There was a time Sporting Kansas City defender Kevin Ellis almost had to give up soccer.
As Kevin and his twin brother, Keith, got older and began playing for more elite club teams, the expenses mounted. Good coaching isn’t cheap, and the Ellis boys were starting to rack up some significant travel bills that were straining the family budget.
“When we were kids, my parents didn’t have a lot of money,” Ellis said. “Eventually, it came down to either we both quit playing sports, because we couldn’t afford it, or at least one of us did.”
Soccer had become Ellis’ life around age 3 when his late mother, Christina, enrolled her hyper toddler in a recreational soccer program.
She didn’t want to pull her son from soccer, but when her options were dwindling Christina explained everything to Keith.
“We were picking up Kevin from soccer practice, and I was in the car with my mom,” Keith said. “She kind of told me the situation before he came to the car, and I basically just told her that Kevin loves soccer. I played more for fun anyway, but Kevin always loved it.
“I told my mom, ‘Just Kevin can play. That’s fine.’ I was a little kid. I wasn’t trying to do anything special, but I knew how much he loved playing soccer. All he ever wanted to watch was soccer. All he ever wanted to play on the PlayStation was soccer. I liked soccer too, but it was different for Kevin.”
Look at him now — Kevin Ellis, a 2009 Oak Park graduate, is making history.
He became Sporting KC’s first Homegrown Player to play in an MLS match when he subbed on for Seth Sinovic at left back in the 63rd minute on June 29 during a 3-2 win against Columbus at Sporting Park.
Ellis then became the first Homegrown Player to start in a league match and drew rave reviews from manager Peter Vermes among others for an 86-minute shift during a 1-1 draw last Wednesday against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
“My mom put me in soccer when I was 3 because I had too much energy, so I don’t think she pictured at that point what it could turn out to be,” Kevin, who is now 22, said.
“But as I got older, she told me on a daily basis this is what she wanted me to do, and she made sacrifices for me. My whole family made sacrifices for me to be able to be here.”
That includes Keith, who finished up a three-year tour with the U.S. Army on April 2.
Keith’s selflessness allowed Kevin to keep playing for coach Todd Logan’s Futura Futbol Club squad. He later linked up with Sporting KC Juniors and emerged as an All-American at Barton County Community College before signing a Homegrown Player contract in February 2011.
“I always told him, ‘It’s not really a sacrifice. In my mind, it’s just fair,’” Keith said. “He loved it so much, and I was fine without it. It’s not a big deal.”
It was, however, a very big deal for Kevin.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “I mean, we were 13 or 14 maybe and my brother came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I want you to keep playing, because I believe in you. I’m not going to play sports anymore.’ Honestly, it brought me to tears to hear my brother — at 14 — tell me he had that much faith in me.”
Avere fiducia is Italian for “have confidence/have faith.”
Kevin has those words tattooed on his left forearm, and it has become something of an Ellis family motto.
Obviously, the brothers were already close, as twins tend to be, but Christina’s passing strengthened that bond even more.
“She had a cyst in her stomach I think that ruptured, so it was herniated,” Keith said. “It was supposed to be a routine surgery, a 30-minute surgery, max. They messed something up, and she lost oxygen to her brain. I don’t know if it was the anesthesia or what, but she lost oxygen to her brain and was in a coma for two months. This was our sophomore year in high school.”
Christina, who died at 47, lived three more years — mostly in and out of hospitals with complications and congestive heart failure — but things were never the same, forcing Kevin and Keith to lean on each other for support even more despite having to live apart.
Keith and the Ellis twins’ sister, Karle, moved in with an aunt in Cameron, while Kevin remained with his grandparents, John and Violet Rutherford, to finish out high school and his Northmen soccer career.
It’s been rough on the Ellis family, but Kevin does his best to be a rock for his family.
“I think about my mom every day, and I’m not just saying that,” Kevin said. “There’s not a day that goes by or a time that I don’t think about her. We were as close as you could be. I told her everything. She told me everything. I saw her every single day and talked to her every single day when we were on the road on the phone.”
The Ellis boys know Christina would have been proud seeing her boy reach his dream.
“I don’t think you could put into words how proud she would have been,” Kevin said. “She probably would have been crying and all that stuff, but I know she’s proud and I know she’s still there. I can feel her with me every day.”
Kevin broke the news that he was starting for the first time when he dropped off tickets for his grandparents, John and Vi, the day before the game.
“My grandma screamed and my grandpa, who’s a very low-key guy, gave me the biggest smile and told me how proud he was of me,” Kevin said. “That was kind of the most rewarding part — to make those kinds of people who are close to you happy.”
On Wednesday, Keith got choked up watching Kevin fulfill his lifelong dream. He still gets choked up when asked about it.
“I can’t really explain the feeling that I had,” Keith said. “I saw him start in the (Lamar Hunt U.S. Open) Cup game a couple weeks ago. Both times, I don’t know how to explain it. It’s one of those things, when you know someone’s worked their whole life toward something, especially your twin brother, it’s crazy.
“To know what he’s feeling, being able to live his childhood dream, I’m speechless. I’m tearing up right now talking about this. Knowing how hard that he worked and how hard my mom worked for us, I was so proud. I love him. He’s my best friend and one of the best guys I know, and this is just the beginning.”