They say the two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why. Why am I here? What is my purpose? It’s the existential question we typically ignore in our daily lives because the answer is buried deep within, under mounds of pain, distress, and trauma we work tirelessly to avoid. But no matter how steady our efforts, life will undoubtedly at some point render us broken, damaged, and despondent. Coincidentally, it is in these very moments of absolute despair where our purpose can be unveiled to us if we choose to look within.
For DeVante DuBose of the USL League One’s Richmond (Va.) Kickers, life would deal him one of his biggest blows, when he literally blew out his left knee during a training session four days prior to his 28th birthday.
“I got my surgery on August 14th, 2020. I tore my ACL August 1st, four days before my birthday,” DeVante shared with me while recounting his journey back onto the pitch.
DeVante is not the first soccer player to suffer the devastation of a season-ending leg injury, but it only takes a brief amount of time in conversation with the DuBoss (his nickname) to realize our setbacks are actually setups for brighter days ahead.
“I suffered a severe injury to my LCL and ACL and just that whole process in itself allowed me to kind of see myself,” DeVante shared.
A significant knee injury can derail not just a player’s career but their confidence in who they are at their very core. Athletes in recovery must suddenly adjust to a lifestyle that feels foreign to the body and the mind. Imagine spending virtually all your days in active motion to then suddenly be restricted to a couch or bed for months upon a time.
The realization that you are unfit to perform is not only staggering, but it can also be terribly discouraging to your psyche, your sense of self, and your self-worth. You can lose yourself mentally while attempting to recover physically.
DeVante was acutely aware of this mental pitfall and it was clearly evident when speaking with him that he saw the months of recovery that were ahead as ample opportunity to reconnect and reflect on what matters most. “As an athlete, we do so much in trusting in the tactical, we do so much in trusting in the demand and trusting in all of the parts of the game that is all about the win, the performance, that when things do get hard, we forget about our ability to continue to trust ourselves,” he stated calmly.
However, he experienced a juxtaposition with his faith in himself while struggling towards accepting inherent things he could not change. Coming to terms with the physical limitations of his injury afforded him the opportunity to focus on his mental and spiritual health, bridging who he believed himself to be with the person he was always destined to become. “I've gained more insight into just my being and my purpose ultimately, and how I'm going to best serve my future,” he said.
This renewed sense of purpose would serve as a springboard to explore other facets of his life that were intertwined with the game of soccer, yet detached from the intense self-induced pressure of getting back on the field. “I think as athletes we're so conditioned to perform...even if something gets taken away, all we're thinking about is how we can get back,” he declared. This pressure seldom benefits the athlete’s long-term health, which in turn becomes a setback for all invested parties- from the athlete to their family and friends, their club, teammates, coaches, fans, and the community at large.
I've gained more insight into just my being and just my purpose ultimately, and then how I'm going to best serve my future.
This renewed sense of purpose served as a springboard to explore other facets of his life that were intertwined with the game of soccer yet detached from the intense self-induced pressure of getting back on the field.
“I think as athletes we're so conditioned to perform...even if something gets taken away, all we're thinking about is how we can get back, how we can get back,” he said.
This pressure seldom benefits the athlete’s long-term health, which in turn becomes a setback for all invested parties, from the athlete, to their family and friends, to their club, teammates, coaches, fans, and the community at-large.
Fortunately for DeVante, familial roots and community ties were already cemented in the state of Virginia and in its capital city of Richmond way before he was officially signed by the USL League One’s Richmond Kickers back in December of 2019. Dubose, an Oakland, CA, native, played four years at Virginia Tech making 60 appearances for the Hokies throughout his collegiate career. The right back was then selected 66th overall in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft by the San Jose Earthquakes. Dubose would spend the majority of his professional career in the United Soccer League (USL) playing for USL League Two side FC Tucson, and USL Championship sides OKC Energy FC and Phoenix Rising FC, the latter of which won the 2018 Western Conference title with Dubose making 15 appearances and 1 goal contribution.
He would eventually make a brief homecoming, returning to his hometown to play one season for the Oakland Roots SC, another USL Championship side. Signing for the Kickers would serve as a pseudo second homecoming considering his collegiate days at Virginia Tech, but now he would be competing in an entirely new soccer league still in its earliest stages of development.
