When a Santa Ana Winds FC assistant coach pronounces his name wrong, Kramer Runager’s quick to set him straight. It’s Runager (like RUN-ah-GRR not ROON-ah-GRR). He’s not vain. And he’s far from a diva, but it’s clear that his name – his dad’s name and his granddad’s too – matters much to this 27-year-old striker.
- READ MORE: Then & Now - 20 Things to Know About the Open Cup
- READ MORE: The Long Road Home - 104 Years of the Open Cup
- SCHEDULE: 52 Teams; 26 Games in #USOC2018 First Round
“I always correct people when they get it wrong,” Runager tells ussoccer.com at a training session under dim floodlights in Orange County, California. You get a sense that people foul up his name a lot. ROON-ah-GRR’s as good a guess as RUN-ah-GRR, really. “I want people to be clear about it. It’s mainly for my father and my grandfather – they passed it on to me and I want to wear it with all the pride I can.”
(Max Runager won Super Bowl XXIII with the 49ers in 1984 - one of two)
When Runager was growing up in Williamsburg, Virginia, no one got the name wrong. Kramer’s father, Max, was an American football star and local celebrity. He was an uncommonly nuanced punter in the NFL for 11 seasons and won two Super Bowls – one with the San Francisco 49ers and another with the Philadelphia Eagles. Kramer’s granddad, Geb, still going strong in his 90s, coached his son to a high school football state championship in his hometown of Orangeburg, South Carolina. It’s safe to say none of the 13,000 or so residents there get Runager wrong either.
Lord of the Rings
“My dad gave one of his Super Bowl rings to my grandfather and he wore the other one all the time when I was a kid,” remembers Kramer. He’s built sturdy, with wavy blond hair. He’s tall and cuts the figure of an All-American sports star. He’s the spitting image of the old black-and-white photographs of his dad from his NFL heyday. Max was generous with his time when Kramer was little, always willing to spin a story or two for strangers he’d meet on the street. “He’d take the ring off. Let them try it on. He’d answer any questions they had about it. About what it was like to play in the Super Bowl.”
Remember your name. That was a particular piece of advice Max gave out to his three sons when they were of an age to head out on their own. Kramer’s voice catches in his throat when he speaks the words. They’re his dad’s words. Maybe he hears his voice in his ears. It’s a wonder he keeps it together at all, there with his teammates doing laps on the turf behind him. Max Runager, Kramer’s father and a larger-than-life figure, died of a blood clot alone in his car a few months before. He was only 61, and it’s still a fresh wound.
(Kramer Runager, 27, has the full respect of his younger Santa Ana Winds FC teammates - photo Mike Janosz)
Max Runager never pushed his three sons to the sport he loved. Rare is the father who doesn’t, especially when that passion burns so hot it becomes a career at the highest level. “I really respect him for that, for not pushing football on us,” Kramer says of his father. “I tried football early in high school, but I just didn’t get the kind of vibe I got from soccer. I didn’t get that same excitement.”
You get the sense when talking to Kramer, that growing up in the Runager household wasn’t exactly an episode of Father Knows Best on loop. A long NFL career takes a toll on a body. And when the bright lights faded, they left a hole in Max’s life. He sold medical equipment as he grew, every year, a little farther away from life in the spotlight. You sense as much conflict as respect when Kramer talks about his dad. It’s a family after all and families are made up of people, humans with frailties, not myths.
While Max’s exploits on the football field were the stuff of legend, Kramer’s idol growing up was older brother Kolby, seven years his senior. He was a ball boy at big brother’s high school soccer games. He watched on from a little kid’s low vantage, looking up at bigger bodies, at the collisions and competition. The speed of it all. That’s where Kramer fell in love with soccer. “I remember my little brother at those games,” said Kolby, who earned a full soccer scholarship to the University of South Carolina before getting “bit by the acting bug” and heading out for the West Coast.
(Max Runager in his college football days with the South Carolina Gamecocks)
“There was always an unspoken competition between Kramer and me,” added Kolby, who flirted with the qualifying stages of the Open Cup himself, in 2002, with Williamsburg Legacy. “He’s so much better than I ever was and that was one of his first goals. He wanted to win a state championship in high school like I did. Wanted to score more goals than I did. Wanted to be MVP. He was always trying to outdo me. And he did.”
