It’s a quiet morning in the O’Hara High School student parking lot, the sun beaming down on a cluster of cars, when the tranquility is interrupted by the distinct ring of a school bell. Almost instantly, senior Erik Palmer-Brown emerges from the building in a noticeable rush.
He’s late. He always is.
Friday practice for Sporting Kansas City starts at 10 a.m., and players are required to arrive at the training facility an hour early. He checks his iPhone: 9:14 a.m.
The remote-start engine on his Jeep ignites, and within a matter of minutes, he’s weaving in and out of traffic.
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Over the course of the drive, he attempts to transition his mind from schoolwork to soccer, but it isn’t easy. He has a project due Tuesday — 12 days before graduation — in his English class, on the novel “1984,” which he never read.
“SparkNotes,” he says, “can be a life saver.”
He arrives at Swope Soccer Village a few minutes later. It’s 9:26 a.m.
For the next two-plus hours, Palmer-Brown sheds the label of high school senior. Here, he is a professional soccer player with a Nike sponsorship.
Two years ago, at age 16, Palmer-Brown signed a contract with Sporting KC that pays him nearly $50,000 annually, and he became the youngest player in the history of the franchise.
The expectations were sky high, and after two years, they remain there. Last summer, ESPN forecast Palmer-Brown, a central defender, as a member of the 2018 U.S. World Cup team.
“It’s pretty cool, but sometimes,” he says, shaking his head with a grin. “I think people forget I’m still a teenager.”
To Sporting KC fans, he’s the future face of a championship franchise.
On this Friday morning-turned-afternoon, he’s simply late for class. Again.
After a two-hour training session, he’s back in his Jeep, making the return trek to O’Hara, where three more classes await. Two of them have final exams the following week.
He slows his car to a stop at a red light and lets out two deep breaths.
“Maybe,” he says. “I can take a nap in American Government.”
On a Sporting KC road trip early last season, Palmer-Brown joined some of his teammates for an afternoon movie.
But as they cycled through the ticket box offices, they ran into a problem. The movie was rated R. And Palmer-Brown was underage.
Only a month later, in May 2014, he made his Major League Soccer debut against the Chicago Fire.
He became the youngest defender to start a MLS match, but the outcome wasn’t so favorable. He was ejected in the second half after receiving his second yellow card.
Afterwards, his mom, Marilyn Palmer, wondered, “Why do the other players have to test him so much? I wish they’d quit picking on my baby.”
The match was a point of heckling from teammates, who aren’t exactly absent of material in the first place.
Every so often, when Palmer-Brown walks into the Sporting KC locker room, defender Ike Opara is there waiting for him with a riddle. Or maybe it’s more of a mathematical pop quiz, of sorts.
“He’s never done a word problem,” Palmer-Brown says. “because I don’t think he could think that through.”
The hazing is a sign of admiration, his teammates say, but the process of fitting in wasn’t a quick one. It required adaptation — more so from him than from his veteran teammates.
Palmer-Brown grew up playing in the then-Wizards Academy. Before his “unbelievable athleticism and speed and ability to take over a match” caught the attention of Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes, Palmer-Brown was just another kid who loved the game. He idolized Wizards players such as Matt Besler, Roger Espinoza and Chance Myers.
They’re now teammates.
“The first part he had to get over was the awe of it,” Vermes says. “You’re not just a professional because you signed a contract. You have to come out and work every day. Those are the biggest pieces, because he’s a young kid. That’s what he’s trying to grow up with.”
Palmer-Brown was raised in Lee’s Summit and lives with his mother, younger brother and a set of grandparents.
His father died when Palmer-Brown was only 8, a passing he describes as insignificant. Their relationship had consisted of only the occasional phone call.
Marilyn Palmer worked overnight shifts when Palmer-Brown was younger. She never could afford to buy a house. The family is in the market for one this summer, and Palmer-Brown has requested to foot the bill.
It will provide a welcome-to-adulthood moment of sorts for Palmer-Brown, who by all other descriptions is a prototypical teenager.
He enjoys attending O’Hara because it offers “so many days off for religious holidays it’s unreal,” he says. He skipped school Wednesday as part of a senior class tradition.
Palmer complains her son doesn’t share enough about his life. He can be lazy. He can be a punk. Those are her words.
When Sporting club CEO Robb Heineman told The Star in March that he was in talks with Italian club Juventus to transfer Palmer-Brown overseas, Palmer was skeptical.
“He’s staying with Mom,” she says. “Who would do his laundry?”
The help from home comes from Mom. The help from school comes from classmates.
After all, the professional life isn’t all that forgiving on his student life. He misses a considerable amount of school for soccer in stretches that span weeks, not days.
He spent the middle part of April in Austria with the U.S. under-20 men’s national team. He missed nearly six weeks of school for Sporting Kansas City’s training camp in January and February.
“It’s hard for me,” he says. “I still don’t think I have a grasp on it. I’m always playing catch-up, and it feels like I’ve never caught up.”
An online school system is beneficial, but Palmer-Brown mostly leans on friends — like O’Hara senior quarterback Michael Briggs — to track the schoolwork he misses and put together study guides for tests.
“I think it’s safe to say I’m the reason he passes his classes,” Briggs says.
Since Palmer-Brown signed with Sporting KC in August 2013, his coach has pointed to one date as the most important of his professional career:
May 11, 2015.
Palmer-Brown’s final day of high school classes is Friday, leaving May 11 as his first day of training with no homework to worry about.
“That’s the day he can start to focus fully on the game and becoming a professional,” Vermes says “I think that’s been part of his challenge — and that’s not good or bad; it’s just factual. So that’s when we’re hopefully going to see the player he can be.”
It’s a date to which his mother is looking forward, as well.
In 2014, a year in which he should have been celebrating his professional debut, Palmer-Brown hit a “pressure point” while balancing the two worlds, as his mother describes it, and she worried he was depressed with his inability to fully keep up with either.
In a week, those concerns will be alleviated. And that could be the first of many changes.
The transfer to Juventus remains very much in play, Vermes says — and the question could be when, not if, Palmer-Brown is sent overseas.
It’s a move Palmer-Brown admits he would welcome. In a conversation about his future last week, he listed two lifelong objectives — a World Cup appearance and playing in Europe.
That World Cup projection? Vermes says it’s not that far-fetched, so long as the transition to a full-time professional includes better practice habits.
“It feels like I have my foot in the door, but it’s just not all the way open yet,” Palmer-Brown says.
So how will he burst through it?
“I think it will happen,” he says, “as soon as I have time to grow up.”