Sebastian Velasquez placed the ball on the white circle of painted Bermuda grass that had carefully been measured 12 yards from goal. Like a combatant preparing for a duel, he took his paces, briskly stepping back six times and slightly off to the right of the ball.
“From community college. Miles Joseph, the assistant coach, found him for head coach Jason Kreis. He could be the hero…”
ESPN broadcaster Taylor Twellman set the stage. All the 21-year-old Velasquez, who was in his second season in Major League Soccer, had to do was score in order to etch his name in history as the player who clinched the 2013 MLS Cup for Real Salt Lake.
“Can he deliver the trophy for RSL?” questioned broadcaster Adrian Healey.
The young Colombian midfielder’s left-footed shot — a kick he practiced numerous times the week prior — was aimed toward the bottom right corner of the net. He missed.
“Everybody who has played soccer has missed a penalty,” former RSL assistant coach Miles Joseph said years later. “We all miss them. Even (Lionel) Messi has missed them. No one in their right mind will ever blame Sebastian for that loss.”
But Velasquez blamed himself. After the game, he retreated home to Medellin Colombia and did his best to erase it from his memory. He drank for 20 days and 20 nights. Crown Royal and Coke. Crown on the rocks. Beer. Aguardiente.
Velasquez would smile, crack jokes, strike up a conversation and be playful, but no one knew what he was struggling with beneath the surface.
Velasquez was hard on himself. He didn’t talk about his problems, which were deep and unresolved. He didn’t feel he could trust anyone — including his family. Instead, he coped the only way he knew how. He drank. Velasquez had been doing it the same way for years, and in the process, put his soccer career—and his own life—at risk.
“The one thing I loved more than anything, the one thing that gave me something to eat, it gave me money … the only thing I had going for myself and my family … the one thing I felt I could make a living out of betrayed me in 10 seconds,” he said. “I lost it.”
He spent part of Christmas in his room passed out and vomiting. His mother Vilma had to bring a bucket to put by the side of his bed. She placed her son’s head on her lap.
“The only thing I can do is pray for you,” she whispered.
Three years later Velasquez has finally regained control. He’s never felt better or more confident. His life and career are both back on track.
Currently playing for Rayo OKC of the North American Soccer League, Velasquez recently celebrated one year of sobriety. He hasn’t taken a drink since September 13, 2015, right before he checked into Journey Malibu in California for the second time—and right after he finally confronted the the troubled past that led to his alcoholism in the first place.
Sebastian Velasquez was born in 1991 in Colombia, and emigrated to the United States with his mother when he was 3 years old. They came to the U.S. looking for Sebastian’s father Francisco, who had left the family when Vilma was three months pregnant. They caught up to him in Greenville, S.C.
Life wasn’t easy in Greenville. Vilma and Sebastian didn’t have a lot of money and didn’t speak English. Vilma and her sister-in-law, who was also in town, sewed mattresses during the week, and on weekends, they worked at Stax’s Original, a local restaurant.
On the weekends, while his mom worked, Sebastian, who was now around 6 years old, would get dropped off at his aunt’s house where his cousin — who was about 10 years older — would babysit him. Sebastian noticed odd behaviors exhibited by his cousin but was unsure of what they meant. The cousin would stand close to him, sometimes too close, or want to be around him frequently.
One day at his aunt’s house, Sebastian was taking a nap. He awoke to his cousin hovering over him with his pants down. Sebastian’s pants somehow had been removed as well.
Helpless, confused, and physically inferior to his cousin, Velasquez couldn’t do anything. His face forced into the pillow, all he could do was cry and try to scream for help.
“At that point I knew I had lost my innocence,” Velasquez said.
He was raped by his cousin sporadically over the next few years.
Velasquez’s experience is all too common. According to Dr. Judith Cohen, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Allegheny Health Network in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, approximately one in four girls and one in six boys is sexually abused. The perpetrators are typically someone the child knows—family members, babysitters, neighbors, teachers or family friends.
“I didn’t really understand the situation or what happened to me,” Velasquez said, “but I knew there was something wrong with it.”
His cousin threatened him with physical violence if Sebastian dared to tell his mother or aunt.
The abuse finally came to an end when Velasquez fought back. His cousin came into the bedroom—again while Sebastian was napping—but he woke up and dashed past him. Velasquez says ran into the kitchen and grabbed a knife. He threatened to kill his cousin if he touched him again.
Velasquez also vehemently demanded to his mother he be taken to daycare and not left alone with his cousin anymore.
“I knew from that point on I had to survive by myself because I couldn’t trust my own family,” he said.
In soccer, Velasquez found an escape. As a teenagers, Velasquez and his friends spent endless hours at Carolina Indoor Soccer, a local soccer facility.
“He’s the most gifted player I’ve worked with,” said owner Anthony “Speedy” Solomon, who grew up in Trinidad & Tobago and has been around soccer for 30 years as a player or coach. “He’s different. He has something special.”
