PELHAM — Your eyes are immediately drawn to his bright pink Mohawk.
The neon hairdo glows atop Harley Kearney’s head like a road flair, seemingly visible from a mile away. He sports it to support breast cancer research, but he admits it’s also because, “I like to be a little weird.”
You next notice Kearney’s slight build. At approximately 5-foot-8 and 130 pounds, wearing a loud orange tank top, he looks as if a strong breeze could push the Pelham High senior into the trees that sit next to the school’s practice field.
But then Kearney kicks the ball, with a loud bang that causes spectators at a neighboring practice to duck at the sound. Suddenly the unique hair style is forgotten.
“When it kicks the ball, it FLIES,” said Pythons football coach Ryan Clark. “He has a boot.”
It could have been good enough for Kearney to be the most prolific scorer in Pelham soccer history. He had already set the school’s single-season record for goals (22) a year ago, a mark he has already broken this season.
But the opportunity to challenge himself, to go beyond the sport he has starred in his whole life, was just too enticing
So, this season in addition to his work on the soccer field, Kearney went out for football and won the job as Pelham High’s placekicker.
This fall, he is splitting his time booting extra points — a perfect 17 for 17 — and kickoffs for the Pythons football team that has surged to a 4-0 record, an showing his skills as the area’s most dynamic scorer with 26 goals for the 4-8 soccer team.
“It’s been pretty great,” said Kearney, who is allowed to play the two sports under NHIAA rules. The MIAA limits an athlete to one sport per season.
“It’s pretty fun and very emotional. It feels great to contribute to both teams. The balls are really different, but the technique is pretty similar. You have to hit it right and it will fly.”
On the pitch
Growing up, soccer was a way of life around the Kearney household. Harley’s father Bill played soccer first in high school in Maryland then in college at Frostburg State. After the family moved to Pelham, older brother Zach then starred for the Pythons.
“It was all about soccer my whole life,” said Harley. “My dad was a goalie, but he always wanted me to be a scorer. I spent hours and hours shooting on him in the backyard, mostly (penalty kick) challenges. He used to win most of the time, but as he gets older I’m getting the better of him. But he always says he let me win.
“I was pretty good growing up. But when you are young it’s just about being fast. As you get older you have to start developing skills.”
Kearney broke onto the Pelham varsity team as a freshman, scoring two goals that season and 10 goals a year later playing midfield.
But it was last season when he truly made his mark. The junior forward tallied a school-record 22 goals, helping the Pythons go from three wins in 2011 to nine last year.
“It’s pretty amazing to have the school record,” said Kearney. “It’s all about speed, agility and having some good guys that can put the ball on your foot. A goal is like scoring a touchdown.”
On the gridiron
But even as he was setting a new standard at the school, a new challenge was peaking his interest.
During his junior year, Kearney began to explore the possibility of kicking for the football team.
“Coach Clark had heard about my soccer accomplishments,” said Kearney. “He heard I had a good foot. Near the end of last year he sent a few guys from the team down to watch me kick a few balls. It was good, but it wasn’t quite straight. I had always kicked footballs in my back yard.”
While the arrangement between the teams didn’t come to fruition last year, the two sides decided to explore it again this summer.
“I think we both went to each other at the same time,” said Clark. “Over the years we have talked about the idea of having a soccer player kick for us. Harley is probably the best player on the team, so we talked about it.
“I didn’t know if he was really going to go through with it, but once double sessions started he was right on board.”
First year boys soccer coach Matt Miller, and assistant for last year’s team, was supportive — but understandably worried.
“I was a little nervous he was going to go break himself,” said Miller with a laugh. “He came right to me and asked if it was OK. I told him that as long as he promised me he wouldn’t try to make a tackle and hurt himself, and as long as it didn’t interfere with soccer, I was fine with it.”
No one was more shocked than Kearney’s father and soccer inspiration.
“He asked me, ‘Why would you want to do that? You are so good at soccer. Why would you want to take the chance to get hurt?’” Harley said. “But he supported me.”
Kearney booted his first extra point in Pelham’s season-opening 7-0 nail-biter over Bow, and during that game took his first hit.
“On one kickoff they sent a guy to push me down,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘I’m nowhere near the play!’ I don’t prefer being hit, but I also play lacrosse so it’s not totally crazy. That also helped me get used to the equipment.”
The double duty certainly hasn’t slowed Kearney.
On the gridiron he has hit all 17 PATs he has attempted, including six in a win over Winnisquam, helping the Pythons to their unexpected 4-0 start.
Meanwhile on the pitch he has already broken his own school record, scoring 26 goals including six games of at least three goals including a five-goal day against Franklin.
“All my soccer guys love watching me in football,” said Kearney, who hopes to play soccer in college. “They cheer, ‘That’s my kicker!’ And the football players have embraced me. Hopefully, if they need that last point to put them over the edge and win a game, I can give it to them.”
The local football schedule continues to shift.
Haverhill will now be hosting Dracut on 2 p.m. on Saturday. The game was originally set for Friday.
Also, Timberlane will still be playing Friday at Nashua North, but the game has been moved to 4 p.m.
The Timberlane Football Boosters are looking for football alumni to line up along the field for the current players at the Oct. 25 game vs. Exeter on homecoming. There will also be a food drive to benefit the Owl’s Kitchen, a year round food pantry at Timberlane. Non-perishable items should be brought to the main gate. Kickoff is at 6:30 p.m.,
His little Harley
It’s been asked more times than Pelham football kicker/soccer star Harley Kearney can count.
Why did your parents name you Harley?
“When my mother became pregnant my father had wanted a Harley Davidson motorcycle,” said Kearney. “But he ended up having a kid instead and that messed up his plans. So my siblings kept saying, ‘He is your little Harley’ and they decided to call me Harley.”
For a video interview with Pelham’s Harley Kearney, along with highlights of him kicking, visit eagletribune.com/sports
Can’t be at a high school game? These reporters will be live tweeting from the following games on Friday:
Andover at Billerica
David Willis (@DWillisET)
Concord at Pinkerton
Hector Longo (@MVcreature)
Saugus at North Reading
Mike McMahon (@MikeMcMahonCHN)
Lawrence at North Andover
Bill Burt (@BurtTalksSports)
Timberlane at Nashua North, 4 p.m.;
Sanborn at Merrimack Valley, 6:30 p.m.
Pentucket at Masconomet, 7 p.m.
Andover at Billerica, 7 p.m.
Windham at Kennett, 7 p.m.
Concord at Pinkerton, 7 p.m.
Merrimack at Londonderry, 7 p.m.
Lowell at Central Catholic, 7 p.m.
Saugus at North Reading, 7 p.m.
Lawrence at North Andover, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 12
Greater Lawrence at Shawsheen Valley, 10:30 a.m.
Methuen at Tewksbury, 1:30 p.m.
Salem at Goffstown, 1:30 p.m.
Dracut at Haverhill, 2 p.m.
Lynnfield at Georgetown, 2 p.m.
Pelham at Epping, 2:30 p.m.
Rivers at Brooks, 2:30 p.m.
Phillips at Cushing Academy, 3 p.m.