On the field, New England Revolution left back Kevin Alston is known for his tenacity.
“He’s always been a feisty player,” says teammate and best friend Darrius Barnes. “He’s the quickest player on the field. You’re never going to beat him on speed and you’re never going to beat him for a 50-50 ball. He’s got that grit, that never-say-die mentality that always shows up.”
But a little more than an year and a half ago, Alston had a moment where he lost all those qualities of which Barnes was just speaking. As you’re about to learn, Alston gets a pass. The date was April 1, 2013.
“We had just had a game against Dallas,” Alston recalls. “I remember it perfectly because it was just such a strange game for me. I just wasn’t feeling right, even before the game. But in my head I was like, ‘OK, let me start this game and hopefully things will feel different.’ And I started the game, but maybe 10 minutes in, I could just tell. I wasn’t right. I felt like I’d played 90 minutes already. I was dead tired. My legs were done. I was exhausted. And I remember getting beat multiple times and everybody was getting mad at me and I didn’t have any answers. My feet were numb.
"How do you tell somebody, 10 minutes into a game, 'I’m tired and I can’t feel my feet.' I just kept trying to play through it and things never got better. They subbed me out.”
Alston had talked to team doctors at halftime and told them he wasn’t feeling good. They thought it was odd that he wasn’t sweating. After the game, the doctors didn’t have answers. So they did blood work. Alston went home that night thinking, “Virus or something. No big deal.” That following Monday, however, Alston’s life changed.
“I woke up that morning with all kinds of aches and pains, everywhere on my body,” Alston says. “I felt sick. Something wasn’t right. But you never think the worst. Never.”
While waiting in the locker room with the Revolution trainers, a doctor called.
“The trainer gave me the phone and I could tell right away, from the doctor’s tone, that something was up. She told me, ‘Listen, we think you have leukemia.’ And everything crashed. I broke down. I was crying. I tried to get myself back together. But in that moment, I lost it all.”
The doctor’s diagnosis was correct. Leukemia. Cancer. Alston, 25 at the time, understandably allowed his mind to race to all the worst-case scenarios. However, it did not take long for the doctor to reign him in just a bit. The type of leukemia detected in Alston is known as Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia. It is defined on the Mayo Clinic’s website as “an uncommon type of cancer of the blood cells.” The word “chronic” means that it’s slower progressing than “acute” cancer.
“And then she told me, “With what you have, there’s a pretty good success rate. There’s medicine,” Alston recalls. “That was the one thing that kind of helped me. It gave me hope.”
At Mass General Hospital, Alston says he was immediately asking the doctors, ‘Am I going to play again?’ They said, ‘Yes, you’ll play again. We just don’t know when.’ Alston remained at Mass General for a week and at the end, a committee of doctors met with him, his parents and some friends, including Barnes. The doctors came into Alston’s room smiling, so he knew something was up. They called it the “best possible diagnosis.”
“They said they had medicine that is usually successful, and that eventually, I’d get back to playing,” Alston says. “And they let on that I might be back a lot sooner than anyone had expected. That’s when I knew my career was not over.”
Indeed, not over at all. Alston was back on the field for the Revolution in 2013, just five months after his diagnosis. And this Sunday in the MLS Cup final, the former Indiana Hoosier’s career has a chance to reach an early pinnacle. Should coach Jay Heaps decide to start Alston (he started the second leg but not the first leg of the Revolution’s Eastern Conference final against the New York Red Bulls), he will be on the field to slow down the Los Angeles Galaxy’s star-studded attack, led by Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan.
If he doesn’t start, he’s likely to come off the bench to help the Revolution protect a lead and raise their first MLS Cup trophy in their 19-year history.
“I feel great, especially compared to the way I felt. I feel amazing,” Alston says. “They say the medicine has side effects, like fatigue, but body-wise, everything feels pretty good right now.”
Alston says the only challenge he has right now is in his mind.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen down the road and I try to not let my mind wander to thoughts like that,” Alston says. “I try to live in the here and now. But sometimes it’s hard. I have bad days where I get down thinking about the future and wondering am I going to be OK tomorrow? Is everything going to be all right? That’s my biggest challenge right now.”
Barnes, who entered MLS along with Alston in 2009, said if Alston is having any of those reflective moments, that’s understandable, but no one on the Revolution has noticed. A starter in only 11 regular season matches this season - he started 64 games total in 2011 and 2012 - Alston’s first order of business is to work his way back in to an every game role. Barnes believes those days are coming, and coming soon.
“This year’s been a testament to his character and strength,” Barnes says. “He’s come back and had an amazing season. Especially down the stretch. He’s a big piece of where this team’s going and he’s a microcosm of what this team is all about. He’s been a huge inspiration.”
If he’s inspired the Revs, Alston says it’s only because he’s been inspired himself.
“I think the biggest inspiration came from the messages I got from people,” Alston says. “Other people who were dealing with tough situations. The Revolution set up an email account for me, for people to send messages. It was hard at first, to be honest. Because in my head I’d just gotten this diagnosis and was going to try not to think about it. But it helped to read the messages. It was hard to read their stories, but the overall gist of most of these emails was, ‘You’re a strong person. You can fight this. You can beat this.’ A lot of people said ultimately I’d come out a better person on the other side. That inspired me.”
Win or lose Sunday’s final, Alston believes his career has a long way to go. A national team player at the Under-17 and -18 levels, Alston was called in to the U.S. senior men’s national team twice in 2009, only to get hurt in both camps, which kept him from playing in a senior level game. He plays a position - left back - that has long been open for competition for the U.S. team.
“As long as I’m playing the game,” Alston says. “I will keep pushing to play for my country. When you talk about goals, that’s a big one. That’s one I will keep pushing to attain.”
It’s pretty clear by now, Alston won’t give up.