Solomon convinced Velasquez to attend a tryout of 30 players at nearby University of South Carolina Upstate. It was the first time Velasquez trusted anyone offering him something. At the tryout, Velasquez met Steve Archibald, a former Tottenham Hotspur and FC Barcelona forward. Archibald wanted to bring him to Spain for a tryout with Barcelona’s youth academy.
“You could see immediately he had something special,” Archibald recalled. “He had all the things good footballers need. He impressed me enough to think he could perform in Europe.”
Velasquez flew to Spain shortly after his 17th birthday. There he met Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova. He saw how the pros worked and lived. He wanted nothing else. But he wasn’t selected.
“He did everything that was asked of him and more,” Archibald said. “It might not have been the right guy looking at him at the right time. There’s a bit of luck involved. As far as I’m concerned, it did work out.”
Velasquez returned home rejected.
“When he came back he didn’t have anything,” his friend Miguel Teos said. “He didn’t know what to do. I think drinking was his way out, but still in the back of his head he knew he’d play soccer.”
Velasquez began his relationship with alcohol on his 15th birthday as a curious teenager. He still owns a photo of himself passed out on the couch with an empty bottle of Jose Cuervo that serves as a memento of the celebrations and what would be the start of a volatile relationship.
Despite the letdown of the first tryout, Archibald helped Velasquez get another opportunity. He was to return to Spain in six months for a trial with RCD Espanyol.
Velasquez stopped drinking and began feverishly training again. Except it wasn’t the same. He wasn’t as fast. He wasn’t as fit. He almost threw up during a drill he had done with no problems ahead of the tryout with Barcelona. Archibald questioned Velasquez about his drinking.
“It’s like he knew,” Velasquez said. “… I knew if things were going to work out, I had to stop drinking.”
Velasquez again returned from Spain with nothing and there was no guarantee of another tryout. He got his GED and caught on at Spartanburg Methodist College, a nearby community college.
Despite being proactive in obtaining his GED, Velasquez fell into old habits. He would play soccer during the day and drink at night. His constant absence around the house had an unintended negative side effect though—it made his mother feel very lonely in what was still a foreign country.
One evening Velasquez came home from playing soccer and saw her lying on the floor.”I thought she was dead,” Velasquez recalled.
Vilma had been taking prescription antidepressants. That day she overdosed.
Velasquez picked up his mother, brought her into the bathtub and ran cold water on her. After a few minutes, Vilma regained consciousness and began throwing up the medication. Vilma told her son she was lonely and sad because he was always out, either playing soccer or with his friends (she was unaware of his drinking habits). He suggested she return to Colombia to be closer to family. She agreed.
Velasquez dominated on the field with 55 goals and 33 assists in two seasons (33 games) at SMC and was getting noticed by Division I programs, including Clemson and North Carolina.
“My mom was happier; I was happy,” Velasquez said. “I was on the right path.”
That path, as it had countless times before, agonizingly would take another detour.
“He was the best player I never got a chance to coach,” Clemson men’s soccer coach Mike Noonan said.
Because he had tried out overseas and had an agent, per NCAA guidelines, Velasquez forfeited his amateur status. He cried in the SMC athletic offices when he found out he would be unable to continue his collegiate career.
“I was stuck again,” Velasquez said. “I was like, ‘Shit, we’re going through the same thing again.'”
Noonan reached out to Miles Joseph, a Clemson soccer alum who was an assistant at Real Salt Lake. Joseph watched film on Velasquez and spoke to him on the phone before inviting him to a combine in Arizona he ran to scout college players and free agents.
Having already intended to return to Colombia following the letdown of not being able to play at the Division I level, Velasquez followed the 2012 MLS SuperDraft on a computer because it was not televised outside the U.S. The picks updated whenever he hit “refresh” on his browser. Velasquez’s name appeared at No. 36.
The hours and days spent around the streets and fields in South Carolina with a soccer ball in tow paid off. Velasquez began to cry.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “There aren’t really words to describe that moment. It was a dream come true. It made me feel like my life had a meaning to it.”
Typically a forward, Velasquez was moved to midfield at RSL. Admittedly, he wasn’t happy with the switch. Not only was he a goal scorer, Velasquez was used to playing an integral role on a team, but he had to bide his time with his new club. He played five minutes here, 15 minutes there.
“That’s when my mind started racing,” Velasquez said. “That’s when I started drinking and I’d go out just to get my mind off of things.”
Goalkeeper Lalo Fernandez was his roommate his rookie season.
“Mentally he was not at the same level as his skills were,” Fernandez, 23, said. “He would work hard every day, do everything the coaches would ask him to do, but his eating habits weren’t good and he would drink a lot. I started to notice it was a problem for him.”
Fernandez confronted Velasquez about his drinking habits, but Velasquez didn’t heed his roommate’s advice. Eventually, frustrated, and unable to get his roommate to stop drinking, Fernandez moved out of their apartment.
“I didn’t think he was an alcoholic, but I saw he loved it,” Fernandez said. “I would tell him it wasn’t good for him.”
Velasquez played a greater role the next year despite the drinking, making 24 appearances (11 starts). He scored his first professional goal in a win against the Los Angeles Galaxy in the second leg of the Western Conference Semifinal. But his personal improvement was overshadowed by the disappointment of the 2013 MLS Cup.
