As can happen to many of us in this sport, Kei Kamara often finds that “business” and “pleasure” overlap when he and his family travel.
“You know, it's weird, in the offseason you take vacations, and I have my family tag along to what I've called vacation, but then it ends up being work,” the veteran striker told MLSsoccer.com with a laugh over the weekend.
In this case, Kamara is referring to the extended visit he, his wife Kristin and their three young children — Kierin, Kendrick and Kaelan — made to his native Sierra Leone over the winter. It’s the kind of trip that helps keep the kids in touch with their dad’s heritage and extended family – but also allowed them to deliver a large donation of soccer gear to young Sierra Leoneans in need, further the work of his HeartShapedHands Foundation and train with the national team as he continues his Leone Stars career despite being without a club employer at present.
“December was the most hectic, because we unloaded a 40-foot container of donated sports items. So we ended up just getting so busy in Sierra Leone for the whole month, just going around and doing soccer clinics and visiting schools and stuff,” said Kamara, who was named the 2015 MLS Works Humanitarian of the Year for his work alongside former MLSer Michael Lahoud on the Schools for Salone initiative.
“My family's very supportive, and I'm happy to bring my kids so that these kids, when I go around the country … they know it’s not just me, I’m willing to bring my family around them, showing that I'm all in, I want to help you guys and my kids are coming to get that experience too.”
His former team the Colorado Rapids, US-based youth clubs like Legends FC, Rush and others – along with a range of individual donors from across North America – chipped in lightly-used boots, kits and other gear that goes a long way in one of the world’s most impoverished nations. Kamara’s social media posts, including one particularly inspiring stop at a roadside pick-up game, made it easy to see both the great need and the enormous joy that such contributions can bring.
“Kendrick, my son, who loves soccer too much – more than me – he got to experience the African style of soccer, and my daughter came to me and goes, 'Daddy, how come the kids are not playing on grass?' Because it's all dirt fields,” said Kamara. “I’m like well, this is great, this is why I'm bringing you guys around, just to see the difference of what we do have in America.”
HeartShapedHands seeks to use sports as a force for progress, with a specific focus on addressing the obstacles to education in Sierra Leone, where primary public schooling is not free, limiting access to less than half the country’s eligible student population. For a nation with tribal and religious diversity and a bloody civil war fresh in the collective memory, anything that cultivates unity and tolerance is a welcome influence. On this trip Kei even got to spend time doing outreach work with the country's First Lady, Fatima Maada Bio, and outgoing US ambassador Maria Brewer.
“HeartShapedHands is really trying to make sure that these kids know the importance of school and sports at the same time,” explained Kamara, who emigrated to the US at age 14, a refugee from the war.
“Given the world right now, it's about really speaking about equality and all that. And it's not just about here [in the United States] but when it comes to our country, or comes to Africa, there’s tribalism and discrimination that go around those places,” he added. “We went around the country in different places, with people of different backgrounds and spoke different tribal languages to just bring in sports and education and say hey, we want to serve everyone, it’s not just one demographic of people that we want to serve in the country.”
"We're just waiting on phone calls"
For most of the past 15 years, Kamara has reported to an MLS training camp right about now. But not in 2021 – not yet, at least. He played out his contract last season with a short stint at Minnesota United following a September trade from Colorado, and now he’s a free agent with no firm offers as preseason gets underway around the league.
Kamara, who turned 36 in September, ranks fifth in the all-time career MLS scoring chart with 130 career regular-season goals and 47 assists, and has remained productive despite last year’s drop in minutes. A scorer for a record eight MLS clubs, he's one of the most fearsome aerial presences the league has ever seen and has shown a knack for mentoring younger players.
Whether it’s his age, his veteran salary scale (the most recent MLS Players Association documents place his annual guaranteed compensation levels between $750,000 and $1 million since 2016) or the general upheaval and belt-tightening caused by the pandemic, no one has stepped up yet.
“We don't have an offer or contract yet from anyone,” he said. “It's the first time, really in my career, that we’re just waiting on phone calls.”
Whatever happens on that front, he’ll be back on a pitch soon enough. Sierra Leone have Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers vs. Lesotho and Benin in the upcoming international window and Kamara could play a key role, having gone the full 90 in both of their November CAF ties vs. Nigeria. If he doesn’t join a club soon, he’ll jet back to Freetown to train with the national team staff.
“I’m looking forward because they're counting on me to go back and help them,” he said.
Besides, Kamara had already long since targeted a rare milestone: He wants to play until he’s 40. And given the trend of age-defying players like Chris Wondolowski, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo, it may not be as extreme a goal as it once might have seemed.
“I feel like I'm good, I'm fit,” he said. “Yeah, age is a number, but that doesn't affect me. I've just finished playing a bunch of 90-minute games a little over a year ago, so I'm healthy. Still want to keep going.”