FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – One word emblazoned across the chest of Kevin Alston’s undershirt perfectly captures the New England Revolution defender’s approach to his battle with chronic myelogenous leukemia.
It’s fitting that Alston was wearing that undershirt on Saturday night when he returned to the field for the first time since his diagnosis almost four months ago. Amidst driving rain and with the Revs protecting a one-goal lead against D.C. United, Alston entered in the 84th minute and helped his team see out a critical road victory.
But in a sense, victory was assured the moment Alston stepped on the field, regardless of the final score.
“It felt unbelievable,” said Alston, who admitted to having butterflies but also a sense of renewal upon his return. “I think I was overly excited just to be on [the field], but at the same time, I was just telling myself, ‘Don’t mess up, don’t mess up.’ But it felt great.”
It was a special night on many levels for Alston, who grew up in the D.C. area and had more than 40 friends and family in attendance at RFK Stadium, including his parents, brother and grandfather.
“It just made it that much more special to be able to do it in front of them,” he said.
In context, less than four months seems a remarkable recovery time for a player to go from leukemia diagnosis to returning to the playing field. But for Alston, whose life revolves around playing soccer, four months away from the game was an eternity which tested his patience on a daily basis.
What made the process so difficult was the sense of unknown. How long would the recovery process take? What would the process entail? What would the doctor say during the next checkup?
Alston knew from the start he needed to fight, but he quickly learned that patience was critical, as well.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’d go in for a doctor’s appointment and be like, ‘Alright, I think I’m going to be here,’ but then the doctor tells me I’m still down here,” Alston said. “That was my fault for setting myself up to fall like that, but a lot of patience was necessary because there was so much unknown. I didn’t know how long it would be or what the recovery process was going to be.”
Gradually, Alston’s health improved in response to his treatment. Blood levels balanced out and his spleen – which had been enlarged – returned to its normal size. The doctors told him he could resume normal training.
It was a major step in his recovery, but more patience was necessary. After months away from daily training, Alston not only needed to regain his fitness, but also had to wait for his chance to get back on the field.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve just been lying in bed or in the shower just thinking about being on the field and just playing,” Alston said.
Those daydreams finally became reality on Saturday night when head coach Jay Heaps turned to Alston for defensive help in the waning minutes of the 2-1 win over D.C. Alston was only on the field for about 10 minutes, but to him, the difference between pre-diagnosis and post-diagnosis could not have been more clear.
“I feel good. There’s nothing like game fitness, so that takes minutes in order to get, but just my strength and fitness are night and day compared to what I felt before,” he said. “Everything’s completely different. I feel like I’m starting fresh and starting over. I feel like there’s no weight on my shoulders now.”
Alston’s presence on the field as a defender provided a boost on Saturday night, but it was his presence on the field as a teammate and friend which meant the most to those wearing the Revolution jersey alongside him.
Throughout the recovery process, Alston has acknowledged that he has a responsibility to provide inspiration for those in similar situations. But he probably didn’t know he was inspiring those around him, as well.
“Everyone knows what he’s been through,” said Chris Tierney. “He’s an inspiration for all of us. We all feed off the energy that he brings every day. We’re super proud of him. It’s great to see him back and hopefully we’ll see more and more of him.”
Alston continues to undergo treatment – chronic myelegenous leukemia is very treatable, but at the present time, not curable – and his fight continues every minute of every day. But as his undershirt suggests, he’s a fighter.
On Saturday night, amidst the overwhelming emotion of his return, Alston found himself fighting something other than cancer.
“As soon as the game was over, everybody came over to congratulate me and I was trying my hardest not to cry; I was fighting tears,” he said. “[My teammates] have been supportive since the start and they showed it again tonight.”