By: Cullen McIntyre, Editor-in-Chief
If there is one thing that Jon Cross hopes to teach athletes, it’s that they’re more than a player. Cross is the assistant coach of the USM Men’s Soccer team, and is the co-founder of Kennedy Park FC (KPFC) in Portland. He is also a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor who has worked in telling his own story and helping students through their transitional years.
Cross also played soccer at USM, but in a unique way. In 2015, he was the first student-athlete in NCAA history to earn a medical waiver of eligibility for addiction. In his earlier years, Cross struggled with drug use, and became a heroin user. Because of this, Cross stopped playing the sport he loved and never actually had a collegiate career in soccer.
In 2014, he became sober. Since that time he has spoken at many colleges and universities about his experiences. Growing up, Cross lived in an era where scare tactics were the main use in teaching drug prevention. Someone would come to their school, tell them about a scary time when they used drugs, and that would hopefully make students afraid of using. For Cross and others, this wasn’t a reasonable method. “I saw we were continuing to do the same thing in schools, and yes I do use my story as a tool, but I want to teach them things that they can tangibly do such as mediation, yoga, routine and how to talk to your family,” he said.
He began Cross Wellness, where on his website crosswellness.com he states that the goal is to “introduce student athletes to meditation and yoga, while incorporating my personal experience and stories to demonstrate the beneficial changes that are possible over time. The goal is to potentially prevent future drug addiction, create peer bonds, and increase their general well-being as student athletes.”
This goal can be translated into his work as a coach at USM. Cross initially became an assistant coach before playing at USM, having emailed various local coaches in the area looking for a role, head coach Mike Keller was the only one that responded and gave him a chance. While coaching preseason, he found himself with an interesting chance at attempting to gain eligibility to play the game he loves again. “The idea took place on a whim. I heard of waivers, I had read up on them and one of them was medical waivers. When I did it, it was a complete chance,” he said. “I thought it was never going to happen.”
For Cross, the unthinkable happened. His first waiver was rejected, but with the support of Keller and those around him he resubmitted the waiver and was able to play for USM at the age of 27. “It was surreal, it felt like I was almost living someone else’s life. I was 27, but I felt like I was 18 again. My freshman year of college I didn’t even play soccer. To be on a team again was so different for me,” he said.
While it was one of the brightest moments, there was also a struggle at that time as well. His mother had become sick with cancer, and was battling it while he played that season. While soccer didn’t fully distract him, it became a light that his addiction would not dictate him as a person. “My life beyond addiction wasn’t going to be a curse. That season was more hope that my life wouldn’t be dictated by heroin and alcohol. That I was going to be more than a guy that had a big problem with addiction. That I could give back to the world and get a second chance at life. There’s a life beyond rehab,” Cross said.
Upon completion of his season at USM, Cross went on to work as the assistant coach at Saint Joseph’s College. His main reason to go there was to attain his master’s degree while working as the assistant coach, but actually found himself falling in love with coaching. “I always wanted to be involved and coach on the side, saying I’d do it on the side as a fun thing after I graduated. I thought my full-time career would be as a Drug and Alcohol Counselor, working in rehabs and with kids,” he said. “But when I went to Saint Joe’s to get my masters and assistant coach, when I started coaching it was so fun. That I could give back through the game and do the same stuff I’m doing but through soccer.”
His initial plan of getting his masters and moving on from coaching turned out to be that coaching was the role he wanted to stay in. But he had another place in mind as he wrapped up his master’s degree at Saint Joe’s, USM. “Everyone wonders why did I leave a national ranked team to come back to USM and help out, it was where it all started and I was always coming home,” he said. USM was the place that gave him a chance and returned to what felt like home for him.
It was full circle, and felt very important to Cross to come back to where it all began. From playing here to sharing special moments of his own, “senior day is next weekend for the guys, which was the last day I saw my mother walk was on my senior day. It’s a really important time of my life, and to be back to mentor and coach these kids is full circle,” he said. “I’m helping back the place that helped me alongside the guy that gave me a chance.”
This year, Cross and Keller have coached the Huskies to a 4-9-1 record. While the results on the field are important, Cross finds that coaching his players off the field is more important, “it’s cool to win games and score goals, but if you’ve learned nothing off the field then what am I doing,” he said. “I think that coaching a kid off the field about how to be on time, to treat his family, and to be a good student is important. After four years, it’s over. If all you’ve learned is on the field, I’ve failed.”
Off the field has found Cross in an important role as well, in 2020 he alongside his friend Hany Ramadan founded Kennedy Park FC, a place that united the community of Portland through the love of soccer. The idea came when Cross and Ramadan visited Los Angeles, CA and encountered Venice Beach Football Club, a place that Cross said, “it was music, it was fun, it was culture, and the game we love soccer. We have to do this when we go home.”
It was a slow start due to COVID-19, but eventually they acquired nets and had a game. Cross said that a picture was taken that day, they started a social media page, and it blew up. Kennedy Park FC grew from a plan of having 10-15 players out to have a game to a social media following of over 1,000 people, raising money through t-shirts to do a docu series on local athletes, and eventually a futsal court was built in Kennedy Park with help from the City of Portland.
For Cross, he doesn’t want to take credit for the players that have come through KPFC “We’re just crafting the skill they already had,” he said. He looks at Kennedy Park FC as a place to build a community and help hone the skills that these players have when they arrive.
This year KPFC has had players from Bowdoin College, Saint Joseph’s College, USM and all over come to play and be a part of the community.“It’s become a part of a family,” he said. That much was apparent at a recent USM Men’s Soccer match against Bowdoin College, where the sidelines were filled with shirts touting the “KPFC” logo.
Cross doesn’t see his role at KPFC being something that is long term, he knows that his role has an end date and eventually another young person in the community will take the job. For him, Kennedy Park FC is not owned by him, it’s owned by the community. For the community, it’s a place where soccer has become family, where sport has become home, and competition has become empowering through the beautiful game.