You probably would not recognize him without makeup if he was standing behind you in line at the grocery store, but inside Red Bull Arena everyone knows Johnny Toro. The New York super fan, whose real name is John Russo, has been a figure of the team ever since their move to Harrison three years ago. During that time, Johnny Toro has attended every match at Red Bull Arena, while supporting the team in his own unique fashion.
The man behind the bull has been a soccer fan all his life.
“I grew up playing the game as a kid,” Russo said while speaking at his tailgate before the July 15th match against the Seattle Sounders. “Being of Italian heritage, soccer is kind of in my blood.”
Despite only being Johnny Toro for six years, Russo has been a fan of the franchise since 1996, purchasing his first set of season tickets in 2000.
Russo’s preparation required some intense brainstorming, which eventually allowed Johnny Toro to come to life.
“I gave it some thought, and I picked up some plastic horns and stuff like that. I figured I would paint everything red, put a little ring in my nose, and there it is.”
The nose ring, which is fake, has been the most talked about aspect of the Toro costume among fans, with people consistently asking Russo about his jewerly.
“The main question people ask me is if the nose ring is real,” Russo said. “That is the first question, and usually the only one.”
The transformation from man to bull is surprisingly quick, taking roughly 10 minutes to complete from start to finish.
“I use rubber gloves, squirt the face paint in my hand, start painting it up, put everything else on and then walk in.”
Once inside the stadium, Russo endures the stares and curiosity of the younger Red Bulls fans.
“ Some little kids just kind of glare at me while they’re walking by and just go ‘What is that thing?’” Russo said.
Most kids, however, treat Toro like a celebrity.
“A lot of kids come up to me and tell me how cool they think I look, ask for a picture, give me high fives.”
With soccer and a love for the Red Bulls as the glue, Russo has been able to develop multiple relationships with other fans, including those who occupy The South Ward.
“I know a lot of guys in the GSS (Garden State Supporters), I know some guys in ESC (Empire Supporters Club), and I know a lot of guys in the Viking Army,” Russo said. “They are amazing. To see these close-knit fans get together, through race, creed, gender. It really is amazing to see everyone get along.”
As the Red Bulls sit atop the Eastern Conference with 38 points, boasting an 11-5-5 record, Russo believes this current team has what it takes to be a contender.
“This team has been playing so well together,” Russo said. “When people went down with injuries, the players that came in were playing just as well as the guys who got hurt.”
While he may dress up as something that could be part of a theme park ride, Russo is a man who takes soccer very seriously. Although the face paint, plastic horns and nose ring create Toro’s recognizable face, nothing can hide Russo’s longing for the MLS Cup.
“It would mean everything to see the Red Bulls win a championship.”
If you have not seen Johnny Toro in action cheering with his trademark passion, look for him next time you come to Red Bull Arena. He shouldn’t be too hard to find.