Future was bright for talented teen – and still can be – but for now he is trying to cope with physical and mental scars
Tega Agberhiere drew breath, held up the mirror, and stared down a vision of himself that he'd never seen.
At 16 years of age, he had of course been used to the same face looking back at him. The little details that he wished on occasion he could change; the elements that gave him pride and confidence; but ultimately so much mundane based on familiarity.
In this moment though, the reflection was no longer him.
Who was this? What was this?
For four days he'd felt the burning as his features had been bubbled, boiled and melted into what they were never meant to be.
Having been initially blinded in the attack though, he had only guessed at the outcome of what was being done to him.
Yet here he was, forced to come to terms with this transformation that the gruesome agony had been behind as it continued to change the colour, shape, and feel of his skin. What did he see as he lay there in a hospital bed?
How would he react? How could he cope?
The rest of us would get our chance to react as the images made the news.
We struggled so we turned the page or clicked onto a new site. Ireland had heard of acid attacks, whispers from other countries that seemed out of control.
Suddenly, though, it was here and soon the photographs of his deformity were doing the rounds. He became a terribly unfortunate focal point for a society wondering what was happening to their parochial patch.
The pictures painted a thousand words. But they weren't always the right words. How many asked about the person behind those pictures?
* * *
Tega Agberhiere was still in his mother Christie's womb when she decided to make a move for his betterment. It was April, 2002 when she left her native Nigeria and came to Ireland. By June 12, she was in Waterford Hospital and he'd been born to the world.
"Did you like it here?"
"Until that day in 2019 I did," she replies, smiling with an irony that isn't lost upon her. After all, the reason she chose Ireland over places such as the United Kingdom was because friends told her it was a more tranquil place to raise children.
"That's why I came, because things like this happened in other places but this was a safe land for us to set up a life and family."
There were pitfalls of course, but there was a way of avoiding them as well. For Christie, sport was the obvious choice and with Villa FC only up the road in Waterford, her son was seven when he joined the club.
"I put him there to take him away from the street," she says. "It was to keep him busy and occupied, and it really worked for me because most times after school he'd be training, and sport changed him into a responsible and well-mannered boy. Tega is very well-mannered. Ask his club. He played so many years there. He is a very good boy."
"I spoke to his coaches at younger ages and they remember him as a quiet, unassuming kid who always had a lot of ability and did his talking on the pitch," notes Paul Morrissey, the Villa FC chairperson.
"You could see that he was a technically talented player, who was quite small for his age, but who never let that hinder his progress. His coaches described him as a pleasure to work with, and a lad that gives 100 per cent for his team. And he really began to shine in his U-14 season at the Kennedy Cup for the Waterford Schoolboy League."
That he starred was no surprise to his mother as, "I went to most of his matches, I could see how good he was".
But soon he was on the radar of others. Small acorns and all of that.
There were trials at West Brom, Tottenham and Southampton, as well as a number of visits to Crystal Palace, who showed serious interest. "Scary, at first," says Tega. "But after a while I started to challenge myself to make something happen and maybe get a deal."
Back here it was happening too. By U-15 he was an international against Romania and Brazil and at U-16 he made Paul Osam's team for the Victory Shield that they captured north of the border.
"A very quiet, polite, nice young fella," says Osam. "No trouble, did what he was asked, co-operative all the time. I suppose at that age, it's hard to know where kids will end up in terms of the sport as there's a large turnover from U-15 to, say, U-19.
"Maybe not so much here as we do player identification quite well. But to be there at that age, he was one of the best 30 players at that age in the entire country. You don't always stay elite but he was absolutely elite."
This boy's life? Every boy's dream.
And yet journalist Damian Tiernan, who came to know him and the family, has a very different recollection at what could have been a full stop but instead became a comma.
At the Waterford Blues Supporters' Club presentations last year, Tega was brought along. Leaving at the end, Tiernan passed him at the back of the hotel conference room with a coat pulled high around his neck and a baseball cap hiding his face from viewing.
"A confident kid before," Tiernan says. "But at that moment, to me, it was like he had shrunk into himself."
* * *
From his club to his friends and family, so many talk about Tega Agberhiere with pride.
"Such a mentally strong boy," echoes his father Peter. "We can only admire him."
Having done much right, the wrongs of others made any real pride in himself hard to come by for a while.
It is April 25, 2019 and it's been a normal day, as he's torn between the two pillars of his settled routine. Studies over, his mother already collected him from school and dropped him to his beloved training with Waterford FC. That out of the way, the evening is his own as he heads home. Sources say from there it went as follows: A friend of a friend had bought €50 of cannabis from some small-time drug dealers and was being chased for what amounts to no more than a bank note.
This individual was worried about walking home and asked two mates to escort him to his house just in case. The mates knew Tega and saw him getting off a bus, and told him to come along for the stroll.
He knew no more of what was going on. He knew nothing of what was to come.
They got to the house and the guy who owed the money went in and that should have been it. Yet the others were jumped. With a tussle seeing a mound of bodies falling to the path, one of the attackers opened a bottle of liquid and threw it at those before him. One of Tega's friends got it on his leg, another on his back. But with Tega at the bottom and looking up, he got it the sickly worst.
"The minute it happened, my eyes were the worst," Tega explains. "They were swollen in the space of a minute, I couldn't see, I couldn't open them. They were burning. I wasn't even aware of the skin so much even though it was sore, and it was dripping down my neck onto my clothes.
