Kris Kahler laughed, leaned back in his chair and yelled, “No, that’s a family secret!” when the words came out of Juan Lopez’s mouth. Lopez doubled over in laughter immediately after he said it, later adding that he had been holding it in for too long.
A half-hour before, the two were goofing around posing for a picture, laughing as they rushed to change their silly poses before the camera clicked. All the while, the Waco High varsity soccer team played around in the background, dribbling the ball or passing between themselves.
While the two were joking around during the photo shoot, one thing was certain for Kahler — he had to have Lopez on his right side. In every photo Kahler has with Lopez, Lopez is always on his right. The Waco High varsity boys soccer head coach said he figured that meant that Lopez is his right-hand man.
In the office, Lopez pulled up one example — a picture of Kahler and himself together on a youth soccer team posing for their team photo. A few minutes later, Lopez exclaimed, “Dude, send that one to me,” when Kahler pulled up an old photo of the two of them sharing a lawn chair as kids at a soccer match.
While this is Lopez’s first season with Waco High as an assistant soccer coach, his history with Kahler goes much deeper, more than 30 years.
“That time flies by when you start looking back at old photos,” said Kahler, in his 11th year as Waco High’s head coach. “It’s just, he’s a huge, huge asset to this program as well as my other two assistant coaches. I’m very blessed and gracious to have him on my staff.”
Youth soccer beginnings
When Kahler said it, he imitated the accent of Lopez’s father. Growing up in Waco, Kahler doesn’t remember meeting that many Hispanics, so when he was first introduced to Lopez, Kahler distinctly recalls hearing a different accent for the first time.
And the words that voice said to Kahler’s father — who grew up in Rosebud-Lott, where no soccer teams existed — were instrumental to where Kahler, and even Lopez, are now.
“Kris is really good at soccer,” Kahler said, repeating the words of Lopez’s father. “His dad was singlehandedly the one who introduced soccer to my family. His dad told my dad that there are other sports besides baseball and basketball. He encouraged my dad to think outside the box.”
And that led to Kahler’s father making soccer nets because they couldn’t afford to buy them. His dad would sit outside in a lawn chair and roll the ball to Kahler for him to kick it.
Kahler and Lopez were put on the same team when they were four or five years old. They played together for five years before going their separate ways because of their one-year age difference. They would see each other around town as they grew older, but it wasn’t until they started officiated soccer together and playing in the men’s soccer league against each other that Kahler and Lopez started to rekindle their friendship.
“We never thought it would turn into this,” Kahler said. “We started playing soccer at a young age on the same team. Ever since then, fast-forward 30-some years and we’re standing right beside each other. It’s crazy. We joke about how old we’re getting.”
They both know exactly where they were. Lopez was waiting on the scores from his teacher certification test. It was seventh period. Lopez’s hands were shaking as he checked his phone for his scores.
“I let out an ‘Ahhhh,’” Lopez said. “The kids in the class started cheering. It was just a weight off my shoulders.”
Then he texted Kahler, who immediately found Waco High head football coach Marty Herbst and asked him if he could watch his class. When Herbst asked why, Kahler just took off running, which told Herbst that Lopez had passed his test.
“Well, gollee, congratulations Juan. I didn’t know you could run that fast,’” Kahler said, imitating Herbst. “I knew how much it meant to (Lopez) and all the stress he was going through. I know what he can bring to these kids. There are no limits for him, for us.”
Lopez never thought he’d be a high school teacher or a high school soccer coach. What started out as a bit of a joking conversation became more serious in late 2017. In its early phases, the conversation went a little something like: Why don’t you come up to Waco High and check it out? As it progressed, Lopez signed up for classes at Region 12 to get his certification so he could teach and coach at Waco High.
“At some point I realized how much I enjoyed coaching, not just on the field because there’s more to it,” Lopez said. “You are a parent sometimes or a counselor. You’re just someone to talk to. I was able to experience that in my club coaching and I liked it. It was much better than sitting in front of a desk all day every day.
“That’s when I figured out I could affect more kids, not just on the field or off, but in the classroom. I really enjoy it. It’s my first year here and it’s been a challenge to say the least, but I love it. I really do.”
Lopez coached a few of the current varsity players when they played club ball. But next year, he’s excited to work with the new freshmen as he coached most of them in their club days.
“It’s an awesome opportunity,” Lopez said. “I coached them for five years plus. Being able to see them next year, I’m on a roller coaster.”
Kahler wasn’t sure if he was Chip (Gaines) and Lopez was Joanna, or if Lopez was Chip and he was Joanna.
“Really, we’re a nice one-two punch for these kids,” Kahler said. “A lot of people are very fortunate to be influenced by the program ‘Fixer Upper.’”
And as Chip and Joanna go across the Waco area renovating real estate, leaving something better than they found it, that’s the same mindset that Kahler and Lopez have. They want to positively affect change in every kid that comes through the Waco High program.
It’s something special for Lopez and Kahler, not only coaching together but doing so in the town in which they grew up. Lopez said they both loved Waco before Waco was cool.
“I don’t think these kids realize how fortunate they are to have two adults from Waco that are successful, that are educated, that love the game as much as we do,” Kahler said. “Our hope is that they will group up, become successful men and come back and give us a hug and say, ‘Thank you.’ We pour every single ounce of every single thing into these kids.”