Roughly two days after Nick DeLeon became a playoff legend, the D.C. United midfielder was still at a loss for words. His goal in the 88th minute in the second leg of United's Eastern Conference semifinal matchup against the New York Red Bulls proved to be the series winner, yet the soft-spoken Phoenix, Ariz. native was still trying to wrap his head around all that transpired.
There was the Superstorm Sandy-induced venue change that resulted in DCU losing home field advantage. Then, the postponement of the second leg due to a snowstorm and finally, enough craziness in that rescheduled game to fill an entire postseason, culminating in his epic goal. DeLeon has since recorded another playoff tally, scoring against Houston in last weekend's 3-1 Eastern Conference final first leg defeat. But on this day, he was still basking in the upturn in fortunes for both himself and his team.
"Words don't do it justice," he said via telephone. "It's hard to explain, unbelievable for sure."
DeLeon's mother, Kristy, was a bit more verbose. Having returned to Phoenix after attending the match, she's spent considerable time watching the replay, including DeLeon’s manic celebration.
"I told him, 'Oh my gosh honey, I thought your head was going to explode, you looked like you didn't know what to do," she said in a phone interview. "He said, 'Mom, I wanted to rip my shirt off but it got stuck on my head. Then I didn't know what to do.' "
And so DeLeon finds himself living out his boyhood dream. By itself, this ranks as an immense accomplishment, something that few ever get to experience. But what makes his success even more compelling is that DeLeon is just 17 months removed from the absolute lowest moment in his life. It was during his junior year at the University of Louisville that police intercepted a UPS package addressed to DeLeon's house, one that happened to contain two-and-a-half pounds of marijuana. DeLeon and his two housemates were subsequently arrested for marijuana trafficking and possession of drug paraphernalia. After a stellar junior season that saw the Cardinals reach the final of the NCAA tournament, DeLeon seemed a lock to eventually play in MLS. Instead, he was looking at a possible fine of $10,000 and up to five years in prison.
"Honestly, I couldn't believe it," he said during a midseason interview. "I was devastated because I knew how close I was [to a pro career]. I just saw everything that I worked hard for get flushed out in one moment."
The ensuing investigation revealed that DeLeon's involvement consisted of knowledge of what was taking place and nothing more. A spokesman with the Jefferson County Attorney's Office confirmed that after successfully completing a pre-trial diversion program, the charges against DeLeon were ultimately dropped.
It was a dark period in DeLeon's life but one in which Louisville head coach Ken Lolla proved to be a critical ally. In the aftermath of the arrest, Lolla could easily have kicked his star midfielder off the team. Instead he stuck by his player, using the incident as a massive teachable moment. The fact that DeLeon admitted to his knowledge of what was taking place helped as well.
"We felt that was a big part of our responsibility here, not to simply dismiss it, but to one, hold [DeLeon] accountable to it, and then help him grow through it," said Lolla. "He was responsible and owned up to it as well. It was one of those things where he could have blamed others or made excuses. One of the reasons why we were going to help him through this was he owned up to it."
DeLeon added that Lolla was "there like a dad, he mentored me through it," and the player ended up more than repaying his coach's faith. By his own admission, DeLeon's training habits were not what they needed to be and with the incident now behind him, he rededicated himself to having a great senior season and getting his MLS aspirations back on track.
"It was hard, but I've got to say it was probably the biggest wakeup call I've had and also the biggest motivator to change my lifestyle, just the way I live, and my priorities," said DeLeon. "Even though it was probably one of my lowest points, you've just got to flip it to the best you can."
"As far as just my work ethic, before, I was a lazy guy. I don't know what it was. But [after the arrest], every day I set priorities. I've got soccer, school and that's all that mattered at that time, and I just put all my focus into that instead of procrastinating or going out to practice and not really caring. That's how it changed. I went out and started busting my butt every day and getting my schoolwork done."
DeLeon went on to tally six goals and six assists, helping to lead the Cardinals into the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. Based on those performances he was considered a shoe-in to be one of the top three picks in the MLS SuperDraft. But DeLeon injured his hamstring early during the MLS Combine; worse yet, there were whispers that DeLeon was not performing well in interviews with prospective clubs.
"I was just honest," said DeLeon. "I probably could have sold myself a little better."