Officially announced in 2017, the USL would launch a new third division- USL League One in Spring 2019, uniting passionate fans in new markets- markets that represent more than 75 million people without access to a local professional soccer club (North Carolina, Madison, Wisc., Chattanooga, Tenn., and Greenvillle, S.C. to name a few).
“Richmond was a perfect place for me to be, in the midst of 2020, but also in the midst of being able to have my family, being able to have the comfort in that rich history made me be able to dive into my identity outside of the sport,” DeVante admitted.
“I had to be here to go down in the depths of a place that I didn't have my belief so that I could make it through this, but also find a way to give it back to the community which helped me and I said, and that's why I’m always thankful for Virginia.” DeVante’s adoration for the state and the city of Richmond especially is a testament to his loyalty as a person and a player."
The Richmond love fest stretched far beyond the grounds of City Stadium, the 8,000 seat capacity venue where the Kickers play their home matches. As the only professional soccer team in the city with slightly more than 225,000 people, Kickers aren’t your typical hard-to-reach American professional athletes, far removed from the community where they work. They are acquaintances, neighbors, and friends.
“We enjoy conversations like this, you know, from my barber to my neighbors, from when I had a house in a part of East Richmond, and it was always about the conversation I had within the community. And they allowed me to be myself and forget about just my identity as an athlete, an identity as a hurt athlete.” Having the freedom to authentically engage with residents on a human level compelled DeVante to contemplate his purpose even further. “Say, what do I really want to do outside of the game? How can I serve my team in my community now despite my absence?”
“The Richmond Kickers are an American professional soccer club based in Richmond, Virginia. Founded in 1993, the Kickers are one of the oldest continuously run professional soccer clubs in the United States”
Service sits at the very core of what the Kickers represent as a club and as a pillar in the Richmond community. This commitment to service is not just limited to community members, but it is also reflected in the club’s loyal treatment of the players. That same loyalty was reciprocated by seemingly everyone DeVante encountered inside and outside the Kickers organization, starting at the very top with the ownership group.
DeVante would take up a coaching role within the Kickers development academy for youth players of all ages and skill levels. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the relationship to the youth players was another reciprocal dynamic. Players were being schooled firsthand by one of their local soccer heroes while DeVante’s spirit was overflowing with a newfound appreciation for the game and perspective on life in general.
“It was actually a way to pour myself into something. I had to see myself again from that route, and that's kids...I almost forgot who I was. And guess what, it acted as a way to express myself. And actually as a way to help communicate, you know feelings, just because I'm no longer a young kid. That kid still exists within myself and coaching at the end of the day allows me to come back to the beginning of myself.”
“It's very authentic. It's very traditional and everybody is with you, everybody. Everybody is rocking with you by the side, and that's how the organization responded to me immediately. I think for me when you receive that love, you feel that love and you're going to want to do nothing but to come back, you know. For the owner to continue sending me handwritten letters and just certain little you know, little tiny books to get me through [recovery]. It really shows, ‘OK, I see you’, you know, as a person rather than, you know, as a commodity.”
It was actually a way to pour myself into something. I had to see myself again from that route, and that's kids...I almost forgot who I was. And guess what, it acted as a way to express myself. And actually, as a way to help communicate, you know feelings, just because I'm no longer a young kid. That kid still exists within myself and coaching at the end of the day allows me to come back to the beginning of myself.
October 6th would mark his official return from injury after a grueling 15-month recovery process. Simultaneously, this date would personally mark DeVante’s return to the core of his spirit as a player, but more importantly as a person driven by purpose. The Kickers faced off against league rivals Forward Madison FC, eventually winning by a 1-0 scoreline. A win was the perfect complement to cap off DeVante’s remarkable journey back to full fitness, a journey DeVante will certainly cherish for the rest of his life.
As we closed out our conversation, DeVante brought us back to the beginning of the season to share one final anecdote which encapsulated the lessons he learned while sidelined with injury. Early season struggles appeared ominous. The Kickers won only 4 of their first 11 games, and in a 28-game season with a limited number of playoff positions up for grabs, a slow start could quickly derail a promising campaign.
The Kickers were sitting in 8th place, two spots out of reach of a playoff berth.
