Tribute To Shawn Kuykendall
By: Alecko Eskandarian
The first time I met Shawn Kuykendall was when I was 13-years-old and my New Jersey ODP (Olympic Development Program) team played against his Virginia ODP team at the finals of the Region 1 Tournament Showcase in 1995. I didn’t start that game, as I was very much still in my shell at this point in my soccer career, and I was quite intimidated being it was my first season competing in the ODP program.
For those that might not know, before the land of academies, ODP was everything to youth soccer. It was your barometer to see what level of soccer player you were, a ticket to any potential college scholarship, and most importantly, it was your only avenue to being called up to the US Youth National Teams.
The process was cutthroat, and much like The Hunger Games, you played in front of an audience and did your best to convince coaches with clipboards on the sidelines that you deserved to make it to the next phase of the program (Area Team -> State Team -> Regional Team -> National Team). So as I sat on the bench on that hot summer day at Rider University, I had front row seats to the clinic that 4’ 11” Shawn Kuykendall was about to put on for all these coaches, including my team’s defense. Virginia ended up thumping us in the finals 3-0, and if my memory serves correct, Shawn had all three assists. Every player and parent on our sideline walked away from that game saying, “That little kid in the middle crushed us. Who is that kid?” Shawn went on to be called up to the U14 US National Team for our 1982 age group pool that included the likes of Landon Donovan, Damarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu, Kyle Beckerman, Chris Wingert, etc etc.
A year later, brimming with confidence, I was more determined than ever to make my mark on the ODP program. I came back a completely different player and helped propel our NJ State Team to become Region 1 Champions. As a result, I was called in to the Regional Team where the best players from the Region 1 Tournament were selected to compete with each other at various international tournaments. My first trip was under current Princeton Head Coach Jim Barlow to Sao Paulo, Brazil to compete against youth professional Brazilian clubs. This trip was a turning point in my soccer life. One of my roommates on this trip was Shawn Kuykendall.
From the moment I walked in the doors of our dorm room with four bunk beds (there were eight of us to a room), Shawn greeted me as if he were a parent chaperone. Right off the bat, he introduced himself and began introducing us new guys to all the players, while indirectly throwing comical jabs using a bit of his Virginia twang. For example, a typical conversation would be like: “Hey I’m Shawn Kuykendall from Virginia, what’s your name? Oh cool. Well glad you could make it for this trip. This trip is going to be so beast. I mean, we’re in Brazil. So beast, right? Well this is Kelvin Jones, he looks super mean with his afro but he is actually a really nice guy so don’t be offended but don’t tell him I said that…” and so on and so on.
Shawn loved to talk. And he was hilarious. My NJ State Team teammate (and best friend) Lloyd Osafo and I found him to be entertaining and constantly asked him questions which he was more than happy to answer. He used words, like “beast”, which we had never heard before used in the context that he used them. So for about 90% of that trip, Shawn Kuykendall was in our ears talking about how “beast” and “crucial” things in life were. Oh, they’re serving mac and cheese today? “That’s crucial!” Oh, you’re wearing those new Diadora cleats? “Those are so beast!” Shawn was the center of attention at all times when he was in the room, and for a quiet kid like me (I have changed much since then), it was a sense of relief to know there was one kid brave enough to break the ice within the group and help bring us together.
But not everyone always enjoyed Shawn’s humor and constant talking. Being that he was extremely witty yet was still almost a foot shorter than everyone else, some of the guys would resort to physical threats to counter his witty remarks. I will never forget one night in Brazil when at 4 AM I was woken up by some sort of verbal confrontation Shawn was having with one of our teammates.
I had no idea how it all began, but I will never forget how it ended as it was the first time I witnessed someone who was willing to die for his faith. Anyone that knew Shawn Kuykendall knows what a devout Christian he was. So at the ripe age of 14 when Shawn was threatened with the words, “I’m going to kick your ass”, he responded with “Well, I’m going to pray for you.” I remember perking up in my bunk bed wondering what Shawn was trying to accomplish. As our teammate became even more aggressive by saying he wasn’t religious and he was going to kill Shawn, Shawn calmly started rehearsing quotes from the Bible about faith, forgiveness, and death. It blew my mind. Some of my teammates and I eventually jumped in and told the two of them to shut up and go to sleep, but Shawn’s actions that night never left me.
Truth is, I didn’t see Shawn for about five years after that trip to Brazil. Being that he was one of the most technically sound players in the country, the rumor had it that he hit a huge growth spurt and couldn’t quite play the way he used to. I got called in to the Regional Team and National Team the following year, but Shawn was nowhere to be found. The worst thing that could happen to a youth player in the ODP system had happened to Shawn – he had fallen off the radar. I remember always asking the Virginia state team players about Shawn because I had taken a liking to him like he was a little brother. They said he was still pulling the strings for their Braddock Road national championship club team, but that he was tall and lanky now and not quite the same. And unfortunately in our soccer world, once you fall off the radar, chances are you will slip through the cracks and no one is going to see you on a competitive field ever again.
