A rare privilege

The Kennedy family pose for a photo on the bleachers at StFX Stadium. (Photo courtesy Kim Crawford)
The Kennedy family pose for a photo on the bleachers at StFX Stadium. (Photo courtesy Kim Crawford)

by Alix Bruch

Hours after winning the 2016 Atlantic University Sport (AUS) women's soccer championship, St. Francis Xavier University player Catherine Kennedy did what you might expect a 19-year-old first-year university student to do: post on social media.

Beneath a photo of her holding the AUS trophy with Graham Kennedy, the head coach of the team, the caption read:

"When they said it would be hard to play varsity soccer for your dad, they didn't mention how awesome it would be to win a championship together."

As you may have already put together, Graham and Catherine Kennedy are father and daughter, and him coaching her at the university level is just as rare as you might think.

"I still scroll back to that post," says Graham. "I know how lucky I am to have been on this journey with her. Not many dads can say they've coached their daughter at university and won a championship."

To add to the rarity of it all, Graham is also the head coach of the men's soccer team at StFX where he coaches his son, Jack Kennedy.

"I forget sometimes that they're my kids when I'm coaching them," says Graham. "And that there's probably this aspect of being a player they both share that they feel they have to constantly prove themselves to everybody else."

Graham Kennedy (left) and Catherine Kennedy (right) after winning the 2016 Atlantic University Sport (AUS) women's soccer championship. (Submitted by Catherine Kennedy)

Graham describes Catherine as one of the most disciplined and competitive athletes he's ever coached. Not only is Catherine a leader and the starting right fullback for the soccer team, she's also on the StFX track and field team.

"She has high expectations for herself," says Graham. "From what she eats, to her training habits, to her sleep. It's no surprise to me that she is consistently getting the highest scores in fitness testing."

Catherine admits to being competitive, and says she enjoys participating in multiple sports, particularly having the opportunity to compete as a team and individually.

"I love playing on a team, but track is something that I've done and achieved by myself, and I love that," says Catherine. "What I achieve [in track] has completely to do with how hard I've worked and there's no one going to point a finger and say my success is because my dad's the coach. It's completely objective."

Though Jack doesn't play another sport, he shares similar sentiments to Catherine in that he prefers to separate his success on the field from the fact that his dad is the coach. Graham recalls when Jack was weighing his options for university and felt some hesitation to choose StFX.

"He was worried about two things," says Graham. "He was worried that I would play him because I'm his dad and he was worried that I wouldn't play him because I'm his dad."

As we know, Jack ended up choosing StFX and readily admits he can't imagine playing anywhere else. He is a conference all-star, and though he is a man of few words off the soccer field, his skill and work ethic speak volumes.

"I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it to be honest," says Jack. "Mostly I want people to know that I've succeeded and earned my spot in the starting 11 because I worked for it."

Jack Kennedy (left) and Catherine Kennedy (right) in action at StFX stadium. (Photos courtesy Tracey Jump)

More than soccer savvy 

After a full day of fitness testing and player-meetings, Graham unlocks his office door on the second floor of the Amelia Saputo Centre at StFX and steps inside.

"Hey, check this out," Graham says as he beelines to the large whiteboard that is the centrepiece of the wall.

The board contains a birds-eye view of two soccer fields side by side, one for the men's team and one for the women. Magnets with each player's name are neatly arranged on either side. On one field, 11 round blue magnets are spread out, representing players on his team.

Graham picks up a marker and begins drawing diamonds and triangles between the blue magnets. To the untrained eye, it might appear as a mediocre lesson in geometry. But to Graham, it is a peaceful moment where he can talk tactics and return to the heart of what he does.

"There's coaching men, there's coaching women, and then there's coaching Catherine and there's coaching Jack," says Graham as he puts the marker down and sits at his desk.

"Tactically or emotionally, I can't approach either of these teams or any of these players the same."

With practices and regular season games for both teams scheduled back-to-back, Graham is tasked with double the amount of planning and must quickly adapt his coaching and communication style to the team he is working with.

It's a job that few envy, even fewer can do successfully, and one that requires far more than just soccer savvy. Graham is experienced and ambitious, but he points to one person for being the reason he is still standing and that is his wife, Joanie Kennedy.

"I am not going to exaggerate here," says Graham. "Joanie is literally one in 1,000, probably one in 2,000. There's not a lot of people like her and I think we both just came to this conclusion that if she didn't get involved in my coaching life, she was never going to see me."

And get involved is exactly what Joanie did. As a mother, teacher, and someone who loves to help other people, Graham says Joanie already possesses a natural nurturing quality. She enjoys travelling on the bus with the teams, watching them play, and supporting the players off the field.

"I'm really fortunate to have married somebody with her kind of patience and tolerance," says Graham. "Because coaching can eat you alive. You shouldn't go into it unless you absolutely can't stay away from it. And believe it or not, Joanie's got soccer running through her veins now because she married me."

