ESPN Play-by-Play Announcer
Voice of Tormenta
The wall display of Tormenta alumni at the Clubhouse in Statesboro is growing.
With each year comes the hanging of new player portraits. Remember Defender Jeff Medina?
I do…sort of.
He is now a police officer.
Mercer product Trenton Whitely now resides in Australia while Tormenta’s first goalkeeper Anton Widen calls Miami home.
Defender Reed Norton is now coaching soccer at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.
More importantly… he is getting married!!
Forward Eli Dent is moving to Chicago with his girlfriend. She wants to become a doctor and she’ll begin her residency there.
And on the day we toured the wall, it was Rashid Alarape and Ramin Varnhorn’s birthday.
I should have known!
Netra points out each player and gives their life update with excitement mixed with a sense of satisfaction. About halfway through the tour, you begin to realize something…
Being a part of Tormenta FC is about much more than soccer.
“They’re my boys and I want them to know that we don’t want them to stop here,” Netra says firmly. “Tormenta is a stepping stone for greatness!”
She speaks of former Tormenta players as if they’re her own. Because over the past four years, they’ve become exactly that. Her prominent role in their lives has even earned her a nickname.
“The players call me Mama Netra,” she says with a chuckle.
“I find so much joy in having 25 new sons each season. I pride myself in the relationship I have with them.”
And like any good mom, the love for her boys is spread equally. She will acknowledge Evan Szklennik, a forward who played limited minutes and is no longer in the game with just as much pride and satisfaction as superstars Leland Archer and Nico Rittmeyer, who now suit up for the Charleston Battery.
“Evan’s daughter just had her birthday and he is now an amazing father,” Netra says with joy. “Jamie Merriam is doing so well. He just got a full-time job and lives in Maryland. Peyton Ericson lives in South Carolina and just graduated college and is coming to visit next weekend!”
Then she points to Jad Arslan, the lone Tormenta original still playing for the franchise. Summers in Statesboro have become the norm for the former West Virginia Mountaineer, who’s had the choice to play for other pro teams. But he’s noticed they all have something in common…they don’t have a Mama Netra!
“She’s like a mom to us and does everything she can day in and day out,” Arslan says. “Whether it’s new socks to wear or medicine if we get sick. Also, that chicken soup is so soft and tasty and the gameday muffins are unreal!”
Without question, the way to a pro athlete’s heart is through his or her stomach. Veteran defender Josh Phelps described her influence as all that and so much more.
“She takes on the role of a mom…our Statesboro mom is the best way to say it,” Phelps said.
“I don’t think the Tormenta brand would be what it is without her.”
This a story with many beginnings.
The year was 2014 and the journey began in the car on the way to youngest son Payne’s soccer game. Family friend Coach Ben Freakley had encouraged the Van Tassells to get involved in the Premier Development League scene.
While steering the wheel, husband Darin looked over and popped a question that would change the face of Statesboro forever.
“What do you think of us doing this?”
Her response was quick.
“Let’s do it!”
And when they did, they would take other close family friends with them… leading an ownership team while knocking down hurdles one at a time. Netra would then take her unique executive team mom role to an entirely new level.
“I could never imagine somebody inhaling the Tormenta franchise like her,” Team President Darin Van Tassell said. “We overuse the word family. But for her, it’s so real and she finds a whole different way to connect.”
The most important way has become a simple hug. It is a gesture that has replaced the high five or the handshake at Tormenta headquarters. Netra once offered it only to players who wanted it on gameday.
“Until everybody wanted it and now it’s just what we do,” she says with a smile.
Because sometimes, more than playing time or facilities or team bling, it’s exactly what an athlete under pressure needs.
Arslan recalled the previous week when his girlfriend Lois was celebrating a birthday.
“Netra came up to me and gave me a big hug and said Happy Birthday to Lois,” he said.
Mama Netra’s gameday hugs originated with her own sons Whitt and Payne before the boys spelling bees, swim meets or soccer games. Then one day, Payne asked mom to give a hug to his teammate whose mother could not be in attendance. Netra did and realized the impact she had and has not stopped giving them since. When she is not present to give a hug, players will find an E-Hug in a text message or email. It’s Netra’s way of saying we care about you and we believe in you.
“It’s just part of who I am,” she says.
But her involvement goes far beyond gamedays. Last off-season, Netra Van Tassell packed up her Tesla and hit the road.
FIRST STOP: The University of Akron to visit Marco Micaletto.
Several other stops followed before she wound up at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina to watch Tormenta 2 Forward Jordan Walshaw play. She went as far south as Palm Beach Atlantic University in South Florida which has become a pipeline to Statesboro. Her Tormenta tour lasted 12 days. At every stop, she reached out to current players asking which college game she should attend and to former players wondering if they had time to grab lunch. By the end of the tour, she would have answers to all these questions.
How is school?
How is soccer?
How is life?
“She knows every single game you play in college and she makes it a point to go watch you play,” says Walshaw. “Your parents may not even know you have a game, but Netra does.”
Tormenta FC Head Coach John Miglarese has experienced her impact for the past three seasons.