An older brother’s pride spills over when he talks about a time, on a recent family vacation in Florida, when he and his little brother had a kick-around in the yard. “My mind was blown,” Kolby added, laughing at himself and in awe of his brother’s development. “I know what sets a great player apart from a good one. All of a sudden, my little brother’s like [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic – he had tricks that just made me feel old.”
Man Among Boys
It may sound like hyperbole, big brother’s pride exploding into exaggeration. But it isn’t. Kramer Runager is a special player. He’s got size, speed, foot skills and a keen eye. Comparisons to Brian McBride, the fearless and free-scoring American international forward, are not unwarranted. Kramer scored five goals in the Winds’ three qualifiers that saw the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL) amateurs into their first Open Cup finals.
(Santa Ana Winds FC are heading into their first U.S. Open Cup - Runager top right - photo Mike Janosz)
Surrounded by players in their late teens and early 20s, Runager sets the tempo at training. He’s a man among boys and all eyes are on him. He never lets up. He’s relentless. A leader. Hell, he’s a Runager after all.
When his parents divorced he admits to “having a really hard time.” His college years were complicated as he dealt with the upheaval and the emotions. He pulled out of two schools before landing at Foothill, a community college in Los Altos, California. It wasn’t the end of the road; it was a place to build from. There he met Tom Liner, head coach of the school’s soccer team and a man who’d have a profound impact on his life.
Liner knew Runager was special straight away. “When I made him my team captain, he took it very seriously,” said Liner, the first-ever goalkeeper for the San Jose Clash (now the Earthquakes) in MLS’ inaugural year of 1996. He was the first professional soccer player Kramer had ever met. “We had guys from a lot of different backgrounds, nationalities and socioeconomic situations, but Kramer made them feel like part of a family. Everyone looked to him, in games and in training. Other players reacted to him. No one wanted to let him down. He drove them on.”
Kramer got hold of his life and upped his game. He spent the next two years excelling at Chico State, an NCAA Division II power. Then he hooked up with Eric Wynalda (thanks to an intro from his old Clash teammate Liner) and the Cal FC amateurs who shocked the Open Cup in 2012 with a win over the Portland Timbers. Kramer was on the verge of signing for Wynalda and the Atlanta Silverbacks, then of the North American Soccer League – the second tier of American professional soccer. But he had a semester of college to finish, and the opportunity passed.
(Santa Ana Winds FC train on a chilly night in Orange County, CA - - photo Mike Janosz)
“I had a back-up plan,” Runager said. Predictably, it wasn’t your average Plan-B. He decided to become an An Air Force Combat Controller – one of the toughest jobs in the armed services, an elite Special Forces team of battlefield airmen who work under the toughest stresses imaginable. “It requires a lot of strength,” Kramer said, with his knack for understatement. “I trained for a whole year on my own even before I enlisted. You have to run, swim, carry hundreds of pounds on your back. I learned so much discipline there that I swear it’s made me a better soccer player.”
Injury halted Runager’s Plan-B. He suffered a concussion in training and was ruled out. Faced with taking a different job in the Air Force, or waiting a year to have another run at it, Kramer returned to Plan-A: Soccer. And he went for it with gusto.
Pro Soccer Dream Still Alive
“I’m 27 now, and I know that’s not young,” says Runager, who’s immersed in soccer. He plays at night and on weekends, coaches during the days. He’s not one to do something halfway – ask anyone who knows him. “I still want to play professionally. I want to play at the highest level I can until I can’t play anymore. I may not be on the right side of my 20s, but I can tell you this: I’m a better player now than I was before. In every way I am. All I need is someone to believe in me.”
(Runager was SAWFC's top scorer in #USOC2018 qualifying, scoring five times in three games - photo Mike Janosz)
Tom Liner still believes in his old captain from Foothill, a school full of long-shots and low-hopers. “The Open Cup can really get you there,” he said about Runager’s chances of kicking down the door on a pro career, even at his age, with a good run in the 2018 U.S. Open Cup, which kicks off on May 8. “He’s one of these players that’s just so hungry. You only see a player like this maybe once every ten or 12 years. All he needs is to be seen, for someone to take a chance on him. He can be a big deal in MLS. I’m sure.”
Kramer remembers one last piece of advice from his dad. It sticks with him, on the verge of a last charge at his own dreams, his own spotlight. His arms are crossed behind his back and he's eager to return to training and the buzz of the game he loves more now than ever before. “Never leave a job half done,” he says. His father’s words just hang there, before turning to mist in the cool California air.