A bittersweet ending

The family of four sit together in Graham and Joanie's home on the outskirts of the town of Antigonish in rural Nova Scotia, reminiscing on the years spent together around the dinner table and on the soccer pitch. Joanie lets out an audible sigh, followed by a gentle smile, looking across the table at her children who have grown into young adults.

Graham and Joanie's home looks upon rolling farmland juxtaposed against the Northumberland Strait. With their busy schedules, the pair don't spend much time here, but when they do it is a welcome retreat.

The view from their old family home at the top of Hillcrest Street where the kids grew up is quite different, but perhaps equally as comforting.

"I have vivid memories looking out the kitchen window," says Joanie. "I could see the lights on the [soccer] field; I could hear the thump of the balls. Jack would be wolfing down his supper and he'd quickly throw on his gear and run out the door. Even if it was cold and raining, he would take off. I would watch him from the window as he cut through the backyard and ran to the field so he could be along the sidelines while the X-Men practiced."

This was when Jack was just a young boy, eager to get up close to the players he looked up to. He would travel to away games on the bus with the team and had the chance to sit-in on pre-game talks in the locker room.

"I still think about the very first time Jack played at StFX stadium," says Joanie. "It was the first time you all stepped on the pitch wearing StFX kits. I felt so proud."

A silence takes over the living room and a bittersweetness hangs in the air as the last two years play out in front of their eyes.

The 2020 season would have been Catherine's last year in a StFX jersey and Jack's third, but the COVID-19 pandemic put the entire league on hold. For Jack, he feels motivated and is looking ahead to next season where he will take on a leadership role with the team. Catherine on the other hand, is working through mixed emotions having lost her senior year to circumstances beyond her control.

"It's so anticlimactic," says Catherine. "When I choose to stop playing, that's me choosing to leave the sport. So, it's almost harder this way because it's not up to me. It's not like I have my last game to say goodbye."

What Catherine is conveying is that unlike the majority of university athletes, she isn't going to have a natural ending to her soccer career. The defender put on her StFX jersey at the Atlantic conference playoffs in 2019 without knowing that would be the last time she would step onto the field with her teammates.

"Graham had a sad little moment, or I guess an epiphany, when we realized that the seasons were canceled," says Joanie, who looks at Graham and gently touches his arm.

Graham nods.

"I've already coached Catherine's last game and didn't realize that was it," he says.

'Until it stops being fun'

Graham Kennedy has been the head coach of the StFX men's soccer team for 12 years and the head coach of the StFX women's soccer team for eight years. (Photo courtesy Tracey Jump)

The COVID-19 pandemic brought on a lot of 'what ifs' for everyone across the globe, including the Kennedy's. It is difficult to come to terms with losing a year of university, which is fleeting in and of itself.

The space away from the hectic university season, however, has offered Graham a rare opportunity to reflect and sit with the last 12 years of his coaching career at StFX.

"The hardest part of doing this job is knowing that I could do it a lot better if I had just one team," says Graham. "That's been the hardest thing for me to come to terms with because I know that I'm doing good work, but I'm not doing my best work. There's just not enough time."

He talks about the challenges of a modern-day coach in the university game including the pressure to fundraise, the counseling of players, the never-ending recruiting, and the managing of schedules.

"You have to be a chef who can do it all and cook anything that is asked of you," says Graham. 

"I believe that if you're going to be a good coach, you need to spend at least 30% of your time planning. But I think coaching has evolved in a way where we keep adding more and more on our plates without ever taking anything away."

Looking around his office, it's easy to tell that Graham has been busy at StFX. On one side, hidden behind the door, a bookshelf boasts awards he has accumulated over the years. On the other, a bulletin board is plastered with cards and letters from current and former players.

At the far end of the office beside the window hangs a framed drawing of two people and a ball, with the words 'playing soccer with daddy' sketched by none other than Jack Kennedy, age four. 

"I'm going to be really sad when I don't get to coach my kids anymore," says Graham. "I know there'll be a little bit of grieving. But I also know that I have such love for the game, and I love to compete so much that I'll keep going until it stops being fun."

Graham is now over 30 years into his coaching career and as a result, has accumulated a wealth of knowledge. It is feasible to say that he has seen almost everything there is to see in professional coaching, but he says coaching his own kids has been a wonderful and altogether unique experience.

"Over the years, I've learned that although my children may have come through me, they are not me," says Graham.

"And the best part of coaching your own children is, in a way, getting to see them out in the world. It's a rare privilege to compete with them and to experience the wins and losses together." 

Offering a different perspective, Joanie thinks about the hour leading up to the games, where she's often running around helping players, delivering snacks, and sometimes even getting cake for a post-game birthday celebration.

"When I finally get everything done, I go and sit by myself in the stands to watch the game," says Joanie. "And I just savour the moment I can see all of you playing the game you love. All of the people I love most in the world are right there on one field. It's just beautiful. I'll miss it."