“The reason she is so bought into this project is because it changes lives,” Miglarese says. “She is genuinely interested in our players as people. This is not just a transaction. She wants to know how she can help you grow.”
While the goals, assists, clearances and saves are not the most important aspect, that does not mean Mama Netra is not watching closely. She is Tormenta’s most keen observer and behind the scenes, one of Tormenta’s toughest critics- always focusing on the intangibles.
“Did we play with heart? Did we have intensity? Were we bold? Was the passion there?” Netra asks emphatically. “We may not win and that’s ok. But we must do those things right.”
“She is not just touchy-feely,” husband Darin says shaking his head. “She has an edge to her and she has savviness. She thinks logistics in everything and she has been the main part of developing our culture.”
The other beginning is Netra’s beginning. And it was anything but easy growing up.
Abandoned by her birth mother at just age three, it was the start of what she describes as an “unstable upbringing”.
“I love my family dearly but there are some hard and very difficult things we have been through as a family,” she said, holding back tears. “But that part of my life allows me and empowers me to be who I am.”
2019 is a monumental year for the Van Tassells. This October marks 30 years of marriage. Their relationship has been molded around unconditional love and sports of course. When they met two years prior in 1987, both were Georgia Southern athletes. Netra was a swimmer and Darin a baseball player. She recalls the relationship as “fairytale-ish” while Darin reminisces in amazement how they were talking marriage in less than two weeks of dating. Safe to say, it was the perfect match.
“The quality in Darin I fell in love with first was how he comes from such a beautiful family that is so supportive,” Netra said. “I knew it was always how I wanted my family to be.”
For the past three decades, it has been every bit of that. Well before Tormenta, came two sons who make the Van Tassell’s proud daily.
Oldest son Whitt is a quiet creative mind behind the Tormenta brand. In fact, the famous slogan “The Pros Start Here” actually started with him. Payne enters his sophomore season on Georgia Southern’s soccer team. His passion for the sport fueled his parents to bring pro soccer to South Georgia.
Flashback to last September when Netra and Darin were in Tampa for a weekend of Tormenta scouting, USL meetings and some good times. However, Friday night, Payne called mom and dad in the middle of the trip with some news… he was dressing out for the first time the next day for the Eagles in their home match against ETSU. The next morning, Darin and Netra cut their trip short and hurried back to Statesboro. They were both in the stands at Erk Russell Park for kickoff. No questions asked.
Last month, Darin and Netra actually missed their first-ever Tormenta Two home match but had a good excuse. Whitt was walking across the stage at Yankee Stadium as a proud graduate of NYU. As much as Tormenta means to the Van Tassells, family still comes first.
“When we got into this, Darin and I sat down with our two boys and told them all of our plans. If they did not love and support us, we would not have done it. They are our two biggest fans and supporters,” Netra says.
“And when I realized I could be a Tormenta Mom and still be a great mom to my own children, I found that so important because I never had that.”
As approximately 25 new sons enter the Tormenta family each year, Netra Van Tassell’s role becomes more and more vital. She writes the players a letter at the beginning of each season detailing her expectations for each of them as young men and community leaders. She will also set the record straight from the start while offering something hard to find these days in professional sports- unconditional support from that day forward.
“I tell them I can be whatever you need as a mom. If you have a mom and don’t need me, I can be fine with that,” she says boldly. “Just understand I will not do your laundry and I will not clean up after you."
"My expectations for you as a soccer player are extremely high. I am a mother but I am not a pushover.”
There is one more lesson I took from that tour of the Tormenta alumni wall… not everyone will make it to their desired soccer destination. Some will need alternative life plans sooner rather than later. It is also not uncommon for today’s athlete to struggle with mental health as it grows in concern in a world often dominated by social media. For all these challenges, Netra Van Tassell is Tormenta’s rock and she was born for the role.
“She does stuff that makes our job easier as coaches because the care factor is there,” Tormenta Two Head Coach Ian Cameron said. “She is always interacting with the guys and she will leave a mark in their lives I’m sure.”
“When you come to her with an issue, she is all in. And you can feel her passion when she speaks to you,” Phelps adds.
Jordan Walshaw agreed.
“Anything you need, Netra has your back. She is the motherly figure to the club and I have so much respect and admiration for her.”
Since the birth of Tormenta FC, Darin Van Tassell has been the most visible with the drive for new leagues and new stadiums. He’s the man at the podium and the face and voice of the franchise. But he says Netra has been the backbone.
“Netra has been as big a part in this as I have been in doing all these things,” Darin admits.
“What I do for Tormenta is the bigger picture of why I’m here,” Netra adds. “As we get older, it only gets more meaningful. That’s why I do what I do and that is what drives me.”
By the way…did I tell you Hunter Loyden is taking his first steps in becoming a Navy Seal? Also, Kieran Roberts is playing for the Jacksonville Armada and Sidney McClain is now a teacher.
And yesterday, today and tomorrow, Netra R. Van Tassell is an invaluable figure for Tormenta FC.
ESPN’s Drew Fellios has been the voice of Tormenta TV since the inaugural season in 2016. He will continue to share his observations and experiences with the club in this exclusive series for TormentaFC.com.