I am both shocked and saddened to learn of the sudden passing of one of the soccer communities most existential members, Wally Russell.
I was first introduced to Wally very early in my refereeing career and had the immediate thought that the man was a bit too "free spirited" for me with all his swagger, outspoken opinions, and waist length hair that was neatly braided to the small of his back.
We had the pleasure of working several youth matches together and his passion for The Game and infectious love for life quickly won me over and had me seriously rethinking his approach to things ... including The Game.
Shortly thereafter Wally took me under his wing at the South Shore Sports Center, one of the very first, and very few facilities of the type at the time to serve as a referee. It was here, Wally had the foresight to pair me with Tom Supple, FIFA AR extraordinaire, and put me on a path that I would follow for the rest of my life.
While Wally single handedly has watched me referee more matches that anyone ever will in my entire life, his musings generally avoided the technical aspects of The Game (this while intentional was not due to a lack of subject matter expertise as Wally was particularly well versed in The Game). Rather, he would opine about the human side of The Game and how management of players was the key - not a demand of "respect" or "control" I so often strived for in my 20's inside the field.
Lessons were delivered slowly to allow me time to catch up, as each lesson was the result of an emotional bruising inside the field. A match gone bad, a situation not handled well. Slow and deliberate learning, week, after week, after week. Hundreds of matches he watched and after so many, a lesson learned and reinforced. Some of the most poignant lessons were treated with helpings of chicken fingers with copious amount of duck sauce and hot mustard, in equal portions. This was generally followed by a Pepsi chaser and a heated game of Risk with Wally, Max, Fred, and myself. More than once Tommy was there and we dumped the Risk and just talked until 2 or 3AM. It was a fabulous time in my life.
Lessons included things like:
"Leave your ego on the bench.",
"You're not really that good, they just don't have anyone else right now."
While on the surface these may seem harsh (especially that last one), the underlying message was clear. A referee can not put themselves above The Game.
Later in life when we would talk, I grew to realize this was true as a life lesson as well. There is a larger thing that binds us all and one person should not put themselves above others in that quest.
Wally would find me throughout my professional career and touch base, always making sure my head was on my shoulders and not someplace it did not belong.
Even after my active days he would spend time supporting me in my endeavors with various town soccer organizations by providing equipment, such as whistles, through his business Mere Cie. Even there, he was always quick to teach:
"If we budgeted more time to reading and correcting body language and listening to and perfecting nuanced whistles tones for effect and match control, our performance as referees would evolve limitlessly."
Our community will miss you Wally. You served it in your own way for so long. While you walked your own path, our intersections could not have been more meaningful and filled with a life you loved so much.
I for one will miss you and always remember what you taught.
With love and respect,