Jeff Dewsnup: 'I quit professional football at 18 and started a band. I just wanted to be happy'
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At his home in Utah, a state situated in the western part of the United States, Jeff Dewsnup is opening up on his decision to quit football. "I've finally reached the point where I'm comfortable talking about my mental health," he tells SPORTbible. "It was something I was struggling with. Now it's time to share my story with the world."
It has taken almost a year for the teenager to speak publicly about a choice that took America's tight-knit soccer community by surprise. In March last year, the youngest player in Real Salt Lake's history to sign a professional contract wanted to find happiness, so after many hours of consideration, he put his Adidas gloves to one side.
At the time, Dewsnup was attracting interest from a number of European clubs. Eredivisie side PSV Eindhoven invited him over for a trial last summer after scouts reviewed some of his in-game footage. Borussia Dortmund, Crystal Palace and Fulham were also said to be keeping tabs on his progress.
It made sense. At 17 years, two months and 18 days old, while playing for the Real Monarchs – a team that operates as Real Salt Lake's reserve team – he entered the history books again, becoming the youngest goalkeeper in the USL Championship to record a clean sheet.
Dewsnup was labelled one of the best young prospects in the country. And even by his own admission, that statement had an element of truth behind it. "Based on that first year, I guess I was one of the best," he says, almost playing down his undeniable talent.
It was a childhood dream to feature between the sticks and before his twenties, the highly-rated goalkeeper's CV already included international caps at under-15 and under-17 level. On the surface, performances on the pitch were more than satisfactory. From the outside looking in, everything seemed to be running smoothly.
But in reality, things weren't as straightforward as they seemed.
Congratulations to Jeff Dewsnup on living out his childhood dreams and signing as a Homegrown Player with @realsaltlake. The 16-year-old is the youngest player to sign with RSL in club history and also has international experience with U.S. U15 & U17 teams. #BeStellar pic.twitter.com/4GWPzY4HmB— ICM Stellar Soccer (@Stellar_Soccer) January 13, 2021
In his first season as a professional, 6’1” goalkeeper Jeff Dewsnup was earning a reputation at the 5,000 capacity Zions Bank Stadium for his cat-like reflexes. He featured in the United Soccer League’s Save of the Week competition on a regular basis and in total, recorded 33 stops in 11 appearances for Real Monarchs — an impressive record for any seasoned pro, never mind a young prospect.
Real Salt Lake were keen to give the inexperienced Dewsnup first-team minutes in America’s second tier to try and accelerate his development. It’s fair to say he flourished. "I can't complain about that first year from a professional point of view," the 18-year-old says. "It was a very good year for me. I played 25 games with the second team and I sat on the bench a lot with RSL’s first-team."
Freddy Juarez, who was Real Salt Lake’s head coach when Dewsnup signed that history-making deal, was clearly excited about his future. “He’s a very talented goalkeeper and we had a specific plan for him,” Juarez said in 2021. "We will continue to work with him to make sure he continues on that path to the first team."
Caps at youth level for the United States followed. He travelled to St George's Park – the home of England – with the under-17 team for a tournament, and was handed a starting spot against Denmark. But despite the individual accolades and a growing reputation, that first year as a professional was a real eye-opener for Dewsnup.
"I was constantly struggling with the pressure of everything throughout that year," he says. "You couldn't really tell because I was performing pretty well on the pitch, but there were just a lot of things outside of soccer that were taking a toll on my mental health. And then soccer tipped it over the edge with the amount of pressure and anxiety it drove."
Dewsnup says he doesn't feel comfortable discussing details surrounding personal matters outside of the game.
"It's been something that I've continued to battle with," he says. "But it didn't really affect my performances. I think I'm good at hiding my feelings. When I was playing, I would feel like a monster. I'd just put it all away and go out and play, and I'd do well. But you're only playing for 90 minutes and then you have the rest of your life to live. And I was really struggling outside of that."
On top of his battles away from the pitch, the day-to-day atmosphere at club side Real Salt Lake was tough. He says he wasn't always treated the best by members of the first-team, which took a further toll on his mental health. In his own words, it wasn't so much the pressure of the audience, but It was more the pressure within the club.
In early 2022, ahead of the new MLS season, things got so intense that Dewsnup felt the need to step back and review everything.
"I don't even think the first game had started yet when the depression and anxiety kicked in," he says. "I've been on medication for it but January 2022 was when it got so bad that I decided to really take a look at my life and where I'd be happiest.
"I took a moment and stepped back. I isolated myself for four or five days. I was just tired of feeling the way I was feeling. I wasn't happy. I was miserable. It was making me become a person I didn't want to be. Ultimately, what can come with mental health is self harm. And that's something I didn't want to be at risk of."
As he reflected on the situation, Dewsnup would picture his life in a different setting. He wanted to focus on looking after himself because football was ultimately having a negative impact on his mental health. "It was something that I didn't want to continue doing," he admits. "I just wanted to live a life that I enjoyed."
Two months later, in March 2022, he experienced a real low point. After a brief pause to compose himself, Dewsnup takes a deep breath on the Zoom call before opening up.
"It's hard for me to talk about it,” he says. "But March last year was very difficult. I was just a very isolated person. I didn't have any motivation for life in general. I'd just play my guitar in my room. That was probably the lowest point. I didn't go out much. I had thoughts of self harm. It was a very hard time in my life."
Throughout this period, Dewsnup would often discuss his feelings with family members; and in particular, his father. They spoke to each other about the future and eventually, after much discussion, it was decided that the 18-year-old would step away from professional football.
A conversation with Real Salt Lake would follow, although the young goalkeeper was not involved in those talks.
