A barrel-chested man with a full beard sat in the Sporting Park stands on a hot, humid night in August. He wore cowboy boots, a cap tucked over his eyes and a Sporting Kansas City T-shirt, the latter only because his signature game apparel — a Kevin Ellis jersey — had not been recently washed.
In anticipation of the opening whistle, he leaned forward in his seat, placed his palms on his thighs and muttered a few quick sentences toward no one in particular.
“Here we go, man. Here we go,” he said, his right leg bouncing on the concrete. “Let’s get it, Kevin.”
A bond between twin brothers — former Army machine gunner Keith Ellis and Sporting KC defender Kevin Ellis — was strengthened by a sacrifice made nearly a decade ago. By common struggles. By subsequent triumphs.
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A 24-year-old man who served three years in the Army, Keith classifies watching a game inside Sporting Park as some of the most nerve-wracking moments of his life. But he never misses a match. If work prohibits his on-time arrival, he shows up at halftime.
On this night, Keith watched his brother score the first goal to spark Sporting Kansas City’s stunning comeback win against Vancouver. As he left the field, Kevin waved to his pregnant wife, to his brother and then pointed toward the sky.
A wave to Mom.
The first homegrown player in Sporting KC history to appear in an MLS match stepped onto the Sporting Park field on June 29, 2013, with “Ellis” printed across the back of his jersey.
Only four years earlier, he graduated from Oak Park High School. He attended Barton Community College (Kan.) for three semesters and introduced himself to his classmates there as Kevin Ellis.
He was not, in fact, Kevin Ellis.
He was Kevin Boydston.
He was 3 when his father departed the family, and while he maintained the surname until earlier this year, the two have not spoken since.
“I hated that name,” Ellis said. “I made a point in school when I was a kid to tell the teachers not to call me that. I never wanted people to associate me with that last name.”
Ellis believes his biological father remains in the Kansas City area but insists he has no desire to rekindle a relationship. It wasn’t until earlier this year that he officially adopted his stepfather’s last name (Ellis), which he used throughout his childhood and subsequent professional soccer career.
Ellis considers himself a mama’s boy in every ounce of the description, a product of his experiences with his father, which he says also helped fortify his friendship with Keith.
Kevin and Keith were virtually inseparable as kids. They were surrounded by sports growing up because their mother, Christina, thought her two hyper boys needed an outlet for their energy.
But money was scarce, and twin brothers and best friends on a traveling soccer team tightened the budget even further.
When Kevin and Keith were teenagers — neither recall the exact age — Christina informed them she couldn’t afford for them to play on the traveling soccer team any longer.
“My mom worked her butt off for us, but there just wasn’t enough money for both of us to travel to play sports,” Keith said. “And she didn’t want to pick just one of us.”
And here’s the reason Keith is so closely tied to the Kevin Ellis story. It wouldn’t exist without him.
A couple of days later, Keith proposed a solution to his mother. He would quit. As long as Kevin could play.
“I was in it for the joy of it. Kevin was there to win,” Keith said. “Basically, I liked it. But Kevin, he loved it.”
Christina was strict. Her two sons describe her that way. When she made rules and issued commands, they pretty much knew she planned to enforce them.
In this case, she relented. Keith quit the traveling team. Kevin marched on.
It hasn’t always been a smooth ride.
The phone call came during the middle of a school day, and Ellis was whisked out of class by an Oak Park High administrator.
On an afternoon his mother was scheduled for a routine hernia surgery, Ellis learned she had suffered a stroke during the procedure. Christina stopped breathing before doctors resuscitated her.
She was never really the same. The stroke curbed her speech, her walking, her everyday movements.
She died five years later. She was 47.
A tattoo on Ellis’ wrist commemorates his mother’s life, ink he purchased before her death. He added an inscription shortly after it.
“Always and forever,” it reads, surrounded by a pair of angel wings.
“It hit him hard. It hit all of us hard,” said Keith, who was stationed in New York when he received the news from a Red Cross message.
A traumatic experience in Ellis’ personal life was trailed by professional struggles on the soccer field.
Ellis joined Sporting KC in February 2011, six months before his mother’s death, earning the second homegrown contract in club history. He quit college after only three semesters and turned his favorite hobby into a full-time job.
