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Sky’s the limit for Stó:lō soccer player Bruce Silver

Stó:lō boy makes community proud with soccer skills
Bruce Silver stands on the field where he played his first game of soccer. The 12-year-old is now playing at he highest level for his age group. Nina Grossman/The Observer

Bruce Silver has the name of a sports star. And with a flash of dark hair swinging in his face, a confident grin and a soccer ball perfectly controlled between his cleats, the 12-year-old has the swagger of a sports star down, too.

Already playing at the highest division for his age group – the Fraser Valley Premiere League – Silver’s success is not without effort. The Sumas and Cheam boy, clearly talented with a soccer ball, practises almost every day, pushing himself to be that much better than he was the day before.

Silver runs the ball back and fourth on the Sts’ailes soccer field as his mom, Annie, watches. She never pushed him into soccer, she says. That was a choice he made all on his own.

At six or seven years old, a partially toothless Silver knelt in front of the chain link fence surrounding the Sts’ailes soccer field and watched older boys play. His eyes followed the ball and he watched, with glee, when a goal was scored. He just had to try it for himself.

In 2013, Silver started playing recreationally with Sts’ailes and in First Nations reserve tournaments. Only a year later he joined the Abbotsford Soccer Club.

By 2016, he was playing for Chilliwack, but didn’t stay on the team long before he was referred to the Premiere League.

From where he’s playing now, the sky’s the limit. Once he makes the BC Soccer Premiere League (BCSPL) and is over 16, Silver is eligible to be recruited to the Vancouver Whitecaps or even Team Canada.

“It’s been exciting, it’s been a lot of work,” said Annie, who currently drives almost four hours at least three days a week to get Silver to soccer practice in Langley. “It gets a little bit emotional seeing him go through the different stages.”

But Silver’s rise through the soccer world wasn’t easy. Teams can be political, and undercurrents of racism still exist.

“It’s a huge step for us to get him up to this level because it’s been a challenge,” Annie said.

Silver has lived most of his life in Sts’ailes, but his roots expand across Stó:lo territory. His grandmother and grandfather, Ray Silver, were from Sumas First Nation, and his other grandfather Charles Douglas, from Cheam, where Silver is registered.

Ray Silver (Xey’telq), who passed away in 2016, was a champion Golden Gloves boxer who encouraged his grandson to keep his last name after Annie remarried.

Historically and currently, despite the prevalence of soccer playing across Indigenous communities, advancing through professional leagues as a First Nations player is no easy feat.

Harry Manson, from Snuneymuxw, was recognized by the national Soccer Hall of Fame in 2014 for his role in facing racial prejudice as an Indigenous soccer player at the turn of the 19th century.

Manson is long dead, but his legacy has lived on, paving a path for First Nations soccer players like Sts’ailes man Terry Felix, who briefly played for the Whitecaps in the ’80s.

Felix has been a mentor of sorts for Silver, teaching him the importance of dedication and willpower. Former coaches Ryan Charlie and Ernie Victor have played a part in shaping the young athlete’s sportsmanship too.

Much has changed since Manson, and even Felix, faced prejudice playing soccer, but that doesn’t mean First Nations athletes are always on an even playing field.

“What do I always say, Bruce?” Annie asks Silver as he keeps the ball in the air, using only his knees (something he makes look deceivingly easy).

“You’re First Nations so you have to…” Annie prompts.

“Work twice as hard,” Silver responds.

“And be twice as fast and twice as smart as anyone on the team to be successful,” she finishes for him. “That’s what we teach our kids. It’s true, but it gives them perseverance.”

Sts’ailes chief Ralph Leon stands nearby, his hands in his pockets. He married Annie five years ago, and it’s evident that he has a lot of pride in young Silver.

“We put just as much into it as he does,” said Leon, patting his heart. “His school is proud of him, his community is proud of him, we’re proud of him.”

Leon added that as soccer becomes a bigger part of Silver’s life, it’s been important to find balance for all the things that matter: school, soccer and culture.”

“He does his own cultural activities – harvesting of elk, deer, salmon. He still does all of that,” Leon said. “As he progressed [in soccer], the fun was still there, but now it’s more structured.”

Annie nods in agreement. At Silver’s level, it takes more than talent to stay on the team. The team Silver plays for now promotes equality and life-soccer balance for team members.

“They have to maintain good grades, good sportsmanship and leadership [skills],” she said. “They have to have good qualities and personal characteristics.”

Silver practices almost every day to be the best player he can be. “His schools is proud of him, his community is proud of him, we’re proud of him," said his step dad, Ralph Leon. (Nina Grossman/The Observer)

In 2016 the family took a trip to Spain so Silver could take part in the Real Madrid training camp. He was the first First Nations player to train at the Spanish camp.

After a tour of the Real Madrid training facility and the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, and even watching the national team train, Silver was firm on what he wanted to do.

Soccer would be his life.

Silver remembers a phrase his Grandpa Ray would say to him: “If it was easy, everyone would do it. It’s hard for a reason.”

And Silver’s regimen certainly isn’t easy. The preteen soccer player practises four to six days a week, sacrificing weekends for tournaments and missing out on much of the laid-back summer fun his friends enjoy.

And this isn’t a case of pushy soccer parents. Silver has conviction in his face when he says his goal is to play for Team Canada or to play in Europe. He notes that the World Cup will be in Canada in 2026, when he is 19 years old.

Silver wants to play soccer his whole life, and he says so with a certainty that’s rare in a 12-year-old.

“I used to just mess around and have fun,” he said. “But from [playing in] Chilliwack to now, it’s just skyrocketed…dedication-wise, intensity, just everything.”

Playing right wing (a forward position that involves a lot of running), Silver said the key to staying focused through mental and physical exhaustion is to “play with your mind, not with your head.

“If you play with your mind you won’t feel any of the pain,” he said.

“You’ll just keep on playing… you just push through all the physical stuff and keep on playing.”

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