Exploring the pride of Sporting KC with Khiry Shelton, Johnny Russell
What do pro athletes represent to a city and its people? Does a city, a state or even an entire region, bask in their reflected glory? Are they the physical representation of how we as a community see ourselves? Do we look in our collective mirror and see ourselves as chieftains or royals?
And what does the city represent to the athletes? Is Patrick the “King” of Kansas City? Are Alex or Salvy? And what of Trent Green, Hoz and Moose, Cain and Escobar? Do they even remember the place where they once ruled?
The ebb and flow of professional athletes as they move about the country is fascinating. Yes, they’re usually well paid. Yes, they have a “star” quality that gives them privileged status when out and about. But all that said, that they live an uncertain and difficult life cannot be denied.
And what of soccer (as we Americans insist on calling it)? As a pro soccer player, one has added distances, languages and cultures to contend with. The whole world is soccer mad. Players crisscross not just countries but continents.
This leads us to Sporting Kansas City.
Sporting Kansas City has been a major success by just about any standard: Since SKC was founded in 1996, it has won the MLS Cup twice, and doubled that number with its U.S. Open Cup wins. It is ranked among the top ten MLS teams in franchise value. MLS started in ’96 (SKC was among the founding teams) and has grown from ten teams to the current twenty-six, including three in Canada. There are plans to reach thirty in the near future. MLS is the largest first division pro soccer league in the world.
Nationally, soccer is third in attendance after football and baseball. The comparisons are sort of oranges and apples though, except for one thing: In Kansas City, there seems to be a different, very special relationship between the players and the fans.
The ardent loyalty of the fans and the touching reciprocation from the players is rare and actually rather moving. Watching them mirror the fans, arm in arm, swaying back and forth with the crowd after a game is something particularly special. This picture, almost more than anything else, led me to wonder:
“Who are these guys and what makes them tick? Why do they seem so much more connected to each other than players in other sports? Why do they seem so much more connected to their fans? Are they really, or is it just smart public relations?”
Finding the answers makes this piece less about stats, numbers and bottom lines and more about the players as human beings. And, as observed above, more than football and baseball, soccer players are international. How do they find their experience with Sporting Kansas City and, by extension, Kansas City the place? They have arrived here from all over the planet. How do they see themselves? How do they see us here in the “Heart of America?” How are they adapting to the American vibe such as it is?
I recently had the opportunity to explore the personalities of two Sporting Kansas City forwards: Khiry Shelton and Johnny Russell. These guys (even through a Zoom filter) are relaxed, charming and appear to be completely comfortable answering questions not necessarily related to soccer. I won’t speak for them but I had a great time. Here’s some of what they had to say.
Khiry is an American player, born in Colorado, whose early years were spent in Germany where he lived while his father served in the U.S. Army. Khiry was introduced to soccer in soccer-mad Germany. He lived his formative years in the ridiculously beautiful city of Büdingen. About an hour from Frankfurt, Büdingen is a meticulously preserved medieval city—the perfect setting for fairytales, opera, ballet and a quiet, introspective, extremely talented future soccer star named Khiry Shelton.
And for Shelton there was never anything else.
“I mean, soccer has always been my life. My mom, both my parents, got me into soccer when I was in Büdingen and from the first day of seeing a ball,seeing other kids play with a soccer ball, it was love at first sight. I think by seven or eight years old, I knew… I was taking a ball with me to school or I was outside playing on the street, kicking it up against the curb. It really is a blessing. I fell in love with it.”
When Khiry was seven, his family was transferred back to the U.S. They landed in Texas where he played high school soccer. He went on to scoop up numerous awards in high school, college and youth soccer before being drafted by New York City FC where he stayed until 2017. 2018 brought him to Sporting KC, 2019 saw him back to Germany at SC Paderborn and 2020 returned him to Kansas City.
So, where’s home?
You know, as I’ve gotten older, home is where I’m playing; it’s where I feel comfortable. This is my life and this is pretty much all I think about doing. So, it’s where I feel most comfortable. And, you know, to be honest, when I left New York City, when I came to Kansas City, that was the first time I actually felt like myself. I think there were just a lot of things going on in New York City it’s chaos, you know? It’s just business minded people walking the streets super fast—so many people crowded in one area.
