You wouldn’t expect this from a footballer who made it to Major League Soccer (MLS), but for Jamaican-born Khari Stephenson ’04, it was education – not soccer – that always came first. Part of his attitude can be credited to his parents. Born to a mother with a Ph.D. and a father who was Jamaica’s consul general to Toronto and then ambassador to Cuba, it was hammered into Stephenson’s head from the get-go: “School’s the most important thing – and then football.”
But that’s not to say football wasn’t important. From elementary school, Stephenson was thrust into Jamaica’s highest levels of competition. His elementary school, Mona Prep, was known for being the best on the island, having won the championship for 12 consecutive years. The school has produced other professional footballers, such as Andy Williams, Omar Holness and Alex Blake ’03.
For high school, Stephenson attended Choate Rosemary Hall, a prestigious boarding school in Conneticut. At first, life 1600 miles away from home was hard. “I was calling home every day, saying, ‘Meet me at the airport. I’m coming home,’” Stephenson said.
When it came time to apply to college, Stephenson was drawn to Williams through a network of Jamaican footballers who had become Ephs, including Blake, Josef Powell ’02 and Marc Williams ’02. “We had that familiarity with playing with each other since [age] eight, nine, ten,” Stephenson said.
“It was a very unique situation,” he continued. “We weren’t just friends – we grew up together.”
With his choice made, Stephenson arrived in Williamstown in August of 2000. Stephenson has always been interested in math. “Math always came super easy to me,” he said. In grade school in Jamaica, he had taken a class in accounting. At the suggestion of a helpful teacher, he set his eyes on a career as an actuary.
To Stephenson’s dismay, the College didn’t have an actuarial program set up. So he settled on the next best thing as his major: economics. “I wanted to understand the real world,” he said. To that end, Stephenson also took a number of classes in psychology, almost enough to consider a double major.
On the pitch, Stephenson joined the Ephs as a midfielder. By the time he graduated, Stephenson had scored enough goals (40) to place fifth in Williams’s all-time men’s records and had accumulated enough total points (96) for fourth. Asked about his most memorable game, he recalled a tournament match against Colby in his first year. Stephenson came off the bench and scored three goals, tying the record for most goals scored in one game. “As a rookie, it was a real proving movement for me,” he said.
Stephenson was one of the few Div. III college athletes invited to the MLS pre-draft combine. “At the combine, at first they were like, ‘Who? Where’s he from? William and Mary?’” he said.
However, Stephenson quickly put himself on the radar. “I was big – six foot two, I could jump, I could score,” he said. After impressing in a number of exhibition games, Stephenson was selected 27th overall by the Chicago Fire in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft.
In the MLS, getting drafted by a team doesn’t guarantee a roster spot in the same way it does in leagues like the NBA. All it means is first right of refusal. Stephenson’s rights were traded to the Kansas City Wizards, where he was offered a contract. He came off the bench but didn’t get much playing time, logging only 44 minutes over three games.
In September 2004, Stephenson went home to play in exhibition matches for the Jamaican national team. There, he impressed once again. After another solid performance for the national team in the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup, he emerged as one of the best players on the team.
When he returned to Kansas City in time for the playoffs, Stephenson’s playing time increased. After having come off the bench for the entire season and logging only 44 minutes over three games, Stephenson became an instrumental piece in the Wizards’ championship push. The team made it all the way to the MLS Cup. Stephenson was the first rookie or developmental player in MLS history to start in the final.
Stephenson would play in Scandinavia the following season for Swedish teams GAIS and AIK and then for Norway’s Aalesunds FK, where he was joined by Demar Phillips, another Jamaican teammate. Stephenson returned to the MLS in 2010. He last played for the San Jose Earthquakes in 2015.
After relaying all this information, Stephenson was quick to point out, “I still haven’t officially retired.” Whether he continues to play professionally or not, Stephenson has made his mark at every level of soccer he has played at.