Three-time U.S. Paralympian Josh McKinney announced his retirement from soccer on June 7. He finished with 81 goals in 124 games representing the United States.
Josh McKinney knew his exemplary, 19-year Paralympic soccer career was soon coming to a close, but he didn’t have an exact date in mind.
The tantalizing thought of hanging on until the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games danced in his head. Or maybe he’d just play one more season and walk away at the end of 2015.
The thought process was fluid — until it wasn't anymore, on June 7.
McKinney’s head and heart aligned on a manicured soccer pitch at Agapito Fernández Stadium in Barcelona, Spain. He had just helped the U.S. win 3-0 over Portugal in the ninth annual International Trophy of 7-a-Side Football.
He had a goal, felt good about his play and that’s when it clicked: He was ready to retire from his star career with the national team.
McKinney finishes with 81 goals in 124 games representing the United States, with three Paralympic Games appearances, and has served as the team’s captain since 2005. McKinney’s U.S. teammates honored him in his final game by all taping their wrists, a tradition the caption had been known for. The team went on to play one more game, a 1-1 draw with England, to finish second in the tournament.
“It just seemed like the perfect way, to go out on top, in a beautiful place in Barcelona, a place I love,” McKinney said. “I was so happy, and everybody on our team was happy for me. I go out feeling so proud and grateful for everything. I have been so honored to represent the U.S. I can’t put it into words.”
Born with cerebral palsy that affected the muscles on the right side of his body, McKinney took up soccer at age 4 to help aid in his development. Over his nearly two decades playing defense and midfield for the national team, McKinney has seen the game grow internationally. The level of play has grown more sophisticated, he said, and the global depth of competition annually intensifies.
“I tell people, the soccer we are playing today is on par with a Division I (college) team, and that is an amazing leap from when I started,” McKinney, who resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, said. “We have players who are capable of playing professionally, and that speaks to what is going on with the skill and talent level.”
The rigor of playing internationally and staying in shape to handle the demands ultimately led McKinney to retire now. Arthritis is starting to creep into his ankle, making maneuvering on the field increasingly more painful.
McKinney’s trademarks of hard work, analytical play and being a strong leader makes him special to U.S. Paralympic coach Stuart Sharp. McKinney and Sharp have a strong relationship, knowing each other as competitors, then coach-and-player and, now, as close friends.
“Along with high level of skill on the field, Josh’s commitment to the U.S. Paralympic soccer program has helped to ensure his long career at the top of the game,” Sharp said in an email to TeamUSA.org. “He dedicated his time away from camp to train hard and has always been willing to adjust his own life plans for the good of the team. To get to, and remain at, the top for over two decades takes a lot of sacrifice and Josh has always been willing to put the needs of his country in front of many of his own personal ambitions.
“His unselfish ways also are evident on the field, despite his (quiet) persona, Josh has always been first to stand up and be counted when the going got tough in games and always seemed to have that Midas touch to find a goal when the U.S really need one.”
McKinney, whose best Paralympic Games finish was fourth in 1996, sees himself staying part of the soccer world, working as a coach and running youth camps. And maybe, someday soon, he hopes to rejoin Sharp, working for the team he loves.
“Soccer has given me so much, everything over the past 19 years,” McKinney said. “This just feels right. I’ve gone so much farther in soccer than I ever dreamed.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for the New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.