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Oct 25, 2008

Jerome's motivation is his family

There is silence. Did Kareen Jerome hang up?

Then there is breathing on the phone, and it's apparent Jerome is struggling for the words to answer the question: How does that make you feel?

A few seconds earlier, a reporter told Kareen something her son, Stefan, told him during an interview the evening before. Something he's never told his beloved mother before.

Stefan Jerome, a rising star with the U.S. national U-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla., wants to be a superstar someday. But this dream isn't all about him.

"My family, that's basically who I'm playing for," Jerome said. "My dad, my mom, my brothers, I want to let everyone know that I want to make it for them. Everything I do is for them."

Told what motivates her son, Kareen, on the phone in Pembroke Pines, Fla., begins to weep. "What he said is wonderful," she said. "Stefan is such a wonderful person. He saw how we suffered."

Jerome, a striker with sprinter-like speed, says he hopes to bring his game to Europe after next summer's U-17 World Cup in Nigeria. He says teams like Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen and Newcastle United have inquired about his services. But they will have to wait.

"My plan is to hold off until after the World Cup," says Jerome, 16."I want to see if I can get better offers. Right now, I'm just going to see what happens."

And when he does land that deal, likely a youth contract, it will be a wonderful day in the Jerome house. Still, something will be missing: his father, Joseph Jerome.

Joseph Jerome introduced his rambunctious boys -- Stefan; Christian, 21; and Fabrice, 19 -- to soccer before they could walk. Joseph loved the game (he played goalkeeper growing up in Haiti) and talked about it all the time. Then came that day: Nov. 3, 2001.

Joseph brought his sons to a soccer game in Pembroke Pines and helped work the concession stand. There he collapsed, dead of a heart attack at 49.

He had been complaining about chest pains for a few days. He had thought it was acid reflux, and had set up an appointment with a cardiologist for the following week.

According to Kareen, all three of her sons, in tears, rushed to their father's side. But they still wanted to finish their game -- for dad. Joseph Jerome was buried the next Saturday. One day later, the Jerome boys played soccer as their mom, propped up by family members, watched tearfully from the sidelines.

"I was depressed for three years," said Kareen, who speaks of her late husband's smile, kindness, humor and love of food.

Kareen adds: "It took us a long time to get over it. Stefan was very young, and I didn't think that it affected him, but it does. I saw that he wrote on one of those sites, Facebook or MySpace, that his father was his hero. I was shocked."

Stefan Jerome is well-mannered and outgoing, even a little self-deprecating. He admits: "Sometimes people think I'm a little goofy. They don't think I have control of my [6-foot, 167-pound] body."

But a fire burns inside Jerome, and his dedication to his late father helps fuel it. He's a nice kid, but he will expose you on the pitch.

His ball skills continue to develop, but overwhelming speed is Jerome's game. He blows by defenders, and then it's just him and the keeper. Goal!

"If Stefan wants to go pro, he will do it," U.S. U-17 coach Wilmer Cabrera said. "He is so powerful and quick. He can dominate a player one-on-one. Stefan has all the tools to make a real difference on the field. He just has to keep working on his finishing."

Still, there are some Jerome detractors. Well, at least there were. This past summer, Jerome says, during a U.S. youth national team game against host Panama, a few opposing players laughed at him as he prepared to check in. That burned him.

However, he didn't let his frustration show. He simply showed the Panamanians up. Jerome blew by a defender and scored a goal in a 1-1 tie in the next game with Panama. The kids who had poked fun at Jerome didn't even look him in the eye.

"I showed them who I really am," said Jerome, who joined the residency program in August. "I made a few plays, and I still think they were underestimating me. It felt good to score. I actually think it was funny that they thought I couldn't play."

As the U-17 World Cup quickly approaches, along with, perhaps, a bidding war for Jerome, he works on finishing. He and Cabrera are also constantly working on developing his left foot. Cabrera, a former Colombian national player, has helped Jerome along well with his weaker foot.

And imagine how dangerous the Scud missile that is Stefan Jerome could be if he were a full-fledged two-footed player. However, Jerome's lessons in using his other foot run much deeper than the residency program.

When he was just a young boy, 5 or 6, his dad ran him through lefty drills in the backyard. Attentive and with a big smile on his face, Joseph had young Stefan juggle and pass the ball with his left foot over and over again.

Stefan Jerome said he will never forget those sessions.

"He was the first person to tell me I needed to be the total package," Jerome says. "Even now, when I'm working on left-footed drills during practice, I think about him. It's a huge motivation for me."

Justin Rodriguez covers USL, NCAA and youth soccer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the soccer writer for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., and can be reached at rodriguezespn@yahoo.com.

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