The Carolina RailHawks soccer team debuted in 2007 as the Triangle’s latest pro-sports franchise with a well-traveled defender who had played for teams all over the country and in Ireland.
Kupono Low, who was born in Hawaii, was 28 then and scored the first goal in franchise history.
Today, he’s 36 and is known as “Mr. RailHawk,” the face of the Cary-based team.
This season will be his ninth with the North American Soccer League D2 franchise. The 5-foot-11, 170-pounder is the lone member remaining from the original 2007 team, and he doesn’t appear to be moving on anytime soon.
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“He’s an exceptional story,” said coach Colin Clarke, who gave Low the “Mr. RailHawk” nickname when Clarke was named the team’s third head coach.
Clarke is beginning his fourth year with the team. The RailHawks faced FC Edmonton in a club friendly on Saturday. The season officially begins with a home game at WakeMed Soccer Park this Saturday against Ottawa Fury FC.
“If you look around pro sports at any level, there aren’t that many guys who have been with one team as long as Kupono,” said Clarke, who has more say than anyone on how long Low remains on the roster. “He’s still a big part of our team, and he’s set down roots here.”
When Low first signed with the RailHawks, his habit was to keep his options open while chasing a dream of advancing his career to the Major League Soccer level.
“I’ve always had one-year contracts earlier in my career so as not to limit myself to a move I could make the next year,” he said. “I didn’t want to be held contractually. But I’m at the point in my career I’m happy playing at this level. We’ll see how this year goes and then talk about next year.”
But if Low decides to leave soccer by the end of the season, he’s not necessarily leaving town. He and his wife, Rebecca, have set down their strongest roots in Cary since they met in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was home on spring break from playing at Fresno State.
“That’s crept into my mind,” Low said about the idea of staying in the Triangle. “I like this area, and my family loves this area. I know my daughter won’t want to leave her school. This is somewhere we look to stay involved in the community, youth soccer and the RailHawks organization.”
Kupono and Rebecca have been together 13 years. They married nearly six years ago. They adopted a 3-year-old girl, Marina Moore, who is now 16 and a junior at Panther Creek High and participates on the dance team. Their other children are Kupono Jr., 4, and Makaio (Matthew in Hawaiian), 22 months. Both were born at Cary’s WakeMed Hospital.
Low has set himself up well to transition from a playing career to involvement in area youth soccer.
He started coaching a Triangle Football Club Alliance Under-9 team four years ago. He also began to work in the off-season with DreamSports Center, an indoor facility in Apex. Within DreamSports, he established a soccer school, True Football Academy. It’s a technical skills soccer school that includes some RailHawks teammates as instructors.
“That’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s something I can do after I’m done playing. (True Football Academy) is something I own and I am proud I started.”
It’s easy to trace how long he has remained involved coaching youth teams from his U9 team. He has stayed with them through their current U13 level, while also adding U12, U11, U10 and U9 teams.
Low said he has been able to continue playing professionally in the lower-paying divisions of the sport because of his wife’s support.
“That’s always been one of the huge things I love about her,” Low said. “One of the hard things about me continuing to play is she has had to make a lot of sacrifices.”
Rebecca Low says she doesn’t consider her support a sacrifice. After all, Kupono’s passion for playing is one of the reasons they’ve become established here.
“I’ve gone into this thinking I want him to do what he loves doing as long as he can,” Rebecca said. “I figure it is a privilege to be married to someone who loves what they do. A lot people are miserable at what they do.”
They also have been able to balance careers and raising a family, thanks to her job working at home as a sales representative for Rodan + Fields. The skincare company features an anti-aging cream, and while it won’t help Kupono’s on-field play, Rebecca told him it was necessary for the 2015 season.
“He’s been out in the sun for so long,” she said with a laugh. “His skin was starting to look like leather.”
But Low always has been aware of keeping his body in good condition. He says the secret is consistent year-round training rather than jump-starting conditioning with a grueling program at the beginning of the year.
“I stay in shape year-round and watch what I eat and drink,” he said. “If I have a lazy Sunday (in the off-season), I make sure I get in a good workout Monday. There is less stress on the body if you’re in good shape when the season starts.
“I feel fine physically,” he said. “I’ve always taken pride in being one of the fittest guys on the team so I can work hard in the games. I haven’t seen myself drop off yet.”
It’s somehow fitting for sports fans and movie buffs that Low’s career takes place in the Triangle. The 1988 movie “Bull Durham,” which was filmed in the Triangle, remains an iconic sports film about a 30-something athlete. The fictional “Crash” Davis played baseball for the Durham Bulls.
“It’s been a while since I’ve seen that movie,” said Low, “but you could say there are similarities.”
There is a crucial difference, though. Davis’ happy ending was leaving Durham for a new opportunity.
The Lows’ happy ending appears to be establishing a home in Cary.
For a schedule and ticket information, go to www.carolinarailhawks.com.
A Kupono Low brew
Just in time for this weekend’s season opener, the RailHawks announced that Kupono Captain’s Ale will be brewed in honor of longtime player and “Mr. RailHawk” Kupono Low.
The American Blonde Ale, brewed by Raleigh-based Lonerider Brewing Co., is described as light-bodied, clean and crisp and golden in color, according to a news release.
It will be poured at all home games at WakeMed Soccer Park as well as retail outlets.
To top it off, 10 percent of the proceeds from the beer sales will go to a charity of Low’s choosing. He picked the Cary-based Fill Your Bucket List Foundation, an organization that provides wishes to adults with cancer who are struggling financially.
“The Fill Your Bucket List Foundation sent a mother and her child last year on a cruise vacation to Puerto Rico,” Low said in a statement. “That was the foundation’s first charitable event, and being part of that experience felt wonderful.”