Despite his binge drinking in Colombia, Velasquez entered the 2014 season with a positive attitude, but a hamstring issue limited him to 10 games.
“I wasn’t even drinking socially,” Velasquez said. “I was just at my house, injured. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t go anywhere.”
Velasquez finally ventured out the night of May 18, 2014. He was arrested in the early hours of May 19 on suspicion of driving under the influence after he was stopped for speeding. The officer detected an odor of alcohol and Velasquez failed field sobriety tests, according to the police report. Velasquez was charged with class B misdemeanor DUI and class C misdemeanor speeding 84 mph in a 65 mph zone.
Velasquez had to complete 24 hours of community service in lieu of jail time. He was sentenced to 12 months of probation. Velasquez had to pay a $1,420 fine, install an ignition interlock on his car, attend a Mothers Against Drunk Drivers Impact Panel and refrain from consuming alcohol or drugs unless medically prescribed.
“I thought it was the end of it,” he said. “I thought the team would let me go right then and there.”
Instead, Velasquez was sent to rehab for two weeks. He stayed away from alcohol upon his release. Until he received life-changing news.
The cousin who he says sexually abused him had been stabbed to death in Colombia.
“I didn’t know what I felt,” Velasquez said. “I felt I didn’t get any revenge or was able to face him, but I also felt pity. Why did this happen? Why at this time? Why didn’t I ever say anything to him? I looked at it from every angle — from violence to pity to being thankful.
“From there I started drinking again.”
Making a living through soccer had always been priority No. 1 for Velasquez, but now he had even more on the line. His son, Armani, was born October 13, 2014.
In 2015, Velasquez moved to NYCFC. He played in six of the team’s first eight games, but couldn’t maintain a spot in the starting lineup. It was a frustrating season, but also came a time when Velasquez was finally ready to face the issues that underlined his drinking.
“It was an emotional conversation when he told us,” said Joseph, who was an assistant at NYCFC. “You wish you would have known since day one so you could have helped him so he didn’t get to the point he got to.”
Rehab was more productive the second time because Velasquez was more accepting of it. He was willing to learn breathing techniques, yoga, meditation and other methods to cope with stress and rejection. It was also here where he came finally face to face with his abusive past. He said his therapist would notice him take a big gulp or avoid eye contact when asked about his childhood.
“I finally let it out. I would get super emotional about it; instant tears,” Velasquez said. “They said this is the cancer that’s been growing inside of me and if I don’t heal it I’m not going to be OK.
“It was like I took a chain off my legs or a weight off my shoulders. I started to see the light. I started to feel like I was becoming free. I saw the world from a different perspective.”
Before he left rehab, Velasquez was instructed to share his unspoken problems and recent progress with his parents. He told them things they never heard before or knew occurred. Telling his mother was one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do.
“She’s the reason I’m here,” he said. “If you ask anyone why I was successful, it was because of her. She would do anything for me. She would give her life for me.”
Velasquez also learned in rehab to stay around the people who care about him and to know they will be there for him no matter what he may be going through.
“Just like my dream was to be a professional soccer player, my dream now is to be a sober person for the rest of my life — for my family, my son, for everyone who has supported me,” he said. “I was hiding something for 18 years of my life and I finally let it go. Now I’m not ashamed of it or hiding it. I buried it and put a tombstone on it. I came to peace with it.”
He publicly addressed his past on social media on Nov. 9. The response he received was overwhelming.
Velasquez speaking about his situation publicly may help others address their own similar issues, according to Dr. Jesse Steinfeldt, a sports psychologist and associate professor at Indiana University.
“When high-profile people such as athletes come forward in a way that (former NHL player) Theo Fleury did or Sebastian does, it provides a boost of courage for other people to come out as well,” Dr. Steinfeldt said. “Life in the shadows and the closet is cold, dark and scary. You can’t see all of the other people who are in there with you, so when you emerge, it is initially frightening but eventually liberating.”
Velasquez had made peace with himself, his parents, his coaches and his fans. Last was his son.
He made a promise to Armani he would never let him down. He would never drink. He got a tattoo on his chest above his heart. It reads: I will only intoxicate myself with the love I have for you.
“I had never been able to look him in the eyes and tell him he was going to be proud of me,” Velasquez said. “I’ve always loved my son more than anything. I want to protect him. I don’t want him to go through what I went through. I don’t want him to feel he can’t ever tell me something.”
With his personal demons conquered, Velasquez needed to get his professional career on track because NYCFC didn’t renew his contract. He signed with Rayo OKC on Jan. 15 ahead of their inaugural season. In 14 games this year, Velasquez has scored one goal for fourth-place Rayo OKC.
“I’m not worried about what happens next,” said Velasquez, who wants to be a public speaker or counselor following his playing career. “I don’t put myself in bad situations anymore. It hasn’t been easy. I didn’t make it here by myself even though I used to think of it that way. I think about all the people who helped me along the way and I want to have a successful career to show my appreciation to them.”