When the New England Revolution entered the 2015 MLS season, there was uncertainty as to who would be their starting right back. Andrew Farrell, who played there in 2013 and 2014, was pegged to move centrally to replace a Scandinavia-bound A.J. Soares. Simply, there was a void that needed to be filled.
As it turned out, Kevin Alston earned the starting job on opening day against the Seattle Sounders and it was the seven year veteran’s position to lose. However, chronic hamstring woes arose after just the second game of the season and the Washington, DC native found himself on the injury report.
But then during this past weekend’s 2-0 win over the Colorado Rapids, much to the delight of Revs’ fans, the lockdown one-on-one defender entered the match in the 61st minute. For Alston it meant a lot to help see out the win, but fighting off a somewhat still nagging hamstring setback was just as important.
"There have been a lot of ups and downs with injuries and the main thing is staying positive and keeping your head up," he said. "It’s easy to get negative, but it’s a challenge to stay positive and that’s what you have to do. It’s a long season - that’s how I look at it - and any time I get the opportunity to help the team I’m all for it."
However, rewind two years and the Indiana University product’s professional career was in limbo. The question mark surrounding Alston's hamstring injury or his place in the lineup paled in comparison to what was announced by the Revs on April 8, 2013.
Alston had chronic myelogenous leukemia - a disease that targets one's blood cells - and was set to undergo treatment that would require an indefinite leave of absence. It was an extremely rare form of cancer, but was treatable if the 26-year-old committed himself to what the doctors said was the best course of action.
For a man who approaches the game he loves at a million miles an hour and with unforeseen tenacity, having to step away from the Revs was not an easy thing to do. He would not let the cancer get the best of him, though.
Just five months after being diagnosed, Alston was back on the field for New England, then helped his team reach MLS Cup last season, and is now looking to push the Revs back there this year. But two years ago, Alston was not so sure how his life would look.
"I didn’t know for a while where I’d be, but it has been two years and looking back on it I’m just happy and thankful I can play again," he said. "I’m actively involved in helping this team make a push for the Cup. Sometimes we take things for granted and it means a lot just to have that opportunity to play at this level again."
Yet, that opportunity did not come without its fair share of struggles and hurdles. After all, there always was the possibility that the leukemia would get the best of him. However, for someone as competitive as Alston is, he was always going to get the last laugh.
Pushing Alston towards that moment was a diverse support system that helped him keep level-headed. Whether it be close friendships with teammates or guidance from the coaching staff, family, and friends, Alston knew that the mental battle was arguably just as crucial as the physical one.
The medicine was going to work, but the toll the treatment would take on his psyche could not be predicted. Thankfully, everyone around him helped raise his spirits.
"Having a good support system was huge, especially back then when I had thirty different guys that I could talk to, not to mention my family and friends," Alston said. "It made things a lot easier to stay positive and not think about everything else that was going on. I was just coming into practice and hanging with the guys…to take my mind off things."
On top of the diverse avenues of support, Alston's condition forced him to grow as a person, but not in a negative way. Instead, he learned a lot about himself personally and how focusing on life’s essentials would lead him back to the pitch.
"It puts everything in perspective and it teaches you a lot of things about yourself," Alston said. "You can come back from an injury, you can get over an injury. But with a thing like that, it's cancer. You have to be mentally strong, mentally tough, and control what you can control.
"You take the medicine the doctors tell you to and that’s fine, but on the other side keeping your mind right is the biggest challenge. That’s what I really learned to do."
Now, as Alston is currently preparing to face off against Columbus Crew SC this weekend, he will be slightly more than two years removed from his diagnosis - a disease that changed his life in unpredicted ways.
As difficult as the journey from April of 2013 to now has been, Alston has grown by leaps and bounds and most importantly of all has things in perspective. He may be making the final push past a hamstring strain, but has successfully conquered and put in the past his biggest challenge yet.
"In the big scheme of things, a hamstring [injury] is one thing," he said. "Cancer is life."