“So it started from last year and as a collective dealing with, you know, the adjustments of 2020 and not having sport [due to the pandemic], and readjusting the physical schedule. Ultimately, we were really emotionally fatigued.”
Here was the ideal situation for DeVante to contribute to the team’s morale by wielding his innate skills as a communicator, something he further developed as he became more resolute in his purpose as a person, a player, and a coach despite spending a considerable amount of time away from the game. All the internal doubts and questioning he experienced mentally and spiritually, coupled with the physical observations he compiled of his team while in recovery coalesced into an emotional plea. His introspection served as a catalyst for both his teammates and coaches to also look deep within themselves and each other. Self-talk can elicit those pivotal questions and eventual answers as to why we can often find ourselves feeling disconnected from our true purpose in life. DeVante’s willingness to not shy away from the messiness of this internal struggle made him the perfect conduit to deliver this timely message to a Kickers team that at the time was disjointed in their play.
“From that point on we learned from each other. We learned from what didn't work. We learned from continuing to be in the mud. Our community was behind us and we trusted the process.” Results would quickly follow, most recently on the back of a crucial 5 game winning streak from late September to mid-October that placed Richmond in prime position to secure a playoff berth."
DeVante DuBose only turned 29 back in August, but from hearing his story, it’s not too far-fetched to believe he’s already lived two lives. The first act featured an assortment of personal summits- an MLS SuperDraft selection, a successful stint with 2018 USL Championship Western Conference Champions Phoenix Rising FC, developing a mentoring relationship with world soccer legend Didier Drogba, and the first-ever signing by his hometown club Oakland Roots SC back in 2019. But in the midst of what felt like the perfect marriage between player, club, and city, an unexpected divorce swiftly interrupted DeVante’s dream scenario. He would rarely see the pitch in an Oakland uniform. Lack of playing time can contribute to a lack of confidence, ultimately opening the door for seeds of doubt to set in around his future as a player. Fortunately in Virginia, the state where he first made a name for himself as a collegiate standout would summon him to return to its capital city of Richmond, only for a tragic injury to cut short what DeVante believed would be the start of his second act and a second chance at redemption.
But if there’s one truth DeVante has adopted wholeheartedly through these highs and lows, it is that whatever is meant for you can never be taken away.
“I'm telling you, the most profound things happen at the right place, at the right time, when you're ready to receive it,” he proclaimed.
Ultimately, DeVante’s setback through injury was actually the perfect setup for what will undoubtedly be a boundless and triumphant third act. He is not nearing an end to his career. At 29, he is actually approaching a season of possibility and promise on and off the soccer pitch. From the two cities he calls home, where he discovered his soccer talents and his love for family and community, to the traumatic injury through which he would discover his purpose as a player and a servant leader, DeVante DuBose has arrived and is ready to receive all that his bright future holds. His arrival is a testament to his willingness to endure and explore - the hurt, the pain, the stress, the disappointment. All of it was worth it in the end.
“We tend to push away, you know, the trauma that hurts the most, but what happens when we actually are able to take something so traumatic and turn it into a window of opportunity. You really get the biggest comebacks.”
Garrett Richardson, Black Arrow FC
Powered by the USL Black Players Alliance to highlight the intersection of soccer and black culture within the Championship and League One, the United Soccer League has partnered with Black Arrow for a first-of-its-kind partnership that brings all three groups together to create projects that amplify the stories of black players on and off the field, and bring to light the contributions they are making to both the game and their local communities. The partnership is also geared toward the interest of Black soccer fans, inviting them to engage in the USL Championship and League One with human interest and culture stories along the way.
The Black Players Alliance is dedicated to creating a consistent dialogue with clubs and the league itself in order to foster diverse environments centered around minority inclusion and empowerment.
Garrett Richardson is a proud New Jersey native who currently resides in Harlem, NY with his beautiful wife Tiffany and rescue dog Ziggy. He loves to tell stories celebrating Black life and culture through the global lens of the beautiful game. You should find and follow him (@mrgrichardson) for his personal takes on soccer, the marvelous misery that comes with being Dallas Cowboys supporter, and his personal mission to make the sneaker industry more equitable and accessible for consumers.