Khiry’s first memory of Kansas City turns out to be pretty special.
As I drove in, there was snow everywhere and the roads were iced over. I got in about 8:00 p.m. and Kansas City was lit up downtown. I stayed near the plaza in a hotel and it was lit up. It was super beautiful. My first view of KC.
When watching pro soccer, one gets the impression that the players seem to have a deeper, more genuine affection for one another than in other sports. It seems less macho, maybe, with more real emotion after a score or a win.
It’s an art, you know, art. It’s an art! You’ve got to use your mind and create things on the field. That’s how I look at it. And it just draws you closer to people because you don’t have to (verbally) communicate to play soccer. I mean, I played so many positions growing up and I think a lot of the guys have. You try to find whatever position suits you. That’s what preseason is for: get to know what type of player they are. If they like to dribble, if they like to run in behind, little things like that; just putting it all together. So, you know, I think that’s a beautiful thing about playing soccer—it’s a lot of body language.
How about German soccer, is it more intense—more serious?
Yeah, I think it’s different. Like, Johnny Russell is perfect. He’s just a clown and he likes to cause a ruckus and that’s just who he is and, you know, it blends well with the team because people feed off one another and when he gets things going and everyone’s having a laugh; we’re all enjoying our craft. I didn’t have that in Germany. It was just a lot of focus and just strictly serious and doing things right all the time, and being criticized for making bad choices or mistakes. Here, you know, we play the sport and there’s always going to be mistakes.
How easy is it for you to adapt to a new town?
It’s been easy for me because of my childhood. We had to pick up and go. We had to leave all my friends and belongings behind, which was not easy for a kid. You get attached to your friends and your routine. So, yeah, I’m introverted, you know, but depending on how I read a situation or people, I will start to open up a little and a little bit more. It takes time. But I adapt pretty well. I believe there are players that struggle with it. They’re told, hey, you’re going to have to move here and play for this coach that they don’t know much of—and it’s not an easy thing, it’s really not.
What do you miss most about Germany?
You’ve got cobblestone roads and you wake up every morning and if your window’s open you smell the bakery. This is the stuff you see in movies. Luckily, I grew up with it so when going back it’s like, wow, I’m just so thankful.
And Texas, Oregon, Colorado?
The only attachment I have with Texas is my family. I think moving around opened my eyes to… it changed the way I kind of looked at the world, I would say.
Khiry was honored with a 2020 Neal and Jeanne Patterson Humanitarian of the Year Award. In addition to his work with SKC’s Victory Project, Khiry and teammate, Amadou Dia, were instrumental in bringing Black Lives Matter front and center to Sporting Kansas City.
Those who watched any of the MLS games in Orlando were treated to a rare sight in professional sports: The teams knelt before the opening whistle to honor the BLM movement. Coaches, staff and players all wore t-shirts or accessories honoring the movement. It was a jaw-dropping, shiver-inducing change in pro sports optics. Was this an inspiration to you?
I was tired of just being quiet about it like I have for so many years previous. It was time to put my foot down. My dad is a veteran. He served twenty-two years in the army as a tanker, and still to this day, he’ll give me a call. “You can’t believe what just happened. This cop pulled me over and… My dad doesn’t break the law. He lives by the law. Cops will harass him and he has veteran plates. And it’s sickening to me that somebody who has served to protect everyone for twenty-two years is still getting treated that way. And I’ve had experiences as well. It was just time for me to be like, hey, this is enough! I’m tired of being looked at a certain way and having to question if I’m a threat or not when I know I’m not. I was raised by two loving parents, very supportive, who taught me to love other people for who they are.
After the passing of George Floyd, it really hit me. I was just devastated. I drove to training and I sat in my car for probably fifteen minutes deciding if I wanted to go to training or not. So we talked and, you know, we ended up coming together as a collective and we didn’t train. Our next training session was the day after, or two days after, and we didn’t train that day. We all decided this has got to be it and we need to stop right here. People say we’re athletes and we’re blessed, which we are, but it’s also something we worked toward our whole lives, just like anybody else. We were able to get the black players coalition together and start reaching out and talking to the league. It’s not about wanting to be superior, we just want to be treated as equal.
