“When I first changed to football it wasn’t exciting for me, I was taken away from something I loved, and that sucked.” It’s a startling admission from any professional footballer, let alone one at the very top of the global game. Recently voted the second best female player on the planet in a Guardian poll, Sam Kerr has enjoyed a meteoric rise in recent years, winning four consecutive golden boot awards across two continents.
But for almost half her 25 years, a future as a Ballon d’Or nominee never looked remotely likely. “I think I just have an AFL brain,” Kerr tells Guardian Australia on the eve of the World Cup in France. “Even now I haven’t been home for seven seasons but I still know all the players’ names. I don’t know how I remember that when I couldn’t even remember a maths test, but like that [snaps fingers], I can remember an AFL stat.”
The trademark somersault goal celebration that helped make Kerr a global brand ambassador might be showy, but off the pitch the quietly-spoken West Australian is less brash, in her manner and in her walk. A notorious joker inside the Matildas squad, Kerr has the ambling gait of the tomboy, the girl who played for years in boys’ Australian rules football teams, with an open smile and the self-deprecating air of one keenly aware of that pervasive Australian trait, the tall poppy syndrome.
To understand how Kerr nearly never became Matildas captain is to understand the twin pillars in her life: family and home. Born near the mouth of Western Australia’s Swan River, East Fremantle is the place Kerr will always carry with her. Watching the pelicans, and occasionally dolphins, glide up the Swan with only the big red cranes across the way in Port Fremantle breaking the summery idyll, it’s a quintessentially Sam Kerr place. And it’s a place steeped in AFL history.
“It’s something that’s ingrained in you, you grow up with it, so I didn’t know any different,” says Kerr, whose brother Daniel played for West Coast Eagles in the AFL. “I was always playing footy, my dad played, my brother played.”
While Donald Bradman spent thousands of hours as a child honing his technique hitting a golf ball against a backyard water tank with a stump, for Kerr it was a skillset completely unrelated to football that captured her early imagination. “Even before Daniel played, growing up it was how far can you handball a ball into a bucket, it was always a competition, snapping a ball round the hallway at home – it was just part of what we did,” she says.
“My first sporting hero was Ashley Sampi. I don’t know if you know him, he was a young Indigenous guy at the time, he was electric. He used to take screamers all the time, up on people’s backs, he’d take off from the back half and run all the way to the forward 50. He was a gun and I just used to love him.”
While a young Cristiano Ronaldo strapped weights to his calves to improve his foot-speed, Kerr tells of hours spent attempting to replicate some of Sampi’s famous speccies – bouncing up and off fitness balls to pluck imaginary marks from the air, to the roar of imaginary fans.
Kerr’s mother, Roxanne, and father, Roger, were stalwarts of the local footy club, Melville Junior. Kerr tells of school days followed by hurried car trips down the road to practice for her and her three siblings – a regimen that became instinctive, as natural as eating or sleeping.
The love for AFL began with her dad, somewhat of a trailblazer himself – a Calcutta-born convert to a game that was complete alien. A quick learner, Roger won his first WAFL premiership at 25 as part of a 109-game career across two states. Not that it was an easy path in the racially naïve Australia of the 1980s.
“My nanna has a Record [AFL match day program] where the title is: ‘Kerr serves curry’, which you know, is hilarious,” Kerr recalls dryly. “My dad was obviously good, he didn’t deal with a lot of racism, but I think it was tough back then for dark-skin players in the league. But him being Indian he kind of got away with not being racially targeted.”
It’s a motif that reoccurs in the Kerr family story – a young Anglo-Indian determined to make his mark in a foreign land, meeting any rebuffs with increased determination. And it was one such dead-end that drastically altered Kerr’s future. A star hiding in boy’s teams as the only girl found her path ending – the physical differences were becoming too pronounced, the game too rough, and eventually there was simply no team for the then 12-year-old to join.
“Being taken away from footy really sucked,” she says. “I was very good at it, I had good hand-eye co-ordination, my family was really embedded in the club, my brother played – everything was just easy for me. It hurt going from one of the better players, one of the most popular players. I just went from being at the top of my game, as much as you can as a kid, to going to the bottom moving to football. I didn’t know the rules, I didn’t know offside, I didn’t understand why no one would pass me the ball.”
More than just leaving AFL, it was a move away from the community in which the Kerr family had ensconced themselves and found inclusion. The mutual family friends from the club, the footy chat and backyard kickabouts – like so many Australian families the very fabric of their social existence was anchored in footy.
“It was challenging, my parents didn’t really understand football, my family didn’t really get the rules, so for them it was hard to come watch because they thought it was boring, which would frustrate me.”
Even half-a-lifetime later that frustration flashes in Kerr’s eyes – but it quickly cools into a steely set look. She met setback by knuckling down. In her first season in football she was by her own admission “total crap”, scoring just a few goals. Again the self-deprecation is abundant – state honours followed shortly, and just three years later Kerr became the youngest scorer in the W-League, was voted the players’ player of the year and made her national team debut, aged just 15 years and 150 days.
Still, the round-ball game failed to take root inside her heart. “I was always just doing it at the start because I was good enough, I never really loved it,” she says. “I always said when I was a kid I’d be retired by 21, which is insane. But that was just my plan – do it until I could and then walk away.”
But at 18 another major setback shifted Kerr’s thinking for good. A sickening ACL injury forced the rising star out of her sport, once again, yet during the time on the sidelines her love for football began to blossom.
“I think I was kind of rolling along, not really thinking about it,” she says. “But then when something gets taken away from you, you don’t really know what you have until it’s gone. It couldn’t have become more real, because I had 12 months out of the game and all I wanted to do after that was get back out onto the field.”
A move away from Fremantle, from family, from the ties and passions of childhood, followed. Sydney beckoned. Then football took her to New York, with the Western New York Flash as a teammate of the then peerless Abby Wambach. Face to face with the best in the world, Kerr’s abiding trait – her fierce determination – spurred her to raise her game once again. 67 goals in 109 games later, Kerr is the NWSL’s all-time leading goalsorer, surpassing even the greats of the world’s best national team.
After not only bouncing back from that life-altering ACL injury (and enduring two subsequent lengthy injury lay-offs), but actively blossoming, the steely determination that fires her is apparent. And while the sport she loves may have changed, the approach she brings to it is as rugged and fearless as ever.