"I have a really good agent," Dewsnup says. "In fact, he still works with me. He's an amazing guy. He was made aware about everything because of my dad. My dad's always helped me a lot and he communicated with him. I was in a really dark spot with my mental health, so I just took a back seat and didn't really get involved with that personally.
"They went to Real Salt Lake and brought it all up. It was a big surprise for everyone at RSL. It was a surprise for everyone in the community to see me kind of disappear. It's still not easy for anyone in the soccer world but ultimately, I don't really care because it's my life.
"I'm really confident in what I believe in and what I've decided to do."
Music has always played an important part in Dewsnup’s life. From the age of 13, he has written songs that feature his own thoughts and feelings, through good times and bad. It was, and still is, an escape from everything that’s going on. In fact, he maintains that music “absolutely” saved his life.
“I was at such a low point where nothing seemed to make me feel happy,” he said about those tough times in 2022. “I felt completely hopeless about everything. It seemed the only outlet I had was to write about what was going on. I think if I didn't have music around me, if I wasn't able to express myself through music, I would have been in a much worse of a situation as I am now. That's why I say music saved me."
Happiness is a regular discussion point throughout our lengthy chat. During the dark times, music has been a source of light. “When you have nothing, you turn to the things that have always been there,” he says. “And music has been such a big part of my life that gives me so much. It was something I really latched on to.”
After deciding against pursuing a career in professional football, Dewsnup reached out to Shayn Thomsen – a talented bass guitarist who also happened to be part of the goalkeeper’s union. In fact, Thomsen was handed a trial at Real Salt Lake's academy in early 2021 after he impressed on the local scene, but the COVID pandemic meant he couldn’t attend the session.
Coming into May 2022, the pair had known each other for a while but they were never the best of friends. Still, Dewsnup sent a message to Thomsen last summer, asking if he would like to start playing together, and things just clicked from there. Dewsnup believes the bond they forged through music is fate after both of their football careers took a different turn.
Dewsnup soon invited Aleko Louras, a talented drummer from the local area, to jam and a three-man band called ‘The Johns’ was formed. They started off by playing all of Dewsnup’s self-written songs, made an album together and started to gig in local venues. They’ve since gained traction around America’s West Coast and plan on going on a tour of Washington, Oregon, California, Texas and Phoenix this summer. "I have a saying that I always live by,” Dewsnup says. “It goes, ‘Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.' Music is definitely worth doing to me, so I'm going to give it my all.”
Jeff’s decision to leave behind a career in professional football to pursue music has naturally been met with a mixture of positive and negative comments. He expected that. After all, only 1.4% of those who play soccer in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in the United States are offered professional contracts, with millions going through the heartache of release on a yearly basis.
In fact, in the UK alone, just 180 from 1.5 million youth footballers are likely to make it all the way to the Premier League – which is a success rate of 0.012%. And before retiring, Dewsnup was being tracked by Fulham and Crystal Palace, who currently play in England’s top flight.
"A lot of people say, ‘Why would you give up an opportunity like that? You got so lucky. You got this opportunity handed to you. So many people would die to have the luck that you have...' I just don't see it as luck at all,” he says. “I think I worked hard to get that contract and become a pro. I earned everything in soccer. And I decided to step away from it.
"I don't believe life is about living with regrets,” Dewsnup goes on. “I think you need to move on if things don’t make you happy. I'm happy now and I think I'll continue to be. I don't believe in living in the past. It's my life and I can do what I want with it.”
The 18-year-old, who was officially announced as ‘retired’ when Real Salt Lake published their pre-season roster on January 9, 2023, is also thankful for those who have backed his decision to step away from the sport.
"Thankfully, everyone who I'm surrounded by have been so supportive,” he says. “That's been very comforting to hear because another thing that took a toll on my mental health while playing was that I felt like people only liked me for being this good soccer player. It's been good to see that there's a lot of people that care about me for just being myself rather than being ‘the soccer player’. The support I've gotten has been great."
Almost a year on from hanging up his goalkeeper gloves and Dewsnup is the happiest he’s been for a long time. As the pressures of modern day football continue to rise through the often-ruthless nature of social media — and the expectation that follows — the teenager doesn’t doubt that other young footballers, whether that be professional or not, are going through similar experiences to him.
He has a message for those people.
"I think if it's taking a toll on your personal well being and life, like it did with me, then it's very important to take a step back,” he says. “If you're going to be happier without playing football every day, then I think it's something to consider. You only live once. It's not worth living day in and day out, not being happy. I think everyone just needs to identify where they will be happiest. People need to really pursue the life they want to live, no matter what people think. You don't need to explain why you should be happy.
“There were critics talking about me after quitting soccer but I just think, no matter what you decide to do, just do everything for yourself. Your happiness is all on you. You have the decision to pursue the life that makes you happy. And whether that's quitting a sport or a job that you hate, or maybe it's continuing to play soccer. It's all relative to the person. We're all different human beings. And we all require different things to be happy. Everyone's mental health is just as valid as each other.”
Dewsnup maintains that he has nothing against the game he grew up playing. He still has a kickabout with his bandmate, Shayn, at the local park and enjoys watching the sport on television. That being said, he says he won’t come out of retirement any time soon. “I'm very content with the life I'm living,” he says with a smile.
If you are struggling, here is a list of the leading mental health helplines and services that are just a call away.
- Samaritans are there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and will talk to you about anything that's bothering you. You can call 116 123 (free from any phone), email [email protected] or visit some branches in person.
- The Nightline website allows students to see if their university or college offers a night-time listening service. Nightline phone operators are all students too.