Manifest destiny

The first person with multiple sclerosis to play in the MLS, former Cal soccer player Demitrius Omphroy has become a symbol of hope.

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Their journey began in Yorktown, Va., a tiny town on the southernmost tip of the Chesapeake Bay where the waves of the Atlantic pound the sandy beaches of the coast and a 128-year-old monument commemorates a Revolutionary War victory from 231 years ago. To the west, a vast continent gradually unfurls, and a team of cyclists treads a 3,000-mile path over nine states — across the Virginia Appalachians, across the forests and plains of the Midwest, up the Rocky Mountain passes west of Denver and through the sprawling, winding Great Basin. The grueling 62-day Tour de America ends on the opposite side of the continent, and the cyclists make their way towards the Pacific Ocean, where they will dip their bikes in the salty sea on the north shore of San Francisco in a ceremonial conclusion.

Demitrius Omphroy joins the cascade of bikers on their final charge towards the San Francisco Bay. His 50-mile saunter from Winters, Calif. to Vallejo, Calif. is only a splinter of the cross-country trek. “I played professional soccer,” he tells the crowd assembled to fete the bikers at Boudin Bakery, two blocks from Pier 39 in San Francisco. “But I don’t know if I want to do this for (62) days straight.”

Even 50 miles is a milestone for the former Cal soccer player whose dreams have been ravashed, resurrected, restricted and realized in the span of the last six years. Bike the US for MS, an organization that aims to raise awareness for multiple sclerosis, is just one manifestation of Omphroy’s anything-is-possible mentality. This is not the first group to transect the country on a bike, nor the first organization to raise money for a charitable cause.

But it’s a unique way to raise awareness for MS, a disease which can sound like a death sentence when diagnosed, but no longer carries the heart-shattering stigma it once did. Patients like Omphroy are more in control of their destinies than ever before.

“Making a difference,” says Don Fraser, founder and executive director of the organization. “That’s what we do.”

Demitrius Omphroy doesn’t look like a man with a death sentence. At 5’ 10” and 165 pounds, the Alameda, Calif. native has the stout muscular build of someone who takes soccer seriously. The first player in MLS history with MS, soccer has defined Omphroy much longer than has his condition. After his junior year of high school, Omphroy chased his childhood passion into a year abroad in Portugal, where he trained with the prestigious Sporting Clube de Portugal, which Cristiano Ronaldo attended as a 12-year-old.

“I wanted to chase soccer,” Omphroy says. “I left everything. I left my family, I left my friends, I left my education.”

Omphroy impressed coaches enough that he was assured of a professional contract two months shy of his 18th birthday. But before he could sign the deal, Omphroy was stricken by sudden blindness in his right eye and diagnosed with optic neuritis, a temporary inflammation of the optic nerve which causes sudden, reduced vision. One of the most common reasons for the condition is MS, though the condition that forced him to return to America didn’t cross Omphroy’s mind at the time.

“I left home, left back home, never to return to Portugal again,” he says. “And I was devastated.”

Omphroy’s dream of playing professional soccer stalled, and he joined the Cal men’s soccer team in 2007, working his way up until he was one of the bedrocks on a powerful Cal squad.

It wasn’t until February of 2010, between his junior and senior years at Cal, that he learned what was affecting him.

“It was really silly of me,” he says. “I had my best friend, I was laying on the ground. I said ‘Come in, step on my back.’ And the next morning I had numbness in my foot.”

Thinking he’d suffered a pinched nerve, Omphroy underwent a precautionary MRI. But the scan revealed a much more serious problem than a pinched nerve, and a dumbstruck Omphroy was diagnosed with MS.

“Oh my god, I was in shock,” he says. “I didn’t know how to react. I almost felt like my life wasn’t fair.”

“It initially felt like a death sentence.”

Omphroy’s dream of becoming a professional soccer player, so attainable as a 17-year-old, seemed to die as well.

You get the sense there’s something cathartic when Omphroy talks about his condition. It’s impossible to tell he’s afflicted by a debilitating disease by looking at him, and Omphroy has no qualms discussing it. He answers questions about his condition with polished ease and the earnestness of a man who legitimately wants to become a crusader against the disease that the National Institute of Health estimates to affect 250,000 to 350,000 Americans.

MS attacks occur when the body’s immune cells attack the nervous system, causing inflammation and subsequent nerve damage to the brain, optic nerve or spinal cord. Symptoms vary with each attack, and it is common for the disease to relapse. Vision loss, fatigue, numbness and muscle spasms are some of the problems MS patients have to put up with.

But the best way to combat MS is just to live a healthy life, as Omphroy professes.

“It’s the little things,” says Omphroy, “whether it’s the color of the sugar you put in your coffee to the amount of sleep you get every night. Little things like that can go a long way.”

Omphroy’s mom, Beverly Toletino, was initially surprised by the diagnosis, but even more surprised by how Omphroy has taken his diagnosis in stride.

“The diagnosis was uncomfortable, but the best we could do was to see how others were managing,” says Toletino. “He actually took a lot of things to heart, what people were doing and how they were dealing with symptoms and eating habits.”

In his senior year after the diagnosis, Omphroy started all 20 games for the Bears and led them to a quarterfinal appearance, where they lost to Akron in penalty kicks — “the worst way to lose,” he says.

The night before the final game of his collegiate career, his sister Ashley came to talk to him, crying, visibly upset.

“And I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And she said, ‘I just don’t want you to die.’”

“And I realized at that point that everybody around me was doing their best to help me live the life that I wanted to live, MS free. And I realized that I need to take control of my own life. I need to change my destiny.”

Supporting the cross-country bike ride is just one way Omphroy has taken charge of his destiny. After being drafted by Toronto FC with the 26th overall pick in 2011 — a “huge, huge, huge dream come true” — he pulled out of his contract, mission already accomplished.

“I have a new passion. I want to spread awareness just like these wonderful individuals here with MS. I want to show people that there is hope.”

If Omphroy represents anything, it is hope. While his own future remains ambiguous, Bike the US for MS has raised over $239,000 to date as the fight for a cure rages on. Omphroy no longer sees multiple sclerosis as a death sentence because he is now firmly in control of his own destiny.

“I’m really proud of him,” Tolentino says. “He’s a pretty smart kid. I honestly think he can do whatever he sets his mind to.”