Erik Palmer-Brown is walking the same path once tread by modern-day U.S. soccer greats Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.
Palmer-Brown, 15, who lives in Lee’s Summit, was accepted to the U.S. Soccer Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla., for the spring semester, so he spends his morning training with 31 of the nation’s elite youth soccer players then attends class in the afternoon.
He’s part of the player pool that will compete for the U.S. men’s under-17 national team during FIFA Under-17 World Cup Qualifying in the spring.
“I was speechless when I got the invite, but I wasn’t nervous,” Palmer-Brown said. “I knew a bunch of people that were already down here, so it was just cool.”
Palmer-Brown’s mother, Marilyn Palmer, was a bit overwhelmed when she learned the news, but not because her son would be moving halfway across the country three months before he’d be old enough to drive.
“I was stunned, but I was more stunned by all the paperwork I had to get done in 14 days before he could go,” she said.
Palmer-Brown, who turns 16 on April 24, shrugs off the notion he is undertaking something courageous. After all, he’s among peers, but he’s also been hardened by life.
Born in Napoleon, Ohio, Palmer-Brown moved to Kansas City more than a decade ago. His father, Harry Brown, had moved to New York by that time.
“I wasn’t really close with him,” Palmer-Brown said.
And he never got the chance to be. Palmer-Brown was 8 when his father died.
“We had talked on the phone a few days before that and he was going to come down and see me,” Palmer-Brown said. “He never made it, because he passed away.”
Palmer-Brown, living with is mom and half-brother, Nicholas, was forced to grow up quickly.
“He likes to think he’s the man of the house,” his mom said. “We don’t always see eye-to-eye, but we love each other. I know he’ll be OK. He’s been traveling with the team enough for a few years now, so I know he’s mature enough and ready for the things he takes on.”
Still, Palmer-Brown remains haunted in some ways by the father he never really knew.
“I still play for him all the time,” Palmer-Brown said. “When I go out on the field, that’s who I play for. I step on the field for him and my team. Hopefully, he’d be proud of me. I miss him and wish he was around. There are some things other kids get to do with their dads that I miss out on, but at the same time I know he’s a good man and he’s watching over me from heaven.”
Palmer-Brown used to have a keepsake from his father. When he was baptized as a baby, his parents had a charm made that read “always believe” and he kept it on a gold chain his father gave him.
But Palmer-Brown lost the charm when his family’s house was robbed two years ago.
“That’s the one thing he was mad about,” Palmer said. “He didn’t care about his Xbox being stolen or other things, but he couldn’t understand why they’d steal the necklace and the charm that his father gave him for baptism.
“It was devastating, because he didn’t understand why someone would take something so personal to him like that. That’s the only thing he had of his dad besides pictures.”
The memento might be gone, but Palmer-Brown has never forgotten the sentiment.
“I’ve thought about getting a tattoo, which I know my mom won’t want to hear,” Palmer-Brown said. “But that phrase, ‘Always believe,’ means everything to me. It means always believe in myself and where I came from, believe in my family and believe in God. I’ve got to believe to be where I’m at and where I eventually want to be.”
Truth be told, Palmer-Brown, who also spent time in the U.S. soccer under-15 national team camp last summer, hasn’t lost the real source of his strength anyway — his mother, a single parent who works at Wal-Mart as she labors to raise two sons.
“I’ve had to grow up faster, but seeing how hard she works for us makes me want to give back to her and my family,” Palmer-Brown said. “I want her to know she didn’t raise a fool and that her son could grow up to be a star someday.”
All indications are that Palmer-Brown, a right-footed centerback who has been groomed in the Sporting Kansas City Academy, is well on his way.
“Getting to train at the Residency Program, it’s huge,” Sporting KC Director of Coaching Jon Parry said. “Just to be invited to Bradenton is a big deal, but especially during training as they prepare for the U-17 World Cup, it’s pretty impressive.”
Palmer-Brown is the first field player from Sporting KC’s youth development initiative accepted into the Residency Program.
Sporting KC goalkeeper Jon Kempin also participated in the U.S. Soccer’s youth immersion program, which started in 1999.
“He’s definitely got the potential to be a Homegrown guy,” Parry said. “He could be a centerback in the league for 12 or 15 years, for sure. We’re excited about the opportunity for him, and hopefully we’ll be able to continue developing players and give them similar opportunities.”