NEW LONDON, Conn. — The simple act of putting on a Coast Guard Academy soccer uniform is a source of inspiration for senior Greg Kennerley.
Kennerley was chosen to wear No. 12 this fall as a tribute to Thomas Cameron, who died in a helicopter accident during a training flight in Alabama in late February.
He tries to play with the same passion and intensity as Cameron, a former Coast Guard assistant coach and four-year soccer team member.
"It was absolutely an honor, and still is," said Kennerley of his reaction when informed last spring that he'd be the first recipient of Cameron's No. 12. "It is very special."
It is fitting that Kennerley was selected for the honor.
A two-year captain, Kennerley is one of only three seniors on the roster. During his freshman year, he grew close to Cameron who returned to the academy during a break before flight school to serve as an assistant coach in 2009.
Cameron helped Kennerley navigate a trying first year at the academy.
"He was definitely somebody that I looked up to as a mentor and somebody that I went to if I had any academic issues and any problems militarily," Kennerley said.
"When I came down to the soccer field, he was always the guy to get me pumped before games. He'd always get in my head and tell me I had to be the leader out there."
"He left an impression on him," coach Chris Parsons said.
Parsons came up with the memorable way to honor his friend after attending services for Cameron in Portland, Ore. About 35 former players were in attendance.
He wanted to keep Cameron's memory and spirit alive every season.
"In those situations, people start talking about a lot of different things with grandiose ideas," Parsons said. "In reality, I think you have to go with what you know you can get accomplished.
"You always hear, retire this number and retire that number. The way I look at it, 10 years from now are they really going to remember why a number is retired if they can't relate to it?
"Everything that he was in terms as a player, he was just hard work, determination and passion — all those things that you look for in your players — I thought the best way to honor him is to have people strive to be that.
"This year was kind of natural that Greg would be it."
Kennerley felt Cameron's presence at the home opener on Sept. 8 against Merchant Marine. During an emotional pregame ceremony, Parsons announced that the program would pay tribute to Cameron by having an upperclassman wear his number each season.
What happened next the Bears will never forget.
Kennerley, a starting defender, scored two goals, including the go-ahead goal off a penalty kick, to lead the Bears to a 3-1 win. It was Coast Guard's first win over Merchant Marine since 1999, after going 0-11-1 in the last 12 meetings.
"He was definitely with me throughout that entire game," Kennerley said. "I don't score too many goals. When I stepped up to take the penalty kick, I just said to myself, 'Thomas, if there is a moment that I need you to be with me it's right now.'
"That was special. It was an unbelievable experience."
Coast Guard is enjoying a magical season so far. A season after failing to qualify for the New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference tournament, the Bears (7-3-1, 3-0-1) reside in first place.
Kennerley and sophomore goalie Richie Burns are anchoring a defense that has allowed just one goal in the last five games.
Coast Guard continues to honor Cameron, who led the Bears to the ECAC championship in 2008.
"We always say, 'honor Number 12…,' " Kennerley said. "It's always in our minds every game. We always play for him. If we need any inspiration, we always look to that."