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February 14, 2024

As part of our Colour the Commentary Black History Month series, we tapped in with CF Montreal fullback Raheem Edwards to talk about the significance of representation in the world of football. Edwards has emerged as a beacon of inspiration. Unconventional in his path to professional success, Edwards defied norms to make his mark on the pitch. Beyond the field, he embodies the importance of trusting the process, illustrating how resilience and determination can shape a remarkable career.

DARBY: Football in Canada seems to be growing every day. You see kids now wearing kits from domestic leagues and overseas, something that wasn’t too present in the past. Looking back, what was your first memory of football?

I'd say my first fond memory of playing soccer would be being seven years old. Back then, it was the early 2000s. So the jerseys were so crisp and so nice. I remember the first one I ever had. It was a gold Erin Mills Eagles jersey.

As a kid did you like watching football?

Raheem: Yeah, as a kid, I was watching football that comes from Jamaican heritage, which, you know, football is just king there. I grew up watching a lot of EPL, a lot of black players. I aspired to be like Jay-Jay Okocha, you know, Patrice Evra, all those, those 90s, 2000s EPL stars, a lot of them were black too. So when I used to watch, I used to be like, hey, this is something I could do and this is something I do want to do. And I see people that look like me, I wanted to be like them.

DARBY: You had a very unconventional come up, you didn't come through an academy or a big US school.

So that journey happened so fast. Like me personally, I've always loved football and the thought of being professional hasn't really come to me until I went to Europe to trial for a couple of teams in Italy. That was when I was 16, and when I came back, I didn't even think about, like, being professional. I just wanted to continue to play the game and having that experience of going to Europe and seeing how much different it is and how much football matters to them over there, it kind of put the switch on me. It made me want to, not only be professional, but just be a better player. How I became a professional, I think it came out of nowhere. I was like 18, 19 just playing football. I had a little bit of buzz to my name but with Canada you hear about a lot of people that are good, but usually they come from an academy or Sigma.

I was just a normal kid playing for a normal club team. And all of a sudden, you know, I get a call from at the time, Octavio Zambrano, the head coach for Canada, and he calls me and he says, you know what I've heard about you this, this and that, and I want you to try out for TFC. At the time, I was kind of intimidated. I'm not gonna lie to you because there's so many kids I know that I thought were really, really good players. They used to trial for TFC and would never make it. I told them like, no, I'm okay, I'm fine. So I just decided to go to college just to play soccer because that's how much I love soccer. I just love playing soccer. The funny thing is, the reason why I went to college was another player that a lot of people know. Mo Babouli, he's the guy that got me over to Sheridan. So I was at that level when we ended up hosting the nationals and I had a really breakout, like a breakout couple of games. We ended up winning it all and that's what got me a trial again with TFC. They came knocking again. And after I said, you know what, I'm going to test my luck and I'm going to go and just give it my all. And that's how I became professional. A little bit of luck.

I tell people all the time about becoming professional or getting these opportunities. Sometimes you just need a little bit of luck. Obviously my skills, but sometimes you just need a little bit of luck and sometimes you just have eyes on you when you don't even know it. It was really unconventional. But now you see how Canada set up, there's so much soccer to go around. So now looking back and looking at it now, it's just like it's night and day from my time till now. And that was only like six, seven years ago. So obviously soccer's turning in the right direction, which is good.

DARBY: Guys like you, guys like MacNaughton and MAK. Going through the Canadian collegiate/University route and making it. What is it like knowing that you are paving the way for Canadian kids? Canadian black kids especially, showing that it is possible to play at home and still make it professionally.

Yeah, yeah, I know that sometimes you don't even think it’s that deep. You don't take it in like that. kids are looking at it, it was a very humbling experience because I remember growing up and as you said, watching Prem and really just seeing those guys and wanting to emulate them. And just to know that, you know, kids look at me and say, hey, this is someone that looks like me, is where I'm from and is doing it at a high level. All I hope, I hope I inspire kids and just to know that I can be that to kids is just so almost overwhelming to me, so humbling at the same time.

That's crazy. And keeping it with the topic of representation. Did you have any kind of black coaches or mentors that kind of helped you, along the way? Or was it kind of you just figuring it out yourself?

Most of it was figuring it out myself. But I did have one black coach who was my first professional coach Jason Bent. My trial at TFC I didn't do too too bad at the point where they didn't offer me a contract, they said, hey, stay here for the next two weeks, train and let's see where it goes. And I think that was Jason looking out for me and he was my first professional coach ever. I tell him all the time, I appreciate him so much. He stuck his neck out for me, not to say that he babied me but he pushed me really hard. He's almost like a father figure to me because everybody already challenged me. And he made sure that I was on my game all the time because he knows how it is to be a black baller. And he helped me a lot during my time. I was very, very lucky, you know, to have a black coach, that black representation. He's from Brampton, Ontario, I'm from Mississauga. Like we're not that far away. Just to connect with him and have him as a coach, as my first professional coach is a blessing in disguise for sure.

DARBY: You have a swagger on the pitch and off the pitch. Why do you think it's important for kids, especially black kids, to be able to express themselves on the football pitch?

To maximize your potential, you have to be yourself. You have to be yourself, whether that be expressive in the way you play. There's always going to be pushback. I always say be yourself. And that's the best version of yourself you could be. It's something that you have to understand that not everyone's going to get it, it might be hard. You might get a lot of pushback. But at the end of the day, it's your career. It's your life. It's what you want to do. And if they don't respect you or they don't want to then that's on them. I'm unapologetically me, no matter what. No one can tell me anything knowing that I am myself and I know what I am and that's it.

What advice do you have for young black footballers that are navigating the footballing world, and want to be in places like you?

Raheem:  My advice would be, keep working. You never know who's watching. You never know who's there. Just keep working and try to take risks. Do stuff out of your comfort zone. Don't always settle. Always try to challenge yourself in ways that can make you become a better player and you learn something about yourself. Sometimes you need to fail in order to succeed. It's real, sometimes you need to fail, make a sucker punch a reality check. So I tell kids all the time, don't think everything's going to happen A-B-C-D. Everything could change, you just have to stay the course and know your core values and how you see yourself. You just have to go for it and have to have a strong mental.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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