But that honesty is precisely what appealed to D.C. United manager Ben Olsen, who remarked that such frankness "was all I was really looking for. But he's a great kid. He's a quiet kid, who you can tell really wants to make it and is willing to do the work it takes to be a very good professional player."
That said, the United brass was skeptical that DeLeon would be around by their first selection at No. 7. But DeLeon did fall that low and DCU didn't have to be asked twice about who they would take.
As it turned out, DeLeon became a professional in the same city where his father Leroy, a former Trinidad & Tobago international, had once performed back in the NASL days. And though the impulse is to think that Leroy had a massive influence, the elder DeLeon was not a steady presence in his son's life, especially after he and Kristy divorced when Nick was a freshman in high school.
And so it fell to DeLeon's mother, who also played the game, to support her son's soccer dreams. In addition to driving him and his sister Jessica to all their games, she served as an assistant coach on several of her son's teams. Given her love of the game, she didn't mind one bit.
"Nick sat in the car seat at my practices," she recalled. "He was pretty much on the field since he was conceived. I played until I was five months pregnant, so he was destined."
The road was far from smooth, however. Nick's talent was obvious from the start, so much so that people would often come up to Kristy and say, "There's something special about him." But Nick was one of the smaller kids on the field during his youth, and this lack of size saw him fail to seriously climb the youth soccer ladder.
DeLeon was finally spotted by Mario Sanchez, a coach who brought him into the Olympic Development Program [ODP] setup as well as to UNLV where Sanchez was then the head coach. When Sanchez left to become Lolla's assistant at Louisville in 2010, DeLeon followed. All the while, DeLeon grew into his body, including the broad shoulders that allowed him to finally compete on equal terms with physical opponents. When combined with his ability to take defenders one-on-one, his path to a professional career began to open up.
"There are some guys that have pretty good size but don’t play big," said Lolla. "Nick plays big. He's strong, he's powerful and yet he's very technical as well. That's the wonderful thing about Nick, I think he's the full package. He's explosive, he's got good feet, he has a good feel for the game and he's capable of playing in physical environments and not only surviving but doing well."
That combination of traits led United player/assistant Josh Wolff to call DeLeon "as MLS-ready as I've ever seen a player come in." And DeLeon proved it on the field early in his rookie year, tallying three goals and three assists in his first seven appearances.
Then came the dreaded rookie wall as DeLeon fatigued and eventually picked up a hamstring injury that slowed his progress. Even after he returned, his form was slow to come back but DeLeon leaned on veterans like Wolff, Dwayne De Rosario and now former teammate Danny Cruz to get him through that spell.
"Those guys have been in my ear every day; little tips, little things I could do here and there to improve my game," said DeLeon. "It was really everybody. But when I first got there Danny Cruz was a big part of it. It was more of a comfort thing. For some reason for me, it always takes me -- whatever level I’ve gone to, it was the same in college -- half a year to a year just to get fully acclimated. [Cruz] was just there for me when I needed someone to talk to." Gradually the midfielder regained his fitness and enjoyed a strong finish to the season, ending up with six goals and four assists.
"DeLeon has got his juice back, his explosion is back," said Olsen. "He's willing to take contact and put his stamp on the game a little bit more. His confidence on the ball, everything has just come back... And I don’t think he cares who he plays against, or how many people are in the stands, or if it’s a playoff game or a Wednesday night game. He plays hard, he wants to win, and he’s a competitive kid."
There's also been a reconciliation between father and son. Leroy has come to see Nick play on his old stomping grounds and is now in frequent contact, talking him through the rigors of being a pro.
"My Dad has just been a big mentor for me, to help put my mind at ease when I'm feeling stressed, so he's been a pretty big impact," said the younger DeLeon.
Now DeLeon finds himself peaking at precisely the right time. If not for his midseason lull, there might have been more Rookie of the Year buzz surrounding him but the United midfielder will gladly settle for the progress he's made, both on and off the field, over the course of the campaign.
"I'd have to say my speed of play has gotten a lot better. And my decision making, I'd say those are the two things that have really progressed over this first year. Mentally, just the day-in, day-out grind of going in and giving it everything you have in practice and games. I would say that's been a huge learning experience as well."
Just one of many for the D.C. United star in the making.