When DeAndre Yedlin was 16, he wrote down his three biggest soccer goals and posted them in the kitchen of his family’s Lake Forest Park home.
The first was “Play in Europe.’’ Then “Become a ‘Pro’ (on and off the field)’’ and finally “Become accustomed to European Culture.’’ No kid from Seattle had ever reached Europe’s top professional ranks, but Yedlin, returning from a summer tour of Belgium, Austria, Italy and Germany with a youth elite team, was smitten by soccer overseas and vowed he’d get there.
“We played some pretty good adult teams and we did all right,’’ Yedlin says. “I think that’s ultimately what gave me the confidence I could hold my own. Even over there, where soccer means everything.’’
After making a surprise World Cup debut with Team USA in Brazil, the Sounders defender last month fulfilled his top goal, when Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League agreed to a $4 million transfer fee with the Sounders. Yedlin, 21, will finish this Major League Soccer (MLS) season before joining Spurs before their 2015-16 season.
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Yedlin is largely unfazed by his overnight transition into the most-celebrated homegrown pro athlete playing in Seattle; appearing on “Good Morning America,” on billboards and even as grand marshal of this summer’s Torchlight Parade. Keeping Yedlin grounded is his knowledge about who most helped get him here; the largely untold story of how he came to live at the Lake Forest Park home where he dared to dream big.
It’s the tale of a father he has never met, jailed two weeks before Yedlin was born and later imprisoned for life. And a mother, also in and out of jail, who initially raised him before his grandparents, Ira Yedlin and Vicki Walton, sought permanent custody when DeAndre was 19 months old.
Yedlin’s grandparents treated him like a son and provided stability. His mother rebounded years later and re-entered Yedlin’s life, forging a close relationship where they openly discuss mistakes, regrets and mutual optimism for their future.
But Yedlin realizes others have already made the biggest sacrifices on his behalf. He gets the easy part: fulfilling the destiny they made possible.
“I want people to know about my story and where I came from,’’ he says.
A young mother’s mistakes
It begins in 1991 with his mother, Rebecca Yedlin, being introduced at 16 to her first serious boyfriend, a man five years older named Larry Morris Rivers. By 17, she was living with Rivers and his family, and at 18, she was pregnant with DeAndre.
Rivers had been jailed on multiple assault and robbery charges in the 1980s, including for nearly beating a man to death outside Pike Place Market.
“I’d gotten involved with his father, who was obviously not a good person,’’ Rebecca Yedlin says. “He was involved with the criminal side of the law. And I was very young, very naive and so a lot of that influenced me to go in that same direction.’’
She wound up leaving Rivers while pregnant. Rivers was arrested in June 1993 for distributing cocaine in downtown Seattle and sentenced to 14 months in prison.
Two weeks after the arrest, Rebecca Yedlin gave birth to their son.
She was on her own, unable to work while caring for DeAndre. Within a month, she was arrested for writing checks off a closed account to pay for items at several Bellevue department stores — intending to quickly return them elsewhere for cash refunds.
She pleaded guilty to unlawfully issuing checks and served jail time in the summer of 1994.
After the arrest, she’d accepted an offer from her father and stepmother and moved into their home with DeAndre. But while awaiting sentencing in the checks case, she made her only visit to Rivers in jail, with DeAndre in tow. She planned to smuggle Rivers marijuana in DeAndre’s diaper bag, but got cold feet and stashed it in a jailhouse storage locker before going through security.
A guard dog sniffed traces of it on her, and a locker search led to an arrest for importing contraband.
She severed contact with Rivers for good after that, but legal woes from both cases consumed most of 1994 and 1995. She’d moved back out on her own during this time, but would often leave DeAndre with his grandparents, who worried about his well-being.
In February 1995, they filed for and received permanent custody.
New family addition
Ira Yedlin already had Rebecca and an adult son from his first marriage, while Vicki Walton had three adult daughters from hers. They were also raising a 10-year-old son, Dylan Walton-Yedlin, they’d had together.
Adding yet another child wasn’t something they’d envisioned.
“When Dylan graduated from high school, I can remember other parents talking about how they’re going to do a lot of travel now that their kid was going away to college,’’ Walton says. “And I was like, ‘We have a 9-year-old.’ But we’re really glad we raised him. He’s certainly added something to our family that we never would have had.’’
DeAndre’s uncle Dylan was nine years older, but was thrilled about gaining the equivalent of a kid brother. Dylan, an avid athlete, taught DeAndre by age 2 to kick a soccer ball and shoot hoops.
His grandparents signed DeAndre up for soccer at age 4 and when his Under-5 team, the Fireballs, needed a coach, his grandfather and Dylan took over. When Dylan taught soccer at youth summer camps, DeAndre would tag along to kick balls on the side or run drills with boys twice his age.
“He has an innate sense of the game,’’ Dylan says. “He would just dribble past everybody on his U-5 team and then he would pass to the other person standing next to the goal so they could score. Most kids who are dribbling through everybody, they’re the ones who want the shot, the glory. But he was never like that.’’
Yedlin says his uncle, now a bond trader in Boston, remains his biggest influence and closest friend. He’d take Yedlin everywhere; even to older friends’ houses for sleepovers and marathon Halo video-game sessions.
“I did literally everything they did,’’ Yedlin says. “I’d go out to dinner with them.”
One of those older friends, Nolan Myer, is now the Sounders’ equipment manager.
“I didn’t have a little brother and he was like a little brother to all of us,” Myer says.
The older group’s maturity rubbed off on DeAndre. He’d join playground pickup games with kids he didn’t know, but avoid dominating so they didn’t feel bad.
