Backline: Duke's John Kerr Jr. Taps Unique Experiences

John Kerr Jr. has all sorts of wonderful soccer memories from his childhood, such as scoring a goal in front of 100,000 fans at age 7 and hanging out with Pele at age 10.

But the experiences he finds most useful as a coach are from his later years.

He played his first U.S. national team game at age 19 and his last one at age 30. He played at every level of pro soccer in the USA and England, plus stints in Northern Ireland, France and Canada. He won the Hermann Trophy in 1986, the year he captained Duke to the university's first national title.

Kerr Jr., 43, has returned to Duke as head coach, succeeding John Rennie, who retired after 29 seasons.

Of the wide array of experiences he has to draw on, the tough times he says can be the most useful.

"Things that weren't pleasant at the time are valuable now," says Kerr Jr., who embarked on his pro career when opportunities were scant for American players. "Going through the rough times gives me perspective that helps me to better communicate with players when they face challenges."

When Kerr played for Linfield of Northern Ireland, the opposing team's fan section loudly chanted, "If you hate the Yankee bastard, clap your hands!" (to the tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It").

"At least they knew who I was," says Kerr Jr.

What stung more was when his team's fans did the jeering.

"At Millwall, we were taking the field and the PA named the starting lineup," says Kerr Jr. "When they came to my name, 15,000 people booed. That's tough to take. It's not fun. But when things were going well, they really supported you. They were passionate fans."

When he was in good form, a stadium full of home fans would chant his name. At Portsmouth, when in the 1987-88 season he became the first American product to play in what is now known as the English Premier League, fans greeted him with a friendly "Johnny Kerr" tune when he warmed up.

His time with Portsmouth's first team was short-lived and he was loaned to lower division Peterborough United. He also played for Wycombe Wanderers and Walsall, and had his longest England stint with second-tier Millwall in 1992-94 where his teammates included goalkeeper Kasey Keller and childhood friend Bruce Murray.

With Murray, Kerr Jr. had won U-16 and U-19 (McGuire Cup) national titles with Maryland club Montgomery United, whose coach was Murray's father Gordon, a transplanted Scot like John Kerr Sr.

Sandwiched between Kerr Sr.'s eight NASL seasons was a stint with Club America. Kerr Jr. played on the Mexico City club's youngest boys team, which is how he ended up on the Azteca Stadium field at such a young age.

"They let the little whippersnappers play at halftime," says Kerr Jr. "It was amazing. I scored a goal, heard the fans and ran around like I scored in a World Cup."

When Kerr Sr. returned to the NASL he rejoined the Cosmos and played with Pele. When the Cosmos sent players into the community to popularize the sport by holding clinics, Kerr Sr. brought his son along to demonstrate skills. "If this little guy can do it, so can you," he would tell the crowd.

The five English clubs Kerr Jr. played for covered all the English pro tiers. In the USA, he won a U.S. Amateur Cup with the Montgomery Spartans, played for the ASL's Washington Stars, the indoor San Diego Sockers, and MLS teams New England and FC Dallas in the league's first two seasons. He finished his playing career with the Boston Bulldogs as player/coach before taking the helm at Harvard. After nine years with the Crimson, Kerr Jr., who also served as the director of coaching on the youth club Boston Bolts, returned to his alma mater.

"Duke is the only job I would leave Harvard for," says Kerr, who's charged with doing for the Blue Devils what he did as a player: win a national title.

(This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

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