"One of my friends carried me on his back to a petrol station on the Dunmore Road and a guy working there came out with water. I poured it on my face and got picked up and brought to the hospital. The doctors and nurses were trying to calm me and put more water in my eyes to get the acid away and off me."
Working that same evening, his mother got an urgent call to say her son was in A&E. Her initial thought was an injury picked up at football but she was soon informed he had gotten liquid in his eyes.
She raced there, asked at reception, and was told no one with her son's name had been checked in. So she went outside in a panic hoping it was a prank, only to be approached by gardaí who escorted her inside to a child screaming and sobbing.
"Then I saw him, his face was red, he was crying. So I held his hand and said this is your mom and don't worry, everything will be all right. I tried to calm him down and that is how this all started.
"They were trying to administer medication, trying to wash liquid into his eyes to flush the acid out. At maybe 3am that morning they took us to the ward in Waterford Hospital.
"It was a nightmare, I cannot describe the pain he was in, he was in agony. It was torture.
"Physically, you can see it was bad with the scars and after a few days it kept bleeding. He kept asking why someone would do that to him. I didn't have an answer. I don't know why somebody would do this to him."
We'd like to say this was the beginning of the end or that there was even an end.
Acid on the skin and to the eyes isn't that simple though, and from a physical point of view he's gone to hell and is only slowly making his way back. In terms of his sight, the specialist can make no promises. But there has been progress, even if one eye still isn't functioning as it should. In terms of his face, there have been months of grafts received in Cork.
"It was fairly sore," says Tega bravely. "Actually, it was very sore," he adds, as a sliver of honesty corrects his initial words.
"At the start, I thought this would be over soon and once I got through the first few days it'd be OK. It wasn't like that though. It's gone on and at times it's been hard but you've to stay strong."
Mentally there will forever be scars as well. Not just on him but on those closest to him too.
"The last time we went to see the eye specialist, they kept telling him he was unlucky the incident happened but he was lucky he can see as it's a miracle," says Christie.
"I remember the hospital, initially they were saying the sight is gone, so we have to be grateful."
With that, though, her tone changes as she recalls one day bringing him to get more grafts and then rushing back to Waterford so he could sit an afternoon exam in his Leaving Cert.
"He didn't inflict this injury on himself. How can someone make a decision that the person that destroyed him physically and emotionally today walks the streets. How?"
It's been the insult added to the worst kind of injuries.
He's left to look himself in the mirror. She wonders how a growing number of others can.
* * *
Ask Tega Agberhiere what he thinks of the justice that's been handed out and, after being so honest about his own transformation, he says he doesn't want to talk about the process.
"I get on with my life and ignore all that other stuff."
Ask his mother what she thinks of justice, though, and it's a different story.
In the days after the attack, local gardaí put together a file that made its way to what amounts to the juvenile wing of the DPP. The initial recommendation was a caution to those responsible if they admitted their guilt, which they did. Disgusted, his family made some complaints to the point that then Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan promised he'd look into it and said: "This type of behaviour is unacceptable in any civilised society".
Micheál Martin chimed in too, as did Leo Varadkar. "The people who are responsible will face the full rigours of the law," the Taoiseach claimed at the time.
That was lost to the noise of an election though, and a review by the person behind the initial caution was released in recent days. They found their verdict was correct all along. "I can't believe it," says Christie.
"When it happened people were saying they are only going to get a slap on the wrist. I said no way. So I'm surprised. Disappointed. Angry. With the gravity of the incident, this wasn't something small, they planned it, it was premeditated.
"For them to get acid and get themselves together, they knew they were going to do something terrible. That's where I can't get my head around this, I feel so let down by the State and police.
"It's malicious intent and they did, they used it, they splashed it all over his head. No matter how he copes he isn't the same, his face is not the same as he was born. And after going through all this, the decision from the State is to let off the person that brought the gang together and splashed acid on Tega and his friends.
"They all went through skin grafts, awful pains, awful times. Three of them wrote their Leaving Cert in pain. How can someone make a decision that the person that destroyed Tega physically and emotionally can walk the streets?"
She takes comfort in what she can and is left to cling to shards of hope.
Some people in the community set up a petition that has received nearly 5,000 signatures.
And there's an outlook from her son, as well, that she could not have imagined possible. "He is a hero, I can't stop thanking God for his life."
As for Tega, he's clung to the little moments as well.
A massive Arsenal fan, he points to a letter from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as giving him a bit of strength, plus sport in itself has been a reminder of the past and a reminder that the future is still his to define. Indeed, last week he was called up to the Waterford FC U-19 team for their League of Ireland campaign.
"There were times I didn't feel like picking myself up," he says, "but sport was important, everyone was around me and trying to get the best out of me.
"The FAI's programme helped me into a routine and to study and to move on."
To what, he can't be sure yet, and there are still days that are tough, where the pain is bad, and where the looking glass is a reminder that he's been left this way forever. What does he most often see when he looks in that mirror though?
"I just look different but I never felt different," he smiles. "I'm still me and I just see the same guy with a few marks on his face. Behind it all I'm the same person that I always was."
He reminds us that, sometimes, there's no happiness without something to forget.
He reminds us that, in the weakest moments, some can find strength they never knew they had.