I have so many friends that I grew up with that have never experienced what I have experienced. My parents told me to brush it off, brush it off, it’s not your fault, but I have friends I grew up with who’ve seen my posts on social media and they’ve been just blindsided. They’re still blinded…by what’s taking place, by what’s going on in the world and I’ve had to shut out some of those people.
I’ve got to make sure that when it comes to the younger players that we have on this team that they know, hey, like these are signs of racism or…or whatever it is…that they need to be aware of it. That they need to speak their mind about it and not hide and be quiet about it. It is a big matter. We’re all human.
When it comes to charity or community outreach, does SKC push players in a certain way or is it your own choice?
“Every player has a choice this year, coming back to KC, with all the chaos going on in the world, I was like, ok, what can I do to play my part and try to do more. Get out and touch other people’s lives any way I can. I’m good with kids. I’m really good with kids and that was my thing. What possibilities or opportunities are available? SKC gave me a whole list and I’ve sat there multiple times on the phone with them saying I’d like to do this, this one doesn’t fit me that well, but maybe still I would like to do this.
Johnny grew up in Glasgow and is a huge fan of Celtic FC. Fun trivia: Celtic FC is one hundred and thirty-three years older than Sporting Kansas City. This may provide a little context when considering how international players fit into the world of soccer.
Johnny is a supporter of his younger brother’s special needs soccer team in Scotland. Their plans to participate in the 2020 Special Olympics were postponed by Covid-19, but they are hoping to be there in 2021.
Russell had always wanted to play internationally and was in the middle of discussions between Catania (Italy) and Dundee United that ended up with him in England at Derby County. This is another bit of context as the machinations of international soccer are murky and byzantine—on a good day.
2017, for reasons not all that clear, found Russell a little down and out about his career. After some soul-searching and a nudge from fellow Scotsman and SKC legend, Mo Johnston, Johnny came over to Sporting. Interestingly, even in Europe, he was aware of MLS. Frequently, after games when he was too keyed up to sleep, he would spend the wee hours watching MLS games on television.
Johnny loves living in the U.S. and has been indulging his love for American muscle cars. He can be seen tooling around in a Chevy Camaro Hot Wheels Edition.
Johnny has had an important, ongoing influence in the MLS. He’s managed to convince several other players from Scotland to come over and join the league. They include: Miami’s Lewis Morgan and NYC’s Gary Mackay-Steven.
Russell is regarded with unbridled affection by anyone who knows him for his great sense of humor and his madcap ability to make people laugh. And as a captain, he is admired and respected by his teammates, the coaches and staff of Sporting Kansas City.
Do you ever get stage fright?
Not so much stage fright, obviously you get nerves. I mean, I get nerves playing any game. I feel nerves are good—if you can use them the right way. It’s not like there’s any sort of negativity with the nerves.
Has any of your family been able to come over and see you play in Kansas City?
In ’18, we had a few. In ’19, we had many friends and family come out. And then, obviously, everything that’s happened this year hasn’t worked out, so I haven’t seen any of my family since January. After the season, we’ll go back to Scotland for a few weeks.”
How has the virus affected your brother’s team?
It was shut down for a long period and then they sort of let them get back to train. It wasn’t full, but it was something. It meant that they could see each other, they could get out and exercise.
What does Johnny Russell do with his free time in Kansas City? Is there time off?
I mean, it just depends. I’ve got kids. My daughter, she’s three and my son, he’s ten months…so he’s pretty easy, he’s pretty portable, so I take him about. This year has been that much more difficult, getting to a park or going to a museum or taking them, whatever we can do to get out to spend a bit of time with them, get them outside. That’s pretty much how my days off are spent.
Is there a favorite place? Hamburger? Ice cream?
“Yeah, yeah, I don’t eat them often but I enjoy a good hamburger. My favorite place is probably Eddie B’s down on the Plaza. To be honest, we don’t really get the chance to go out and eat a lot. I mean, my kids are in bed at 6:30. So…
You, among other SKC players, will occasionally be called up to play for their national teams and then return shortly thereafter. How does this work? Soccer has so many moving parts. Can you just drop into a new situation with new teammates and coaches and still make it work? Isn’t this just a really complicated thing to do?
