Josh McKinney first heard about the U.S. Paralympic National Soccer Team through a Eurosport Magazine article when one of the players was competing in Barcelona. His parents sent in some soccer footage of McKinney's play, and at the age of 16, McKinney made his debut in March of 1995.
More than 17 years later, McKinney has established himself as the face of the U.S. Paralympic Team. On Sunday, the 33-year-old midfielder earned his 100th career international cap when the team played Russia at Yevpatoriya, Ukraine.
"It means a lot," McKinney said of his 100th cap. "It took some hard work over the last 17 years. We don't get to play as many games a year as the full national teams do. It's really special to me because I've made it a career. It's very cool to reach this milestone."
Over that 100-game span, McKinney tallied 74 goals and has worn the captain's armband since 2005. The U.S. recently qualified for the Paralympic Games this summer in London, and that will mark McKinney's third Paralympics, following his 1996 Atlanta and 2004 Athens appearances.
"Back then it was a little different because you didn't have to qualify," McKinney said of his first year competing for the Paralympics. "It was at home, so my family got to come watch us play. I was really young, so I came in not knowing what to expect. I was very excited, nervous and pretty much just wanted to get on the field and play. This time around, I'm 33 and we had to qualify. And the way we had to qualify was a little bit sweeter and very enjoyable."
Paralympics, Not Special Olympics
When McKinney talks about his soccer profession, he is quick to point out a misunderstanding out in the public that the Paralympics are a completely separate event than the Special Olympics. To be eligible for Paralympic soccer, athletes must be ambulatory and have a diagnosis of non-progressive brain damage that is associated with motor control function, such as Cerebral Palsy, traumatic brain injury or stroke.
"I'm affected on the right side of my body, so it's tough going side to side and stuff like that," McKinney said. "I overcompensate with the left side of the body, just using your left and trying to play with just one foot. It took me a few years just to be able to pass with my right foot because my ankle's really weak, and the leg is not as strong as my left side."
Paralympic rules and regulations have their differences compared to standard 11-vs.-11, 90-minute soccer. In the Paralympics, players compete on a smaller 75-by-55-meter field. Goals are 5 meters wide by 2 meters tall. Games consist of two 30-minute halves. Players are allowed to bowl the ball in underhand for throw-ins. And there is no offside.
"The strategy of the game changes with no offside," McKinney said. "Different teams have different strategies for this game, which adapts to everyone's disability."
Cherokee to Poker
McKinney comes from an incredibly unique family background, whether it is by profession or heritage. For one thing, McKinney is half Cherokee Indian.
"I haven't really done too much research on it, but I know that one of my grandfathers' parents was full-blood Cherokee Indian," McKinney said. "I haven't really done the lineage, but I've wanted to look into it."
And then there are the interesting occupations, particularly his grandfather Paul McKinney, a 2005 World Series of Poker bracelet winner.
"I actually spent a whole summer with him in a casino and just stayed behind and watched him play," McKinney said. "He's in his 80s now, so when we do go places it's pretty much making sure he's getting his rest. If we don't watch out, he'll stay all night and play poker and not want to sleep."
Soccer in McKinney' Core
The main stronghold for McKinney and his family has been the game of soccer, and he got his first kicks at an early age.
"I started when I was 4," McKinney said. "My mom played in high school, and my parents just thought it would be a good idea to sign me up because of the strength of my right side."
McKinney also has two younger brothers who competed collegiately. The middle brother, Chris McKinney, was a goalkeeper at West Virginia, notching his first shutout against Pittsburgh in 2001. His youngest brother, Jeff McKinney, played for a Davidson team that defeated Duke in 2003.
"We pretty much grew up playing soccer," Josh McKinney said. "I got to a lot of their games in high school and college. The middle one (Chris) and I played high school together my senior year. I think we played pretty much every day in the backyard. We're pretty close."
About the U.S. Paralympic Team
The Paralympic squad is coached by Jay Hoffman, who has been at the helm since 2002. Heading into this year's Paralympic Games, there is a good mix of veterans and young players. The newer personnel had not always been the trend for the roster.
"From Atlanta through Athens, it was pretty much the same group of guys," McKinney said. "We'd find athletes through word of mouth. Obviously we have no leagues in the States, so if a coach sees a player or someone contacts him, that's pretty much how we found our athletes for the first nine years that I was on the team. But Coach [Hoffman] has come a long way with recruiting young, new talent. That's pretty exciting. I think we will have a good chance in London."
Midfielder and forward Marthell Vazquez, a 25-year-old from Long Beach, Calif., is one of the team's primary offensive sources.
"Marthell Vazquez has been a big part of the team for the last seven years," McKinney said. "He was actually an MVP one year during a World Championship, so he's an important person on this team. He's one of our best goal scorers."
The Paralympic squad is coming off a seventh-place finish at the Ukraine International Tournament, wrapping up the four-game event with a 5-0 victory against Australia. McKinney scored two unassisted goals to push his career total to 76.
Next up for the USA is the BT World Cup in Manchester, England, which runs from May 19-27. After the tournament, the team will hold camps in Chula Vista, Calif., in June and July before heading to the 2012 Paralympic Games. The U.S. drew Group B with Ukraine, Great Britain and Brazil for the Summer Paralympics, which take place Sept. 1-9.