He did not forget. Ever.
No matter how far he got, no matter how high he climbed, he did not forget where he came from.
No matter how much money he made, or success he claimed, or respect he earned, a part of Steve Kiernan never changed: Inside the grown man remained the frightened, determined child. The child of alcoholic parents. The child of tough Bronx streets. The child who made much of little.
That is why the downtown businessman six years ago started the youth league. Soccer balls are only rarely sighted east of Main Street. This was a chance for kids to learn a sport, to find a place, to be part of something bigger than any one of them.
Kids who have the least need the most. Kiernan, CEO of Algonquin Studios, understood that, more than most shirt-and-tie executives. He time and again, over the years, looked in the eyes of the 600 pint-size players who have passed through the Buffalo Soccer Club. Time and again, he saw his younger self.
"That desire to give these kids an opportunity was very much part of who he was," said Tom Garigen, whom Kiernan hired to run the program.
Kiernan was a straight-ahead, eye-contact guy not afraid to take people on. That was especially true if he thought they were hurting needy kids.
The league's home field is evidence of the man's sensibility. The scaled-down soccer pitch at JFK Recreation Center on Hickory Street is there because Kiernan willed it. The league at the start was all dressed up, with no place to play. Permits from the city were predictably delayed. Red tape abounded.
Kiernan did not want the kids to lose a year to official inertia. He and Garigen spotted the open, grassy parcel at JFK. They chalked the lines. Kiernan bought the goals. They declared the program open for business. It has been there since.
"Steve was like, 'OK, now we have a field,'‚" recalled Garigen, who looks like an adult version of Tom Sawyer. "We just squatted there and claimed it."
When the weather changes, Garigen signs on college coaches and runs clinics at inner-city schools. All of it, including Garigen's full-time salary, comes — at Kiernan's insistence — out of Algonquin's corporate pockets. These kids do not, in most cases, have the money or connections to get to the sport. Kiernan brought the sport to them. To their schools. To their neighborhood. The kids get uniforms and cleats. Practices at JFK are twice a week. Games on Saturdays.
This is how Kiernan saw it: Soccer as a refuge. The playing field, an oasis.
"This gives these kids a break from daily life," he often said. "For the 90 minutes a day they are on the field, they have peace of mind."
Among the hundreds for whom the program has made a difference is Earl House. The single dad was looking for a sport where his son, Samuel Earl House, "could have fun and meet other kids." That was three years ago. Samuel, now 8, just signed up for another season.
"A lot of black kids in the community didn't know anything about soccer," House told me. "They saw this going on, and more and more signed up. Now we're getting kids from the West Side coming over here. My boy loves it."
It gets better.
"I'll be honest, we've got 12- and 13-year-olds selling weed on the corner," House said. "With this soccer now, we've got a lot of these kids interested in doing something other than that."
This was not the first time Kiernan fought for kids. Nine years ago he took on downtown power brokers and then-mayor Tony Masiello. They had blocked plans for a charter school in the AM&A's building. Kiernan thought needy kids were getting railroaded. He lost that fight, but the school — Enterprise — found another home.
"A lot of people have principles but are not willing to fight," Garigen said. "Steve was always willing to fight."
He fought, no matter what the cost. With salaries and expenses, the soccer program over the years has cost Kiernan and Algonquin, an Internet and software solutions company, upwards of $300,000. It is the price of doing something right.
Wednesday was a big day for the program. The Independent Health Foundation announced a $300,000 "Soccer for Success" grant. Part of it lets Buffalo Soccer Club open the door to more Buffalo school kids.
Garigen emailed Kiernan last month, when he heard about the grant. Kiernan's wife, Cathleen, told Garigen the news brought them tears of joy.
Kiernan died a week later, on April 14. He was 53. Even tough, principled guys do not get their way with pancreatic cancer.
Not that anything — aside from his conspicuous absence — will change.
"He actually threatened me on his deathbed to keep the program going," Garigen said.
The goals are up and the nets in place on the soccer pitch at JFK. The weather is breaking. Kids already are out there, laughing, running, losing themselves in the world's most popular sport. All because one man never lost touch with the scared, determined boy who lived inside.