Josh Huskin for The Rivard Report
Devin Vega left his modest home on the Southside at 13 to pursue a passion. Before he started 9th grade, Vega said goodbye to his parents, moved to Bradenton, Fla., and enrolled in the IMG Academy.
Barely 5 feet tall at the time, Vega believed he could develop into a pro soccer player at an academy designed to produce Division I athletes. He clung to the hope – some might have called it a fantasy – that he could play professionally in San Antonio, that he could excite the same fans who once cheered him on at Legacy Middle School and the Southside YMCA.
The journey would be excruciating and exhilarating, marked by homesickness, elation, and tears. There was the leap to celebrate a national championship. There was the gut punch when he was told his little brother had cancer.
The teenage boy would grow and overcome, get knocked down and rise as no one could have imagined – How many dreamers fulfill two life goals before they finish high school?
Two weeks ago, Vega, now 18 and about 5-foot-5, signed a contract with San Antonio FC of the United Soccer League. On April 1, SAFC and Vega, a gifted midfielder, will play their home-opener against LA Galaxy II at Toyota Field.
Mom and dad will be there. So will the rest of his family, including his little brother, Dylan, whose cancer is in remission. It’s hard for Vega to explain how this feels. His throat tightens. His eyes well. The words do not come easily but he points to heaven and offers this: “It’s a blessing.”
There is enormous talent in that small body of his. There is a wonderful, unfolding story. “He’s living the dream,” said SAFC coach Darren Powell. “His future’s very bright.”
David Vega caught a glimpse of that future early. When his son began playing soccer at age 4, Devin stood out. He possessed speed, skill, and touch unlike any peer. By 6, the son began training with his father and displayed the work ethic of a prodigy.
“He’d be in the backyard for hours, sweating, coming in for a drink of water, then going back outside to train,” David said.
Young Devin carried a soccer ball everywhere he went. Some days after school, he’d practice on his own from 5-9 p.m. Back then, he did not know that one could get paid for playing the sport. But once he found out, pro soccer became a single-minded pursuit.
An opportunity opened up in Florida. The IMG Academy is home to the U.S. Soccer U-17 residency program. Since 2012, 140 of its players – boys and girls – have made Division I commitments, according to the academy’s website. State-of-the-art facilities include more than 20 multi-purpose fields, a 65,000 sq. ft. Performance Center, and a 12,000 sq. ft. weight room.
“We knew we had to let him go,” David said. “But it was really difficult. He was 13 going on 14.”
Devin completed one year and moved to the FC Dallas USSDA Academy Program. David and Sandra could see their son more regularly. On one visit in 2015, Dylan was stricken with severe chest pains. An emergency room doctor in Dallas told the Vegas that Dylan’s lung had collapsed. David and Sandra rushed Dylan home to San Antonio for more tests.
The diagnosis was crushing: T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma. Dylan had a malignant tumor in his chest, which had caused the lung to collapse. What should they tell Devin? When? How?
Revealing the diagnosis, they decided, would upset Devin, and perhaps affect his focus and performance. So they kept the news to themselves.
The silence made Devin uneasy. He wondered why his parents had left Dallas suddenly. He asked questions but received no answers. Two months passed. Devin texted his sister, Sadie, and begged for information. David could not bring himself to tell his son. The task went to Sadie.
Two hours before a Generation Adidas Cup semifinal match in Dallas, Devin learned the truth. He played anyway, broken heart and all, and returned to San Antonio after the match, which FC Dallas lost.
Fueled by the defeat and inspired by Dylan’s battle, Devin led FC Dallas on a historic run. In July 2015, his team faced the New York Red Bulls for the U.S. Soccer Development Academy U16 national championship in Carson, Calif.
Watching the match via live stream from Dylan’s hospital room, the Vegas and nurses erupted when Devin scored. They were moved when Devin ran and pointed at the television camera, signaling the goal was for them. “That,” David said, “was awesome. Devin had said he was gonna score and he scored.”
“I had tears of joy,” Devin recalled. “That goal was very special. To do it for my brother was a blessing. I just ran, got on my knees, had my arms open, looked up at God and said, ‘Thank you.’”
FC Dallas won and Devin was named Player of the Year. In 2016, Devin led FC Dallas to the U18 title, upsetting Vancouver 2-1, a team that arrived undefeated in 34 consecutive matches.
Devin scored late, his family cheered and FC Dallas became the second team to repeat as national champions.
FC Dallas is considered the best academy in the U.S., having signed a Major League Soccer record 17 players to the first team. So no one expected Devin to leave and join San Antonio FC. The opportunity to sign a pro contract, he said, was the driving force. Family also played an important role.
After a recent practice, Devin recalled how an aunt got him to join a youth soccer team, how his father trained him, how his mother, brother, and sisters showed up at matches to cheer him on. He recalled the pain of Dylan’s diagnosis and the joy of learning the cancer is in remission.
He looked across the open field at the S.T.A.R. Soccer Complex, thoughts drifting back to his childhood, and smiled. He’s an online high school student, living the dream, all right.
Before he graduates in three, maybe four months, Devin will play his first professional soccer match in the Rio Grande Valley. Then on April 1 – the two-year anniversary of the day he learned of Dylan’s cancer – he’ll run onto Toyota Field and throw open his arms, ready to embrace his future.