So there are certain months in the calendar that, there’s going to be international games. And, yeah, you fly over, play the games, and then you come back. So the trips are usually ten days to two weeks, no longer than that. And, I mean, it was always fine until this year. This year with quarantine restrictions I’ve missed out on a few trips, especially the one in Scotland. I mean, the first major tournament in twenty-two years, so, that’s a hard one to obviously miss out on. I’m absolutely delighted for the players that went.
Are SKC players guided into one charity or another or into certain community projects?
We do a lot of stuff in the community. Going in, training with younger kids. We obviously haven’t done any of that this year because it’s not been possible but, you know, the last two years we did a lot. Just being there to answer questions. I mean, that’s always something to look forward to and enjoy…. it’s been a difficult year for everyone. But obviously, that’s one of the things that had to stop for us, as well.
What’s it like to bounce around from club to club? Is there a routine or list of things to do to get more comfortable?
You just sort of jump in, try to get involved with the guys as much as possible, outside of the playing. Obviously, there are different groups doing different things and I’ll try and get to know everyone; get to know the place. I like to walk so I get my bearings. Wherever I’m staying, just get my surroundings, I like to do that. But apart from that, I just try to spend as much time going out and doing different things with the guys because obviously they have been here and they know the places to go. I try and sort of tag along to begin with until I find my way around.”
Looking to the future, what do you see yourself doing? Coaching? Racing muscle cars?
Yeah, yeah, I’ve got my Camaro here. That’s one of the first things I did…go out and get some American muscle. I have a Mustang in the UK. I think it was 2017, they brought out the first UK Mustang, so, I got that. I don’t think coaching’s for me. I mean, I’ll always be involved in some way, whether it’s my daughter or my son wants to take it up. I’ll be there for them the whole way through. But professionally, to get back in the game coaching. I mean, I don’t think it would be the same for me. I’ve always been interested in being a fireman. I‘ve never worked on my own, I’ve always been on a team and I know a couple of guys back home, I’ve spoken to a few guys here. I just feel like that’s the closest thing to being on a team. And then, obviously, you’re helping people which is something that I’ve always wanted to do.
Our Better Angels
I think that in this day and age, teams, athletes, probably more than any other entity, represent “the better angels” of a city’s nature (to borrow a phrase from Dickens). This is particularly true of Kansas City and especially true when considering Khiry Shelton and Johnny Russell.
Johnny Russell was a surprising conversation in many ways. He’s so down to earth…a good guy with kids, who loves his family and likes to stay home. His best day is when he can get with a kid who has problems, make him or her happy, answer a question or two.
Russell is a father whose daughter and son come first in his life even as he moves to a new city or country to pursue his career. He is one of the team’s captains. His mischievous sense of humor and love for tattoos and American muscle cars is coupled with his love of family, his big heart, a deep sense of compassion and a touching generosity with his talent and time.
Johnny Russell is a fierce soccer player. He seems always to be in the mix of some extraordinary play or other. During the 2020 playoffs, his shootout kick against San Jose might well have caused an earthquake back in California. If the goalie had managed to be in the way, the ball would have gone right through him anyway. Luckily for the goalie, the ball went right over his head and all the way to the moon.
Khiry Shelton is a great player, but he’s an even greater person. That he and his father (and so many millions of others) have to suffer racial profiling, have to look over their shoulder every time they hear a siren—well, it should enrage any decent person. That he is able to rise above it and work with kids and mentor younger players, is a testament to his integrity and good heart.
Khiry is an artist. His kick during the shootout against San Jose was a perfect mix of dance and acting. He managed to send the poor goalie flying off in the wrong direction while he slipped the ball into the other side of the net. Poof! It was site-specific performance art at its best—elegant, smooth, and magical.
Khiry Shelton may be known for soccer but he is also an activist. He is willing to lead in the fight against social injustice and for equality in America. His intelligence, fearlessness and understanding of the issues that matter most, are softened by an affable grace and an easy smile. He is an inspiration.
Kansas City should care for, and cherish Khiry and Johnny and others like them. They are the better angels of our city’s nature. They bring us much joy and inspiration and, even if only borrowed for a time, they have made themselves part of our history. We can cross our fingers and hope they stay here forever – but even if they don’t, they have made our city a happier place and, more importantly, a better place.
For this, we are blessed.