So in the year 2000, when I saw the name “Kuykendall“ written on our University of Virginia locker room board during the pregame scouting report, I lit up. I couldn’t wait to see the little guy who was like a little brother to me in Brazil. I had felt extremely sorry for him that he was no longer a part of the national team program because I knew how much it meant to him and how hard he had worked. Then, minutes into our game against American University, I stopped feeling bad for him.
Shawn was a beast (he would love that I’m using this term) standing at almost 6 feet, delivering crunching tackles, and leading the AU midfield. My UVA team won in a hard-fought match and I remember catching up with Shawn afterwards. As intimidating as his presence was, he was still the same 4’ 11” kind-hearted center of attention that he was when he was a 14-year-old. Over the next few years we spoke about all the adversity he had gone through and how he basically had to change how he played the game in order to become successful again. It was a complete transformation from the little midfielder who pulled the strings in the center of the field and shied away from physical contact. He had to reinvent himself.
In 2005, when Shawn was drafted by D.C. United in the MLS Supplemental Draft, I was as proud of him as anybody. To me, his story was incredible – for a guy who was considered the top talent in the nation at 13, then an afterthought at 15, and worked his way to rise above all the naysayers to become a professional at his craft – was truly inspiring. We shared a locker room for two years at D.C. United, and I have many stories I can tell about Shawn that will make you cry with laughter. Between strategically swapping jerseys with Frank Lampard after our match vs Chelsea, ping pong battles in the players’ lounge, his imitations on rookie night, YouTube home videos with this family, and breaking out random dance moves like the “Chi-town Shuffle”, Shawn had that certain it-factor that would leave an imprint on anyone that spent time with him.
Aside from his comedic side though, he was an honest worker and a fantastic teammate. And he was an even better friend – always willing to hang out or talk about whatever was on someone’s mind or debate about his beliefs on life and soccer. He even took me to my first non-denominational church, Reston Bible Church, and introduced me to everyone there the same as he had when I walked into the dorm room in Brazil at age 14. I am forever grateful for witnessing how he lived his life.
As Shawn was traded to New York Red Bulls in 2006 and we went our separate ways, he was still always quick to send me a text of support through the good times and the bad throughout my career. Whether I scored a “bombasso golazo” he saw on TV or went down injured because of a concussion, Shawn remained a true friend. Even when at times I didn’t respond, he never took it personally. He would just make a joke about it and call me out the next time, rather than holding a grudge.
Shawn was persistent and he saw the good in people, and chose not to be bothered by the baggage people oftentimes unknowingly carry around with them. So when our paths crossed again in 2010, again on the field at the University of Virginia, this time both of us as volunteer assistant coaches for our respected alma maters, I was happy to see that our friendship had survived the test of time. Between my pre-professional soccer and post-professional soccer life, you learn that there are very few people who you remain in contact with. Shawn was one of those few people for me. And in typical fashion, the first thing he said to me when we saw each other at UVA was, “Wowww, looks like you are way too cool to follow me on Twitter! I tweet you all the time and I get NO love. What’s the dealio with that Esky?”
Shawn was also joking around with me when he called me to tell me he had cancer. In typical fashion, he started laughing and said, “This would only happen to me, right?” and talked about how it was a rare minor issue that wouldn’t take long to fix. Except it wasn’t, and it didn’t. Throughout the last 8 months, Shawn continued to share Snapchats of selfies he took while at the hospital or getting treatment. In September I had lunch with another former D.C. United teammate, Nick Van Sicklen, who bluntly told me: “Esky, Shawn keeps joking about this with us but I did my research and there is a legit possibility he might die.”
I refused to believe it. There was no way. After every conversation I had with Shawn over the last 8 months, I got off the phone feeling positive about his chances for recovery and beating cancer. That is, until our last phone conversation.
When I asked Shawn how he was feeling and what he was going through, he kept finishing his responses with “… and just know that Jesus loves you.” I had an instant flashback to when we were 14-years-old, and when faced with the threat of death, Shawn began reciting those Bible verses and relying on his faith. That was the essence of Shawn. He served such a greater purpose that sometimes no one could understand where he drew his strength. He seemed calm and at peace, willing to fight every step of the way knowing in the back of his mind that he had already served his purpose. I knew things were serious and that there was nothing any of us could do. Suddenly he stopped responding to texts and calls. And then suddenly, he was gone.
Shawn has touched so many lives over the years that I am sure there will be thousands of tributes from people who can share even more amazing stories about him (including this fantastic one by Mike Foss).
Though he was taken from us far too soon, his legacy will always live on. When I began writing this, I thought about trying to list the countless things I will miss most about Shawn. But I don’t have to, because I have no doubt in my mind that he will continue to pop up again in my life, call me out, make me smile, and remind me what the right way to live is. You have set the bar incredibly high, my friend. We will miss you.