“I kinda thought I had made it,” he said. “I learned pretty quickly that wasn’t the case.”
It took Ellis three seasons to make his first MLS start — which came on July 3, 2013 — and another eight months passed before he made his second. His mother didn’t live to see either of them.
Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes grew frustrated with Ellis’ development and criticized his intensity during training. He told the media Ellis needed to get in playing shape if he wanted to see more time on the field.
Asked if he considered cutting Ellis from the team, Vermes responded, “Several times.”
Vermes continued, “He had a 48-month contract, and for about the first 42 (months) of them, we saw no consistency. He was fortunate we kept him around, to be honest.”
Although Ellis stuck around — barely — the combination of personal and professional struggles took its toll.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have doubts,” Ellis said. “Am I good enough? Am I valued? Is this the right path for me?”
There’s a story Keith likes to tell because he believes it personifies his twin brother.
Kevin and Keith transferred elementary schools when they were in the fourth grade, and from here, it reads something like a mythical tale.
Determined to make a lasting first impression, Kevin spent his first morning asking his new classmates which student was considered the school’s best basketball player.
He had his answer before recess, and, as Keith tells the story, Kevin challenged the so-called king of the court to a game of one-on-one.
And then he won.
“That’s Kevin,” Keith said. “This kid was 4 or 5 inches taller than he was, but Kevin is fearless. He’s always wanted to let everyone know he can do anything anyone else can do.”
Not much has changed.
A growth spurt never materialized. Ellis is generously listed at 5-feet-9 on the Sporting KC roster, which makes him the shortest central defender in Major League Soccer.
In truth, Sporting KC doesn’t have much of a choice but to utilize Ellis. When starting center back Ike Opara ruptured his Achilles’ tendon in April, it left Ellis as the next man on the depth chart.
Vermes publicly expressed the need to use the trade market to find another option, but the search came up empty.
“I took that as a challenge,” Ellis said. “I wanted that spot. I didn’t want someone coming in from anywhere to play for me. I wanted to prove there was already a guy here capable of filing that void.”
A temporary plug-in has transformed into a full-fledged starter. Ellis has started 14 of the last 15 matches and played the full 90 minutes in each of his appearances.
During a recent trip to Toronto, he was matched up one-on-one with the league’s leading scorer, MVP candidate Sebastian Giovinco, and took him off the ball twice. The performance earned Ellis a spot on the MLS Team of the Week.
“Kevin has come in and owned that spot,” said Sporting KC captain Matt Besler, who plays alongside Ellis in the defense. “You can tell when a player is playing with confidence, and he’s playing with a lot of confidence.”
Ellis says he doesn’t think often of his biological father, but a recent development has triggered the memories. His wife, Abby, is pregnant.
He will soon be a father.
His daughter is due three days before Christmas.
“I can’t imagine not being a part of my kid’s life or why you wouldn’t want to be a part of your kid’s life,” Ellis said. “They say the idea is to give your kid a better life than you had, right?
“If I can do that, she will be pretty lucky.”
The immediate future includes a plan.
A career. A family.
“I wouldn’t be here without my brother making that sacrifice, and for him to do that for me, you can’t put that into words,” Ellis said. “And he never even brings it up.”
Ellis says his brother was every bit the soccer player he was when he decided to give up the game 10 years ago. Keith eventually settled in the Army, and he spent three years at Fort Drum in New York, where he reached E-4 rank. His time there ended in 2013.
While he works as a facilities technician for a company in Kansas City, Keith is at a bit of a professional crossroads. He’s unsure what the future holds. Recently, he took exams to become a firefighter. He hopes to hear back from the Fire Academy later this month.
Keith says he never thinks about what life may have been — what life could have been — had he continued along the same path as his brother. He didn’t have the same passion for the game, anyway.
Not like Kevin.
Kevin played out the conclusion of his 4-year contract last season, and he earned another one in the offseason. He will be with Sporting KC for at least four more years.
And Keith plans to be in the stands, where, occasionally, he wonders what it might be like if his mother was sitting alongside him.
“Oh, God,” he said, stretching his arms toward the field. “She would love to see this.
“I wouldn’t say she couldn’t believe it, because I know she did believe in him. But she would still love to see it.”