U.S. Soccer

The ‘Mayor of Hannover’ Moves on

Cherundolo Announces Retirement from Professional Soccer

Three-time FIFA World Cup veteran Steve Cherundolo announced his retirement from playing professional soccer on Wednesday. The captain of Hannover 96 in the German Bundesliga is calling it quits after 15 years and is the only U.S.-born player to play his entire career in Europe.

CHICAGO (March 19, 2014) – Three-time FIFA World Cup veteran Steve Cherundolo announced his retirement from playing professional soccer today. The captain of Hannover 96 in the German Bundesliga is calling it quits after 15 years and is the only U.S.-born player to play his entire career in Europe.

Arguably the best ever to play at right back for the Men’s National Team, Cherundolo earned 82 caps for the United States. Turning in one of the USA’s outstanding performances in South Africa, he started the past seven World Cup matches going back to 2006. A two-time finalist for U.S. Soccer Male Athlete of the Year, Cherundolo finished with 26 appearances in World Cup qualifying and earned a CONCACAF Gold Cup trophy in 2005.

While he had two memorable goals of his own – a 75-yard strike from distance past Oliver Kahn against Germany and the game-winner in the 2007 Nelson Mandela Challenge Cup – his most memorable point came when he sprung Landon Donovan in on goal for the finish that sparked the USA’s comeback in the 2-2 draw against Slovenia in the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

The One Armed Goalkeeper

“ALL I EVER wanted to do since I was four or five years old was serve in the military,” says U.S. Paralympic goalkeeper Keith Johnson.

Johnson was born on the Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska. He comes from a long line of soldiers. His father, mother and stepfather were all Air Force. His grandfather was in the Navy in World War II all the way through Vietnam. His great grandpa Frazier was in the infamous seventh cavalry (when I confess ignorance of the seventh cavalry, Johnson looks incredulous, disappointed in me, explaining this was the same unit once led by Custer, defeated by Running Bull). According to his mother’s research, his ancestors fought for the Union in the Civil War. Johnson grew up examining old family photographs of soldiers; reading the letters that his grandfather had sent to his grandmother during war time; going to air shows and watching the acrobatics of the Thunder Birds. Since he was a kid, he’d dreamt of flying a fighter plane. In high school, he’d head to base and drive his car to the back of the flight line and park, sitting for hours, watching the F-15s take off.       

But as soon as he’d been old enough to understand, his mother had explained to Keith that he would never be able to join the military himself. Johnson has cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that affects muscle movement. The Department of Defense lists the condition as permanently disqualifying.  

CEREBRAL PALSY DIDN’T stop Johnson from much else. He had hemiplegia—semi-paralysis that affected his left side – but a fourth grade teacher had told him stories of a former student who was now a wheel-chaired track athlete in the Paralympics; the teacher told Keith to never let his disability stop him from trying something. As a kid, Keith did Boy Scouts; joined a recreational soccer league; and played the trumpet, propping the horn up with his left hand and playing it with his right. In high school, he marched in the band. He was in ROTC, the closest he could get to the military, all four years. His junior year, he was the starting kicker for his football team—coached by his former fourth grade teacher.  His freshman, sophomore, and junior year, he was on the track team; he wasn’t fast enough to do the running events, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t throw the shot put.

Out of every activity, soccer was his favorite. Though he tried out for the high school team his freshman, sophomore and junior year, he never made it. He watched the junior varsity practice and thought, you’re telling me I’m not good enough for this? He couldn’t help but think the coach’s decision was based on his disability—that it had less to do with what he could accomplish than what he looked like when he was doing it. His CP caused him to run with a slight limp, his left hand tucked up in front of his chest—but he himself only became aware of any difference when others pointed it out. Over the years, there had been rough moments, moments he felt singled out, particularly during his adolescent years on a military base in Ohio. Once, his band-mates duct-taped him to the chair. In the small, all-white town in Ohio, he was bullied as much for his skin color as he was his CP: the second time he was called the ‘n’ word—“You’re not a nigger because you’re black, you’re a nigger because you’re ignorant”—he chased after the kid but did not catch him. He told the principal. The principal said, “And what do you expect me to do about it?” By high school, he didn’t expect anyone to do anything – he just focused on what he himself could achieve.

U.S. Paralympic head coach Stuart Sharp presents Keith Johnson with a special goalkeeper jersey commemorating
his accomplishment of making 100 appearances for his country.

HIS SENIOR YEAR he wasn’t going to bother trying out for soccer. But then he got cut from the track team. He wasn’t okay with being shut out from both. He called up the new high school soccer coach, Harry Matrone, and said, “Listen, I’ve tried out every year and I’ve never made it and I’ve been working too hard to get cut again.” Johnson spent all his free time at the indoor soccer center, playing constantly with the owner of the local soccer store, who used to play at a high level in Mexico.

“If you’ve been working as hard as you say you have, I see no reason to cut you,” the coach told him.

He made the team. While he only got twenty-minutes of game time over the course of the season, he never missed a practice. He also went to goalkeeper training directly after school. He wasn’t a keeper but he’d always wanted to be – he had been begging coaches to let him play keeper since his first time on the field. Though this was only a practice setting, he was able to learn the position as he trained alongside the first-team keeper. At team practice, he was the player whose effort raised everyone else’s. “He always had that I’m-ready-to-play-if-you-give-me-a-chance attitude, the I-will-do-my-best-to-do-whatever-I’m-asked mindset,” says Clemente Openiano, his East Anchorage High teammate. Openiano also notes the merciless climate of the team: “A group of teenage boys – the testosterone is flying, the jokes are flying. But he stuck through it, never let it get to him.”

During one indoor tournament, as the team lounged along the sideline in between games, one of Johnson’s teammates plucked off his headphones to see what he was listening to. When he heard “Eye of the Tiger,” the Rocky theme song, he grinned and gave Johnson hell: “Getting real pumped up huh Keith?” From then on, Rocky was Johnson’s nickname.

Keith rolled with it: at indoor practices, Keith would sometimes bring his cassette tape and play the song over the gym speakers while the team trained: Did my time, took my chances/Went the distance, now I'm back on my feet/Just a man and his will to survive. And while everyone viewed the song comically, hamming it up, lip-syncing with overwrought faces, there was still something undoubtedly inspiring about hearing that song. “Not much was expected of us that season – and we identified with the underdog grit it expressed,” says Openiano. “When Keith played the track, it gave us a sense of camaraderie and determination.” At the end of the season, the team of long shots made it to the state playoffs and Keith won the Team Tenacious Award.

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Jun 24, 2016