Kass brothers bring family's soccer story full circle
By Matt Le Cren
Lyons Township’s 3-0 Senior Night victory over Reavis on Friday at Bennett Field was special for all 13 seniors who played their final regular season home game at the stadium.
But the event was particularly poignant for the Kass family, for which this season, and this sport, have allowed two sons to bring their clan full circle.
It is in many ways the quintessential American success story. John Kass, the well-known Chicago Tribune columnist and WLS radio host, grew up on the South Side of Chicago as the son of a Greek immigrant grocer.
To fit in, he embraced football and turned his back on soccer, the sport of his father’s native land.
But in recent years he has rediscovered “the beautiful game” thanks to his twin sons, Spiro and Peter, who chose it over football and have helped the Lions remain as one of the top programs in the area with a workmanlike ethos that makes their father proud.
Now John Kass is an ardent proponent of soccer, having written many columns about the game and his sons’ exploits. It was something he never would have dreamed of growing up.
“Mr. Kelly was from Ireland, Mr. Valdez was from Mexico and we were all living on 52nd and Peoria in the two-flats,” John recalled. “The Irish immigrant, the Mexican immigrant and the Greek immigrant are playing soccer and everyone else in the neighborhood is sitting on their porch drinking Hamm’s beer.
“Mr. Kelly calls us, ‘John, Paul, play with the feet,’ and I’m like, ‘Dad, I’m American. I wasn’t born in the village. We play with the head, we don’t play with the feet, Dad. We wear helmets.’ And I regret that forever.”
John Kass was merely doing all he could to assimilate into American culture through sports. He tried to instill his love of football in his sons and coached them in Little League baseball.
But he also let them try soccer when they were four years old, unknowingly laying the groundwork for a process in which the sons would educate the father.
Spiro and Peter have the size and speed to play football, but their dad realized that soccer was their true love one Sunday afternoon several years ago.
“One day we were watching Bears-Packers and we had the computer downstairs and they’re watching John Terry highlights on the computer during the Bears-Packers game,” John said. “So I figured they really liked this thing.
“They just love soccer so much. They love to run and you go with what they love. So they would explain things to me like, ‘We don’t want the parents to say anything on the sidelines because the parents are always three seconds late,’ so we don’t know what we’re saying.”
The twins began to get serious about soccer when they joined Lions Juniors at age 10. But it took them awhile to bring their dad up to speed on the nuances of the sport.
“I feel like he kind of started to understand what was actually going on, rather than from just a parent’s perspective, [when we were] in eighth grade,” Spiro said. “So when we were going into high school, he started to get it.”
The twins have always been quick to “get it.” Lyons Township coach Paul Labbato raves about their willingness to do anything that’s needed for the team.
The 6-2, 175-pound Peter has started at left fullback for the past two years while Spiro, who is 6-1, 180, has played a variety of roles in his three years on varsity. He primarily plays right fullback but often makes overlapping runs and has seen significant action at forward.
Both have one assist this season, with Spiro’s coming Friday when he set up fellow senior Frankie Kocimski on the game’s first goal.
“They both have contributed so much to the program and they’re just so focused,” Labbato said. “I feel like they really like the program and the team and the school. They’re just all for it. And not too often do you get kids who work so hard and have that skill.
“It’s a combination where they are hard to the ball and they give up their bodies freely, but they have the skill to be able to play the level that we ask them to play. It’s an odd combination of being that tough and that skillful all at the same time.”
All great programs need players who will sacrifice for the greater good, even if it means forgoing the limelight. The Kass boys rarely garner the media attention both deserve but neither seeks.
“On a different team in a different program they would be playing a lot of different positions, high-profile positions,” Labbato said. “And on this team they fit so well in what we need them for and that’s hard-nosed defense and quick to the attack.
“Spiro is probably a forward or center mid for programs around the state and a very good one and here we use him as a wingback getting up into the attack. And with Peter we use his defensive abilities. He does his job well and works hard. He listens very well to coaching and is in the right spaces at the right times.”
Despite their low-profile roles, the twins love what they do and cherish the chance to play for the Lions, who are 12-2-3 this season.
“It’s been great,” Peter said. “It’s everything for the team. I’m happy to be a part of this team because it’s probably the greatest team I’ve been a part of and I feel like we have a good chance [to go far] this year, so that’s what we’re shooting for.”
With the Kass brothers patrolling the back, the Lions have been hard to score on this fall. They have allowed 14 goals in 17 matches and have eight shutouts, four of which have come during their current five-game winning streak.
“I just feel like we get a lot of drive and energy for the team through the back and I feel like if we start winning balls and winning challenges, the whole team does it,” Peter said. “So it spreads around the team really good.”
In that respect, the twins’ talents are perfectly suited to the needs of the team. Both are speedy and have good ball skills, but there are subtle differences.
“I’d like to say I’m more of a workhorse,” Peter said. “I like getting down and dirty and I like making some challenges at the right moment and getting forward and providing help in the attack.”
“I feel like my speed is one of my strengths,” Spiro said. “But going up and down, either at right back or at center forward, it’s an opportunity to challenge a lot of defenses.”
Having a converted forward playing defense gives the Lions an added offensive threat that many teams lack. Spiro’s speed, especially on the wing, can quickly put pressure on an opponent when it least expects it. He made several runs against Reavis that nearly turned into goals.
Spiro was a forward when he joined the varsity as a sophomore and scored a goal in just his second game, allowing the Lions to tie Neuqua Valley 1-1. But LT went to a more defensive-oriented style soon after and his days of glory came to an end.
“We used to play a 3-5-2 but sophomore year we switched formations and Coach asked me to go to right back. I was kind of learning how to play that sophomore year and it’s kind of been my position ever since. It’s all for the team.”
That unselfish attitude has driven this senior class to unexpectedly good results. The Lions only lost six players to graduation, but most were big stars.
The Kass twins have joined Kocimski, Peter Nolan, Nick Jumic, Michael Andrews, Kevin Kokaska, Sam Contreras, Matt Murphy, Emilio Godinez, Pearman Clarke, Joe Lupano and Dustin Warf in forging a tight-knit squad.
Clarke scored LT’s second goal when he volleyed in a long throw-in from Kocimski. Junior Shunsuke Fujii, a foreign exchange student from Japan, scored the other goal.
“I feel like the chemistry was still there because we only lost six players,” Peter said. “Then I feel like the new guys came right in and we incorporated the chemistry again. I feel like we’ve got a good flow going.”
“Even though we [graduated] those guys that are really good, we’ve been playing together, our senior group, probably for 12 years,” Spiro noted. “So this is [what that has been] leading up to.”
For John Kass, those 12 years have gone by all too quickly and he’s not eager to see it end. Both brothers are unsure of whether they will play college soccer.
Spiro wants to major in accounting, which is not offered by many of the Division III schools for whom he could play, while Peter is considering Elmhurst, Concordia and Benedictine.
“They play for great coaches,” John said. “Kelly Neidig and Paul Labbato are great people and they care about all the boys.
“To watch my sons play soccer is to watch what they love to do, so I get to watch what they love to do and it gets me through [writing] four columns a week and a radio show. It’s my vacation from corrupt politicians and all that stuff.”
The irony of their father’s conversion to soccer fanatic is not lost on his sons.
“When he was growing up, my grandpa always wanted him to play soccer,” Spiro said.
“[My dad] thought it was un-American,” Peter added. “Now we’re kind of turning the tables.”