in the sun.
Editor’s note: If you need help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has a 24-hour crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255. Confidential online chat is also available at SuicidePreventionLifeline.org.
Ana Suarez Fleming, Tony’s sister, has launched a charity that aims to save lives by raising awareness and eliminating the stigma associated with death by suicide. Go to Inspire-to-live.com for details.