Shawn Kuykendall, soccer standout, dies of cancer at 32

Former D.C. United player Shawn Kuykendall allowed The Post to document his struggle with a rare form of cancer in the fall 2013. He died early Tuesday morning at the age of 32. (Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

Even from a young age, Shawn Kuykendall had trouble sitting still. “Shawn was actually very easy as a child,” said his mother, Sherry, “until he started walking.”

What followed was a particularly active life: a standout soccer career at American University; stints with two Major League Soccer teams, including D.C. United; a coaching career that introduced the game to youths and helped talented college players refine their skills; and a vigorous, public battle against a rare cancer that rooted in his chest when he seemed to be in otherwise peak physical health.

Eight months after learning he had an incurable thymic cancer, Kuykendall died early Wednesday morning. He was 32.

His Christian faith grew stronger even as the cancer spread throughout his body.

Born in the Virginia suburbs, Kuykendall was the second oldest of five children. They were home-schooled by their mother, Sherry, and taught how to kick a soccer ball by their father, Kurt, who also played professional soccer in Washington and once even lined up alongside legendary player Pele.

“I just always remember having lots of fun. We did all kinds of stuff. We were very active,” Kurt said during Shawn’s cancer battle. “I’m self-employed, so we would go on the sailboat for a week; we’d go out in the woods, target shoot, we did all kinds of stuff. Just a fun-loving kid.”

His mother remembers the boys hunting with their father when they spotted a wild donkey.

“Shawn was standing on a fence. Kurt said, ‘Why don’t you jump on the donkey?’ ” Sherry recalled recently. “Shawn jumped on this wild donkey and then it started bucking and it threw him off. But he landed on his feet. He just had natural coordination. He was always very athletic.”

With a mom who played in recreational leagues and a father certified as a high-level coach, soccer was always around. While all five of the Kuykendall children played Division I soccer, on soccer fields all across the Washington area, Shawn’s talent and work ethic always seemed to stand out. He was an undersized midfielder who relied on his left foot and high soccer IQ to overcome physical limitations.

“He did it with smarts,” said Todd West, his head coach at American. “He was a guy you put on an MLS roster and even if he’s not starting, he still makes every training session better. He was the proverbial coach on the field.”

D.C. United drafted him in the fourth round of the 2005 supplemental draft. He played sparingly and was traded to the New York Red Bulls, where knee injuries derailed his career. He eventually returned to American as an assistant coach and most recently worked as the director of player development for Montgomery Soccer Inc., the governing body for one of the country’s largest youth soccer communities.

Though his professional career was brief, Kuykendall fostered many relationships, which became especially evident in recent months when news spread about his diagnosis and the tight-knit soccer community rallied around him.

United opened its season last week and players wore T-shirts during warm-ups featuring the phrase “#kuykenstrong.” Clarence Goodson, an Alexandria native who plays for the San Jose Earthquakes wore a similar T-shirt on the field following the U.S. men’s national team win over Panama in the Gold Cup final last summer, and that same week, a group of MLS all-stars, including Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry and Graham Zusi, wore #kuykenstrong T-shirts prior to a match with AS Roma.

Closer to home, coaches at American shaved their heads in a symbol of solidarity, and local youth teams and leagues staged fundraisers to support Kuykendall and his battle.

It wasn’t his soccer skills they’d miss most. Kuykendall’s outgoing personality was constantly on display. From private jokes to goofy videos he’d post on YouTube, Kuykendall was a natural entertainer who made sure everyone around him was enjoying themselves.

“At our family get-togethers, it would be most noticeable,” Kurt said, “because he's the loudest and he’s the most entertaining. He always keeps things lively, fresh.”

Melanie Menditch met Kuykendall her first day as a student at American and forged a life-long friendship. She quickly came to realize how many others also counted Kuykendall as a close friend.

“He’s contagious,” Menditch said. “Everything about him made you feel special.”

Toward the end, as the pain and medication seemed to dictate so much, Kuykendall still did his best to maintain good spirits. He sang with friends a Britney Spears song word for word, held hands and prayed with his two brothers and complimented his mother’s good looks, noting with a smile “that if there was a lineup for looks and fashion, I’d still outrank you.”

In addition to his parents, Kuykendall is survived by brother Kristopher and his wife, Allison; brother Jason; sister Jamie Pino and her husband, Alex; and sister Sami Jo Mudrezow and her husband, Jake, as well as nieces and nephews Lily, Fiona, Emma and Xander.

A memorial service is tentatively scheduled for March 22.

Rick Maese is a sports features writer for The Washington Post.
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