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London Free Press: Have Boots Will, Travel

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'Have boots, will travel'

Globe-trotting Canadian soccer player Jason deVos has come a long way.

By Morris Dalla Costa, Free Press sports columnist

After spending the better part of half his life playing professional soccer, Jason deVos has the rest of his life pretty much planned out. Qualify for the World Cup. Play three years with Ipswich Town and help them make England's Premier League. Maybe retire and move back to Canada. Spend more time being a dad and family man.

Sounds like a good plan. That is, if nothing gets in the way. But deVos is a professional athlete and something always seems to get in the way.

For example, what if Canada fails to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany? Would deVos consider playing internationally until he's 36 for another try? What if he's playing so well he can't walk away from the game when he's 33 and his contract at Ipswich is up?

DeVos has been away from his home in Wigan, where he played for the English Second Division team, since May 26. He's been travelling with Canada's national team as it begins the qualification process for the World Cup.

"The honest answer right now is that I just don't know what I'm going to do," said the 30-year-old native of Appin, just west of London. "I'm thinking this may be my last contract in England and if we don't qualify for the World Cup, I don't know if I would do it again.

"The time you spend away from your family is getting harder. The last three weeks have been the hardest for me. I have a two-year-old at home that I miss terribly.

"Alan Shearer (of England) retired from international football because he said he wanted to spend more time with his family. At that time, I didn't understand. But I do now, I really do."

A great many things can happen in professional sports over three years. DeVos is probably more aware of that than most. The road he has taken to become a professional player and one of the most recognizable figures in Canadian soccer has been long and tortuous.

It's no accident he refers to himself as "have boots, will travel."

"I read somewhere the odds of becoming a professional athlete in any sport is one in 10,000. The odds are probably longer if you are a Canadian soccer player," deVos said.

"I was fortunate. I was taken in by the right people who gave me an opportunity to learn. Now a lot of clubs don't give you the opportunity. They want the finished product. That's difficult, very difficult. Especially coming from Canada."

DeVos's soccer ability has been, and will continue to be, well documented. It is surpassed by his decency as a person.

Ria and Jack deVos did a fine job raising a well-grounded, family-oriented man who exhibits all the qualities so often talked about, but seldom seen in a professional athlete. He always is approachable and down-to-earth. No matter where he's headed, deVos has never forgotten where he's come from or the people he's met along the way.

Hometown boy makes good, in more ways than one.

"When I'm back in London, I'll bring my daughter, Ella, and you can meet her," deVos said. You know he means it.

DeVos is beginning a new chapter in his career, one he hopes will be the most stable.

That wouldn't take much, when one considers he began playing professionally with the London Lasers when he was in Grade 10. The Lasers folded and he moved to Kitchener. When that team folded, it was back to London. Then the entire Canadian Soccer League folded and he played in Montreal, only to have that league fold as well.

He eventually made his way to Darlington in the English Third Division, working he was up to Dundee United in Scotland and then Wigan in the English Second Division.

When Wigan didn't offer him what he felt he was worth, he went into the open market, where there were half a dozen teams interested in him.

His three-year deal with Ipswich allows him to play at a top-notch level with an eye to the Premier League. Couple that with Canada's national team World Cup qualifying tournaments and it's an exciting time for the six-foot-four, 205-pound central defender.

"It's easier now to go over than when I went," he said. "Good Canadian players have blazed a trail for us over there.

"There's no longer a 'where's your hockey stick' mentality. But you've got to be better than anyone who is already there."

DeVos is now a client of IMG Canada. But when he first went to England, he met David Hodgson, who became his agent and was also the manager of Darlington.

"He said, 'Come play with my team,' " deVos said. "It's a lower level (Division 3) than you should be playing at, but you'll get some experience and then we'll sell you and you'll be on your way.

"It was a difficult adjustment," de Vos said. "I was a babe in the woods at 22 . . . I had a lot of potential, but the raw ingredients needed to be refined a little bit.

"Hodgy got me to believe in myself and express myself. For the first few years, I played catchup. If you leave it that late, you have to play catchup."

He's caught up.

"He was a little bit raw when he came into the league," said soccer analyst Craig Forrest, former Premier League and Canadian national team goaltender. "It was difficult for him to break into the market as a Canadian because you have to be better than what they have.

"As far as the national team goes, there's no question he's the first guy I'd be putting on my team sheet. No matter what changes the national side is making, he's just always there because of his leadership and experience."

DeVos has played 45 times for Canada.

As a central defender, he's in his prime.

"I know central defenders play longer, but I don't know if my body will take playing until I'm 40. You get wiser but you don't get any quicker," deVos said.

"Staying healthy, more than anything, will dictate how long I'll play. I've got more metal, pins, screws and wires in my feet than I care to count.

"Like Steve Austin (The Six Million Dollar Man), rebuild me and I'll keep going."

Frank Yallop, coach of Canada's national team, played with deVos and has the big guy pegged perfectly.

"He's been there every time Canada needed him," Yallop said. "He's been an outstanding player. He's a great reader of the game.

DeVos helped Canada through the first stage of qualifying for the World Cup against Belize. He's going home to move wife Rachael and daughter Ella to Ipswich, where he begins training in 10 days.

He has globe-trotting duties again in August, in the next round of World Cup qualifying.

"I told Rachael that if she followed me all over where I want to go right now, I promised her I'd go with her wherever she wants to go when my career is over," deVos said. "People have asked me what I'll do when I finish football . . . Hopefully it's not over yet. We have a few more pages to write. "

He wants those pages to include a Premier League spot and a World Cup appearance.

"I'm no different than anyone else. I want to play in one of the best leagues in the world. I'm ambitious," deVos said.

"There was a stage, when I was 15, when I wasn't sure if I was going to continue playing soccer. I was thinking of going back to hockey.

"Then my dad said, "If you're going to go with soccer give it everything you've got, give it your best shot. Don't waste the opportunity you have.' That's what I've tried to do. I think I've done OK."

Better than OK. Far better.

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