Day In the Life
More times than is reported, a professional sport gets a special representative. One who reminds fans about the positive side of sports; one who plays for the love of the game and not the money; one who focuses on family and not publicity. Jon Kempin, graduate of Blue Valley North High School and a goalkeeper for Sporting KC, is one such representative.
Dressed in blue jeans, white Adidas tennis shoes and an Adidas jacket, Kempin--the youngest player in Sporting KC history--looks like any other high school student, except that he has been a professional athlete for nearly eight months. Instead of finishing his senior year in high school with his friends, Kempin graduated in December and is playing professional soccer.
"I am pretty normal," Kempin says.
He dismisses suggestions from his mother, Julie, such as pro athlete and leader.
"Yeah, I think I'm just normal," he says.
His mother, Julie, adds, "And a teenager--a normal teenager."
Kempin's description of being normal refers more to his state of mind than his life. The 18-year-old could easily say, "I am grounded."
Kempin still lives at home, still has a curfew (it's midnight on most nights) and still plays video games with his friends just as he has throughout high school. Only now, his favorite video game features him--FIFA 11.
"It's kind of cool and a little weird," Kempin says. "People post on my Facebook Page that they are playing as me."
Warming up for success
The young man is one of the first to arrive at the Sporting KC training facility in Kansas City. Although not required to report until 9 a.m., Kempin always arrives early. He grabs a bite to eat and begins his stretching routine. Two and a half hours later, the team steps onto the practice field. Kempin blends in during warm up and group drills--it's when goalkeepers break for position drills you notice something different. He is three inches shorter than the other keepers, 30 pounds lighter and at least a decade younger.
"I still have a lot to learn and the coaches are honest about my development," Kempin says. "I know my time will come."
Kempin intently watches the other keepers. He says very little and listens to everything. The coaches praise his effort and Kempin nods his head, but says nothing. During a break, he stands 10 feet in front of the goal and takes a shot. The ball bounces off the top bar. Everyone, including Kempin, laughs.
It's not until Kempin stands in goal during a live scrimmage that his voice is heard shouting directions and pointing out positioning. The coaches compliment him on a great practice. Kempin shrugs it off and says it was a normal practice.
"I did some things well, but I can always do better," he says, offering a self-critique that's unusual for kids his age.
Practice ends and Kempin heads to strength training. The coaches want him bigger and stronger, so he lifts weights and consumes 4,000 calories a day. He eats healthier than most teenagers do, a diet without pizza, burgers and soda. Instead, he opts for grains, fruits and healthier drinks.
"One of my favorites is the Vanilla Hulk from Smoothie King," Kempin says.
Kempin listens to hip hop music on the drive home to pick up his mother before going to Johnson County Community College. It's been a semester without school and his mom knows he needs to hit the books again.
"College is important for Jon," Julie says. "He can't play soccer all his life. He needs a plan for when his pro career is done."
Selecting classes isn't easy. Practices, games and road trips leave very little time for college. Realistically, Tuesday and Thursday afternoons are the only times available for Kempin to attend class, so he inquires about online classes. The advisor states most of the online courses are already full, but there are several evening classes during the summer session.
"I'm not sure if that will work," says Kempin quietly. "I am usually ready for bed around 9:30." He finally decides on a class during the summer session and two classes in the fall. He poses for his college ID photo and heads home for a casual night with his family.
"It was a difficult decision to let Jon turn pro, but we realized this type of opportunity doesn't come along too often," recalls Julie. "When we got the call, we didn't even have an agent. We still don't."
Kempin may not have attended classes during his senior year in high school, but he was still involved. He sat with the soccer team during games and he attended prom.
"We wanted Jon to go to prom and walk at graduation," Julie says. "But, he'll miss walking because of professional commitments."
Playing up....and up
Soccer isn't the only sport Kempin played. He was involved with youth baseball and basketball at Blue Valley Recreation. His father, Vance, coached his older brother's baseball team and Kempin "played up" in order to be on the same team. The trend stuck as he also played on his older brother's soccer teams.
"I enjoyed playing rec baseball and basketball," says Kempin. "It was a lot of fun and I developed other sport skills besides those specific to soccer."
Kempin's last baseball game still holds fond memories.
"I knew it was going to be his last one because of his soccer commitment," recalls Vance. "It was the bottom of the ninth with bases loaded and two outs. Although Jon already had three hits, I was afraid he would end his baseball career with a strikeout. Instead, he hit a grand slam home run. What a way to end your final baseball game."
Like any teen, Kempin has thousands of friends on Facebook (2,919 at last count) and more than 600 followers on Twitter. He's learning how to balance publicity and his private life.
"I try to reply to all the Facebook posts," he says genuinely. "But I just can't seem to keep up with them."
And so goes a day in the life of a teen who is balancing school, family, his faith and a growing spotlight in professional soccer.
words: Dawn Harmon