* Photo courtesy of Earl Russell. Meeting of the giants: Earl Russell shakes hands with Sir Stanley Matthews prior to a match.
* Photo courtesy of Earl Russell. Meeting of the giants: Earl Russell shakes hands with Sir Stanley Matthews prior to a match.
Earl 'Townsey' Russell is nothing short of an icon.

He is undoubtedly one of the greatest footballers to grace these shores and the story of his struggles, both on and off the pitch, tugs at the heart.

Russell grew up in humble settings in Pembroke and was forced to leave school at a young age with very little education to help raise his siblings.

Whenever the opportunity presented itself, though, the future Bermuda Sports Hall of Famer spent hours refining his skills at St. John's Field with a tennis or rubber ball. Even then Russell showed enormous promise and it wasn't long before word of this untapped talent reached Outerbridge School (West Pembroke) P.E. teacher Alma 'Champ' Hunt.

Russell recalled: "One day he came to watch me (train) and afterwards he asked me to play for the school. I told him I couldn't because I came from a poor family and didn't have any boots. But he told me not to worry about anything and bought me my first pair of boots."

It didn't take long for Russell to repay his gym teacher for having faith in him.

"One day we played a school team from St. George's and beat them 11-0. I was playing sweeper, or centre-half as they were called back in those days - At that time the centre half could roam, they weren't stationary. I scored the whole 11 goals and that showed me that I had special skills."

Ironically, Russell left school at age 11 and given his promise it was always only a matter of time before his talents would be showcased at the old Sports Arena as an integral part of a Key West Rangers side that also contained the likes of Cal 'Bummy' Symonds.

It was during his time at Key West that Russell's career really took flight under the tutelage of mentor Clarence 'Bussy' Butterfield whose influence had a profound effect on the young footballer.

"Bussy had a big influence on my career and, in my opinion, was the most complete footballer at the time and the best I had seen," Russell said. "He realized I had natural ability and taught me everything he knew, which of course helped my development.

"The good lord really blessed me with skill and more importantly showed me how to use it. He also put people in my path like Champ Hunt and Bussy to help."

Later in his career Russell had the honour of playing against and alongside English legend Sir Stanley Matthews when the latter toured Bermuda with a Canadian team.

For the Bermudian, it was like a dream come true.

"I knew all about him because I followed his career before I met him. I knew he was good so I had to respect that," Russell said. "I knew he was a professional and so I was determined to learn from him, and I did.

"That was the biggest moment of my life, playing against someone knighted by the Queen of England. We were the captains of our teams and he was such a gentleman that we hit it off just like that.

A sense of pride

"I really felt proud to have had the pleasure of playing against him and it was also a joy playing with him in a match at Devonshire Recreation Club."

Prior to merging to become what is today known as PHC Zebras, Key West Rangers were one of the dominant forces in domestic football.

Their rise, however, was far from an overnight success. "As far as I am concerned Pembroke Juniors were the toughest team Bermuda has ever had. I think they once went five years without losing a game," Russell said.

"Pembroke Juniors were the top dogs when I first started out and then you had teams like Young Men's Social Club, West End Rovers and St. George's Colts. They were top teams back then.

"When we (Key West) joined the league our goal was to beat one of these teams each year, and we did. But those were very tough games, especially against Pembroke Juniors."

It was through commitment and purpose that Key West Rangers were able to establish themselves as a reckoning force.

"We were dedicated footballers and didn't have to wait for the coach to tell us to come training ...... we went training every day," Russell said. "We even trained on the day of the match in the morning.

"We were always taught to carry yourself just as good off the field as you were on it. You must carry yourself with dignity and the guys were dedicated because they loved the game for the sport of it. Today I don't know what it is."

Russell, who celebrates his 81st birthday at the end of the month, claims local standards have eroded over the years.

"Back in my day we didn't have any money - today we have money but the football is bad. Football is gone so far back," he said.

During his heyday the crafty inside left (midfielder) sent fear down the spines of opponents with his slick dribbling moves and sharp finishing - inside and outside the box.

"I could deceive you in a minute," he smiled. "I had a gift of balance which is one of the strongest points in the game. If you have good balance you can do what you want to do. But if your balance is not good you are only going to be mediocre.

"Whenever I had the ball you couldn't get it. Not even three players could get the ball away from me. Many times I was surrounded by three or more people and always came out a winner."

After retiring from the sport Russell's legacy lived on through his sons Derrick and Dale, who played professionally in the U.S.

His sons have since retired, leaving the PHC icon's grandchildren Antwan and Patrick Russell (Somerset Eagles), Tokia Russell (Dandy Town), Dennis Russell (Southampton Rangers), Blenn Bean (PHC) and Kofi and Marlon Dill (North Village) to carry on the family name.

"I practically have a whole football team," Russell smiled. "I think if you were to put all of them together on the field nobody would beat them. I have been truly blessed."