Sun, Jul

QUITE A few individuals in the Caribbean have made the successful transition from sport to politics. Among the notable ones are 1964 Olympic silver medallist Wendell Mottley, netball queen Jean Pierre, all-rounder Marilyn Gordon, and cricketers Sir Learie Constantine, Wes Hall and Desmond Haynes. One name that could be added to the list in the future is national footballer Leslie “Tiger” Fitzpatrick, who recently made his Trinidad and Tobago debut during the first round of the Digicel Cup.
 “I did a degree in economics and political science so I have political aspirations,” “Tiger” revealed. “Maybe in the future, I don’t know if I’ll actually be in politics itself or just behind the scenes,” he continued. “Maybe something with the UN or something like that, but right now, football is the biggest thing.”

With the national team lacking in depth and quality, especially in the midfield area, “Tiger’s” work ethic, stamina, technique with both feet and determination was a heartening sign during the Digicel Cup matches, which saw Trinidad and Tobago defeat Puerto Rico 5-0, Grenada 2-0 and Suriname 1-0. How did “Tiger” feel about his performances for the senior outfit? “It’s been a dream of mine ever since I’ve been a young guy growing up and playing the sport, watching those guys like Latas (Russell Latapy) coming up. “I had the opportunity to get calls (for the TT team) a couple of times in the past but injuries hampered my availability. So the first time actually getting back here and representing (TT) was the fulfilment of a dream and something I wanted to grab with both hands and go from strength to strength.”

“Tiger” joined Atlanta Silverbacks in the A-League, on a two-year contract, last April. The 26-year-old was converted from a striker to a midfielder during his time at Atlanta, but has been an asset to both his professional club and the national team. Looking back at his early development, he reflected: “I was born in Cascade (November 11, 1978) and started playing at Newtown Boys’ RC. I actually joined the Jean Lillywhite Coaching School at the age of 11 and stayed there until I went up for (my) scholarship. “I also played with CIC (St Mary’s College) from Under-14s, Under-16s (upwards). I started playing (in the) first XI from 1993. I started playing with the (national) Under-15s, Under-17s and, around that same time, I went to Holland and I had a stint with Rhoda JC.”

At the age of 16, “Tiger” was exposed to the professional ranks in Europe, and the five-foot, six-inch player later returned to represent his country in the Under-20 and Under-23 categories, as well as Queen’s Park in the local leagues. “It was a great learning experience,” is how he described his time in Holland. “It gave me a lot of maturity and, unfortunately, I had some visa problems so it didn’t materialise.” But “Tiger” was not daunted by that development. Around that same time, I started looking into scholarships.” From St Mary’s I graduated (to) Columbia University which is in the Ivy League in New York. I spent four years there, two years (as) captain from 1997-2001. I was an All-American on the last two years and All-Region/All-Ivy on all four years.”

After leaving Columbia, “Tiger” trained with the Tampa Bay Mutiny in the MLS (Major League Soccer) but the club folded shortly thereafter. “So I went on to play (in) the A-League with the Cincinnati Riverhawks then I left for the Columbus Crew (where) I got injured in my first week there (a quadriceps tear) so I sat out that year (2002).” “Tiger” spent 2003 with the Crew as he sought to regain full fitness, following which he signed for the Silverbacks. Besides a political career, “Tiger” is adamant about his dreams on the football field. “Definitely I want to make a World Cup,” he declared, “represent the national team for a lot of years to come.... try to have an influence on the players coming after me, to give them a positive role model to aspire to just as I had Latas and (Dwight) Yorke growing up.

“Right now I’m playing in the States and I’m happy there, but every footballer dreams of playing in Europe so, if something were to happen, then I’ll definitely grab at it, if the timing of the offer is right.” Tiger grew up in Trincity, Morvant and Woodbrook but he never let his travels deter him from his goals. He served as an assistant head prefect at St Mary’s and participated in the 1997 World Scholar Athletic Games in the University of Rhode Island, USA. After he left Columbia, he was honoured with a life-sized photograph on the walls of the Columbia University Sports Hall of Fame at the Dodge Fitness Centre. The eldest of three children (he has two sisters), “Tiger” is also grateful on the impact his family has made on his career. “I’ll always look up to my parents (Leslie and Annette). They gave me good values,” he confessed. “In a football sphere, I’ll always look up to (legendary Brazilian midfielder) Socrates because he was like me. He was a doctor outside of being a soccer player and I always try to achieve that balance.”

Why is he called “Tiger”? “I had that name since primary school actually,” he admitted. “One of my friends gave it to me because of my aggressive nature, the way I played.” Finally, what is “Tiger” like outside of the football arena? “I’m a fun-loving guy (who likes to) spend time with my wife (Maggie), hang out with my friends, try to enjoy life and dedicate myself to soccer and doing the best that I could to represent myself and my country.”