His grandparents taught him to shake the referee’s hand after games, and soon his entire team did it. They also preached that no matter how good he was at sports, there would always be somebody better.
“I think one of the biggest things is I wasn’t spoiled as a kid,’’ Yedlin says. “I got what I needed. I didn’t always get what I wanted. But it’s good to have what you need.’’
After Dylan left to play small-college football at Union College in upstate New York, he phoned his mother one night in tears over “abandoning” DeAndre, then age 10.
“It’s OK, you’re 19,” she told him. “You didn’t abandon him. You get to go to college.’’
Mother, child reacquainted
By then, DeAndre’s mother had been reintroduced into his life.
Rebecca Yedlin had given birth to a daughter, Jenea, when DeAndre was 3. She was again a single mother, but this time working as a dispatcher at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
“I had my own apartment,’’ she says. “I was in no other trouble. I’d really gotten myself back on track.’’
DeAndre met his new sister right away. The distance from his mother’s Renton apartment to Lake Forest Park initially limited visits to alternating weekends, but they increased once DeAndre was 6.
In 2002, Yedlin’s mother sought a two-year teaching degree, followed by a degree at The Evergreen State College. In 2012, she completed an online master’s degree in adult education.
She teaches business technology and medical office technology at South Seattle College, where she has worked the past eight years. But her first teaching job, in 2004, was with inmates at the Kent jail.
The subject: life skills.
“Talk about making a 360,’’ she says. “It was pretty redeeming.’’
Yedlin’s father, meanwhile, was arrested in 2003 for abducting an elderly Cambodian immigrant in his car, robbing him at gunpoint and pistol-whipping him when he tried to escape. After his conviction for robbery and kidnapping, Rivers was imprisoned for life as a habitual offender.
Yedlin’s grandparents, who have never met Rivers, tried to make fatherless life seem normal. But DeAndre drew curious looks from people wondering how his darker skin and Afro fit in with the white family.
A few months ago, Rivers’ sister contacted DeAndre for the first time. He saw photos of his father and found their resemblance striking. But Yedlin isn’t ready to meet Rivers. He’s more eager to learn about his mother’s experiences.
“As I got older, I got a better relationship with her,’’ he says. “I think they did a very good job of slowly re-entering me back into her life without it being too much. Especially as a kid, it can be confusing going into somebody else’s life when they weren’t always in yours when you were very young.’’
Yedlin never called his grandmother “Mom,” though she often played the part. When her husband took a job in Phoenix, Walton remained behind with Yedlin his senior year at O’Dea High School so his soccer wouldn’t be disrupted.
“I always call him my kid because ‘grandson’ sounds so far removed,’’ Walton says.
A taste of Europe
Yedlin had rocketed through Seattle’s elite club-soccer programs before joining the Sounders youth academy for the 2010-11 season. He’d gotten his summer taste of Europe in 2009 with a program called SuperElite, before his junior year of high school.
“One of the biggest fallacies in soccer is that Americans are not as good as the rest of the world,’’ says Jon Spencer, who ran SuperElite when Yedlin attended. “That’s nonsense. It’s all about development. Gaining exposure and the attitude, you can compete with the best.’’
Yedlin glimpsed his potential that year when his team of 16- and 17-year-olds held their own against pro teams, such as a draw against a “Serie B” squad from Italy.
“In his case, he tasted it, he witnessed it, then he went home and wrote down his goals,’’ Spencer says. “And then he set out to achieve them.’’
Yedlin ignored bigger schools to play at University of Akron, known for producing pro-ready soccer players.
“It would get him where he wanted to go,” his grandmother said.
Yedlin was twice all-conference at Akron, where he met his girlfriend. He then signed with the Sounders and wasn’t expected to play much, but replaced injured right back Adam Johansson and became an 2013 MLS all-star his first season.
His uncle says East Coast clients now see his name and ask whether he’s related to “that soccer player from the World Cup.’’
“Every choice he’s made from youth soccer up to signing with the Sounders, it ended up being the right choice,’’ his uncle says. “But he’s certainly had some luck along the way.’’
A new beginning
Yedlin feels fortunate, figuring he’d never have become a soccer player without the custody intervention. He reflects on that when things get crazy.
“It’s one of those things where you have to realize what you’re getting stressed about, take a step back and then it’s all good,’’ he says.
His grandparents, now retired in Arizona, were in Brazil for his World Cup debut this summer. They also joined him, Dylan and Rebecca in Portland, Ore., for the recent MLS All-Star Game.
It was a tense time, given the ongoing Tottenham negotiations. Yedlin had to abruptly fly to England, which he senses was hardest on his grandparents and uncle.
“It’s an adjustment because they’ve always been there to help every decision,’’ Yedlin says.
Yedlin will leave those closest to him at a time the family’s bonds are stronger than ever. His mother and grandparents have smoothed over years of strained relations stemming partly from their custody bid. Now she’s glad she yielded without a legal fight.
“Honestly, had I raised him he never would have been a professional soccer player,’’ she says. “So, I think it was the best thing for him. I’m glad I was able to think about him and not just myself.’’
Yedlin marvels at how his mother “put her life completely back together’’ and raised his nearly-adult sister, who “in terms of school and things like that, really knows what she wants.’’
After the Torchlight Parade, Yedlin dined with his mother and girlfriend. A casual chat among the three of them soon became a one-on-one between mother and son — something that once seemed as improbable as a Seattle soccer player making it overseas.
“It’s been really nice to hang out and get to know her on an adult level,’’ Yedlin says. “She can share things with me that she couldn’t when I was a little bit younger.
“We’ve both got our lives going the way we’d always hoped.’’
And now, he gets to take it from here.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.