Photo by Jamie Plain
Jimmy Vanover did not grow up playing soccer. In fact, when he got started in coaching and eventually refereeing, he had never played the game.
His oldest daughter Kayla, now 20, played soccer through her senior year in high school and started playing when she was 4 years old. His daughter Jesslyn, 11, plays for a travel team, and began her career as a soccer player at the age of 3.
What began as a way for Vanover to be there for his daughters as they played their sport, led to an entire community of local soccer players benefiting from his generosity.
“Kayla was playing in the rec league at Horse Fork Park. At this age, they basically chase a ball around for an hour and go home,” Vanover said. “By the time my daughter was 8 years old, I was saying that these coaches don’t know what they are doing.”
Vanover became a coach for his daughter’s team and fell in love with the sport.
“Soccer is pretty much my life now even though I never played,” Vanover said. “I started learning it by watching it on TV.”
Years later, he signed his daughter up for refereeing, never realizing how much this decision would impact his own life.
“I got to thinking that I was going to be there anyway, dropping her off and picking her up, that I might as well sign up to be a referee too and get paid for it,” Vanover said.
When his daughter decided refereeing wasn’t for her, Vanover kept going.
One season, as a way to reward some of the standout athletes from the age group he worked with, Vanover purchased Academy gift cards and distributed them as a “thank you” to several players for their hard work at the end of the season. This gesture by a referee impressed the parents.
“Jimmy cares about each and every kid he refs,” said Phil Kopcynski, who manages the referees for Daviess County youth Soccer Association at Horse Fork. “Over the course of a season he takes the time to know each kid’s name. He buys them trophies and gift cards and has even been known to take groups out to lunch.”
At the time, Vanover was contemplating retiring from refereeing so this was his way of giving back to the community before he hung up his whistle.
“That year, I kept track of who scored the most goals. I thought of awards like best goal of the year, never having to blow the whistle for them, good sportsmanship award, and most assists. I ended up not quitting and kept doing this every year,” Vanover said.
Though it isn’t always easy, Vanover finds it quite rewarding.
“I run somewhere between three to four miles a game,” Jimmy said, adding that he even hurt his knee last season. “I love watching soccer so that’s why I do it.”
Vanover hopes to see the sport continue to grow and flourish in this community, describing it as a sport that can sometimes get overlooked by football, basketball or baseball.
“Soccer is like the fourth biggest sport,” Vanover said. “We don’t have many Americans playing at the high level. The best athletes are sometimes playing the other three sports. Hopefully more people will find soccer.”
One of Vanover’s goals as a referee is to reward good sportsmanship and hard work, now donating the entire portion of what he earns as a ref by giving it back to the kids. That includes the gift cards and now championship rings for the season champion.
“Jimmy is a great example of the sense of community Owensboro has. We love our neighbors and he is the perfect example of that,” Kopcynski said.