Before each D.C. United match, the club's players engage in a laundry list of pre-game rituals. Some are ridiculous superstitions while others aim to provide a dietary, physical or even psychological advantage. Since arriving in Washington earlier this year, rookie Nick DeLeon has found a simple answer to preparing for the rigors of a game day. In the hours prior to kickoff, the Black-and-Red winger speaks with the one person who can put it all in perspective. His father.
"He's been there and he knows what it takes," DeLeon says of his father Leroy, who played three years for the Washington Diplomats of the NASL in addition to a successful international career with Trinidad & Tobago. "He preaches the mentality that you can't be fearful. You have to continue going at defenders even when you lose the ball."
Anyone who has seen DeLeon play this season knows that the rookie has been taking his dad's words to heart. But the bond between father and son hasn't always come so easy. DeLeon's parents divorced when he was a freshman in high school, and a few years later Leroy moved to Trinidad to begin a career in coaching. The physical distance took a toll on the relationship.
"When I was younger I wish he was there a little more but he coached and he focused a lot on that," said DeLeon. "But since I really started to make the transition to the pro game he has been there for me, and I've got nothing against it. I need him. I'm happy that he's here, so my relationship with him now is good. I talk to him maybe three or four times a week, before it wasn't even close to that."
The more frequent communication is paying off in spades on the field, but the correlation may not be as direct as it appears. The advice DeLeon receives from his father is rarely tactical, leaning more often towards the psychological aspects of the beautiful game. Regardless of the topic discussed, it's clear that Leroy DeLeon's wisdom is having a massive impact on his son.
"It carries a huge weight. I hear things from my mom, cousin or coach and then when my dad says it, it sticks," says DeLeon, adding a snap of his fingers for effect. "I don't know what it is. Maybe because I've been searching for it and I've been wanting that [relationship] and now that it's finally here it feels amazing. I have no idea what it is but when I hear it from him it just sticks in my mind."
Over his first six weeks as a pro, DeLeon is sticking in the minds of D.C.'s fans and opposing defenders alike. After being left off the match day roster for the opener, DeLeon scored just thirteen minutes into his pro debut against Los Angeles on March 18. Two weeks later, the University of Louisville product exploded onto the MLS scene in United's nationally televised thumping of FC Dallas. DeLeon scored a goal and notched an assist that night here at RFK, prompting NBC broadcaster Arlo White to declare that 'a star had been born'. Those words may soon prove true, and if they do it won't come as a surprise to the men responsible for drafting the speedy flanker.
"I remember getting a phone call from Ben [Olsen] saying I found an incredible player tonight but I don't think he's going to be there [when we draft seventh overall]," General Manager Dave Kasper said recently while discussing United's college scouting process. "We got very, very lucky when Nick dropped to us."
DeLeon heard the criticisms, and has wasted little time in proving them wrong.
"Yeah I heard them," the youngster admitted recently. "I was bitter. I actually have a few things if they ever want to talk to me in the future, I'll bring it up. I honestly think about those comments every day."
This article was originally posted in the September 23 issue of Matchday