In many ways, Kevin Ellis’ story is one of redemption.
After Ellis, a defender, was announced as Sporting KC’s second-ever Homegrown Player at a news conference Friday, coach Peter Vermes rained praise on him, using terms like “huge upside,” “impact” and “huge ceiling.”
But the truth is: Ellis, a 19-year-old Oak Park graduate who spent the last two years at Barton County Community College, hasn’t always been in Vermes’ good graces.
“He came out last year and tried out with us, and he wasn’t ready from a number of perspectives,” Vermes said.
Ellis was invited to the team’s three-day combine in Kansas City last January before Sporting KC’s annual departure to Phoenix for preseason training. But Vermes didn’t like what he saw from Ellis, a former Wizards’ junior player, and dismissed him before the trip.
“He wasn’t prepared physically at all, and his attitude was one where he thought he’d already arrived,” Vermes said. “I basically told him afterward that these opportunities don’t come along much — some guys would die for one — and you basically threw it away.”
Vermes also warned Ellis that if he ever got another chance, he had better be prepared.
And Ellis couldn’t have been more terrified.
“It devastated me,” Ellis said. “My dream is to play professional soccer, and to have the professional coach tell you that you wasted an opportunity and you’re not ready, it hurt. I didn’t want that feeling again.”
Ellis, however, heeded Vermes’ words. He says he started eating right every day and taking better care of himself. He called Vermes after Sporting KC — then known as the Wizards — finished its season, got the offseason workout plan that the players on the big club had to follow and followed it to the letter.
“It was challenging, mentally and physically,” said Ellis, who adhered to the plan despite his coursework. “A couple of hours every day I was in the gym, and I spent another hour and a half each day working on my game.”
When he returned to the three-day combine this January, he looked like a different player. He was in shape. He knew what he was doing. And most important, he had the right attitude. He earned the trip to preseason camp — the only juniors player to do so this season — and kept improving until Vermes felt he had no choice but to give Ellis a chance to join the big club.
“He didn’t just develop as a player, he matured as an individual,” Vermes said. “I’m really happy for the kid, because I love to see when someone is successful. He worked his butt off to get the chance he has.”
And while Vermes added that it’s safe to assume Ellis will spend much of the season playing in the brand-new reserve league – along with goalkeeper Jon Kempin, SKC’s first Homegrown Player – there’s no doubt in his mind that he has a chance to do some special things somewhere down the road.
“This kid has a huge, huge ceiling, a huge upside,” Vermes said. “I don’t know how far he is from reaching his potential, but he’s already making an impact.”
And this much is for sure – after his initial scare, you don’t have to worry about Ellis letting up.
“When something like that happens and you have opportunity to play for a professional team, the truth is a lot of guys don’t get a second chance,” Ellis said. “But I told myself I’m going to keep working hard, because I’m not going to have any regrets.”