There is no place like home for TFC veteran Nick DeLeon who has been through personal hell for the past two seasons

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It seems fitting that Toronto FC midfielder Nick DeLeon is moving to Phoenix, the city named after the bird in Greek mythology that finds new life after being resurrected from its ashes.

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Now that he’s back in his hometown with his wife and two children, DeLeon feels like he can breathe again, that he can start living a normal – happy – life again.

“It’s so good to be back with them,” he said. “Oh my God. It was awesome.

Everyone in the world has been affected by COVID-19. The virus has caused so much pain to so many people and professional athletes, of course, are not immune. On TFC, a number of players have spoken about their struggles since the start of the pandemic. Guardian Quentin Westberg and members of his young family contracted the virus earlier this year and it was a hellish experience. Alejandro Pozuelo’s young family have stayed at home in Spain due to the pandemic and the star attacking midfielder has missed the birth of their third son. Pozuelo later told media that he and his wife Beatriz went their separate ways and it completely ruined his spirit and his season.

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And then there’s DeLeon. In March, the super utility player explained how he would refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19, even though most of his teammates would agree to be shot and his refusal meant missing some games due to travel restrictions. DeLeon’s family remained in the United States for the second year in a row, which nearly destroyed him. And then, under new coach Javier Perez, who replaced Chris Armas in July, his playing time plummeted. All of this plunged the athlete into a deep depression.

“No one will ever understand, ever understand, what everyday life was like for me (the past two years) and what I did on a daily basis, and the thoughts that crossed my mind,” DeLeon told The Toronto Sun from his Phoenix. residence. “No one will ever get it. They don’t need it either. They all struggle with their own s..t.

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DeLeon spent 2021 mentally and literally fleeing.

When the club were finally able to return to Toronto in July, after being forced to start the season in Orlando due to travel restrictions, DeLeon found himself constantly on the move. He couldn’t stay still.

“I lived in Orangeville for a few weeks, I was in Vaughan at some hotels for a week and a half, I was in an Airbnb right next to Downsview Park (the BMO training ground) for a while” , did he declare. “And then the last place I stayed was in Whitby in a cabin for two months. I first lived in a trailer for six weeks on this property, then moved to a cabin.

The 10-year MLS veteran, a professional athlete who walks to the beat of his own drummer, felt it was crucial to be away from people. Be alone.

“I didn’t know how to cope without my family,” he said. “I didn’t play a lot. My life as a footballer was bad. Being the competitor that I am, I want to be on the pitch. My football life was bad and I had nothing to come home to, so it felt like home life was bad.

“Usually one can balance the other,” DeLeon continued. “If you’re having a bad football day, you have your family to balance you out. If your family is driving you crazy, soccer is a place you can let go and be in the moment. But for the past year and a half, I felt like it was a double hit every day.

DeLeon appeared in 16 games for the TFC in 2021, the second fewest in his MLS career, while starting in five career games. Although his time with the TFC was brief (three seasons), DeLeon became a fan favorite and is best known in Toronto for his intense work ethic and winning goal, a howler, in a 2-1 victory. over Atlanta at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a victory that propelled TFC to the 2019 MLS Cup final.

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DeLeon said moving to the cabin north of Whitby, surrounded by nature, had kind of become his salvation.

“I was running away,” he admitted. “I needed to be alone where I could scream as loud as possible because I was so angry or frustrated and no one would judge me or hear me – or cry as much as I needed to let it all slip out. emotions being pushed back inside of me. I was going through some issues and the last 18 months has been a double negative. I was miserable at home (all alone), miserable at football. So I was at a point where I was trying to escape, pretty much. I wanted to get out and get away from everyone, away from people. And that was my goal. I would have gone further (away from Toronto), I just didn’t want to drive 3-4 hours a day.

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DeLeon said becoming close friends with the family who owned the cabin he stayed at – Rita and Durwin Shepard – was “a breath of fresh air”.

“I could just talk to them,” he said. “Nothing about sports, nothing about football, nothing about COVID. They are real people and we just got to know each other and it was so refreshing to be out of all this BS and to be out. new grounded and present. We have forged a relationship forever. The cabin started out as another Airbnb and little by little I got to know them and the next thing you know is that I eat with them and I go to auto shows with them. Rita took me horseback riding, I’ve never been horseback riding before. It was really cool. I think they felt my pain to miss my family, so they almost filled that void, they were like my family away from home.

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As for the “if I ever go back to Toronto” part, it’s pretty clear that DeLeon’s days as a member of the TFC are over. He’s a free agent and while he cherishes the 2019 season and the many friendships he’s made, DeLeon plans to stay in the United States so he can take his family with him no matter where he plays without. worry about travel restrictions. DeLeon said being forced to play outside of the United States for part of the past two seasons because of COVID-19 had a huge impact, not only on him, but on many TFC players.

“I was not the only one going through difficult times. I think with the inconsistencies of not knowing where you live and not having a cohesive training facility, it was difficult for our group to overcome, ”he said. “It was just a very difficult situation we found ourselves in. Team sports are very fickle and too much was against us. There were times when we made an effort (on the pitch) but you could see that there were also times when everyone in the squad felt the weight of the season and you could see that we were all pretty downcast. .

“Athletes are very anal about the routine. When COVID happened it threw everyone out of their routine – from life (arrangements), to family, whatever it was, it was gone and you had to adjust, ”DeLeon continued. “And I felt like I was constantly adapting. We were wasting time adjusting when that energy could have been spent growing as a group. “

Despite struggling the past two years in Toronto, DeLeon wishes his TFC teammates and the club the best for the future.

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“It’s a shame (how it ended for me) because they have a good coach (Bob Bradley) coming in and I’ve always believed that by training with these young players they have a brilliant future, ”he said.

As for his MLS career, the 31-year-old has no plans to retire. Ideally, he would like to play near his home. Most importantly, DeLeon would love to be part of a team where he can contribute regularly.

“Wherever I go next year there are going to be special things going on for sure,” he said. “The motivation is incredibly high right now, and every day I’m struggling. Whichever team signs me next year, they’re going to get the best version of me.

DeLeon spoke to The Sun this week after just finishing a workout, looking like someone who’s had the weight of the world lifted off his shoulders, though he admitted he wasn’t quite at it yet. out of the woods in terms of mental well-being.

“I just feel like I’m in this state of mind for so long that it doesn’t break down,” he said. “It takes a while. But being home was a difference day and night. Waking up to my munchkins, oh my god, yeah, night and day. Night and day.

“Everything will work out,” he said before ending the call. “If I play, if I don’t play, if I work in an office, life is good. Do not worry about me. It’s perfect.”

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