THE FLIGHT, FIGHT & FUTURE OF DEMIT OMPHROY
To commemorate the launch of the debut GAFFER x Beautiful Struggles collection, we travelled to four key cities around the world – New York, London, Paris and Berlin – to compile the greatest stories, memories and moments from a variety of real-life journeymen and those who have been inspired by their stories.
New York City-based artist Demit Omphroy has grown into one of the most exciting and in-demand creative talents in the United States by not only looking to defy convention at every turn but never being afraid to roll the dice. By understanding that everything – happiness, freedom, isolation, jubilation, sadness, sorrow and struggle – is fleeting. A transient emotion. One not to follow but one to remember. To wear, to reference and to use as you continue to move forward.
Now, as he moves into his ‘sophomore’ season as a fully-fledged artist, he’s realised that celebrating self-fulfilment is even more fun than trying to surpass expectations.
This is the story of how Demit Omphroy went from being the first ever football player with Multiple Sclerosis to play in the MLS to becoming one of the brightest artists in America.
As we connect on a video call just a few days after he took GAFFER on a tour of his neighbourhood in New York City, the imprint of the word ‘Fluer’ tattooed onto the base of Demit’s neck hovers over the collar of his white t-shirt as he begins to pour himself a tea and apologises for that fact its not of the English breakfast variety. “I was rushing around this morning, so I need some tea to re-calibrate a little,” he explains. Beyond the talk of milk and sugars the simplicity of the tattoo comes into focus and it helps me connect the first two dots in Demit’s story. The flower is representative of the strength and fragility that defines the life and career of so many footballers. At the top of their game, with the light shining the brightest, they appear so fresh, so abundant, so intense. When the floodlights fade, the shortness of a footballer’s career becomes apparent. Yet, their long and eternal impact also comes into focus. It’s the balance of contradictions that has defined Demit’s story so far.
Born in California to an artistic mother and a footballing father, Demit shared the dreams and ambitions of both parents, and as it happens, two of his biggest passions in life became football and painting. “My Mum is very quiet, very considerate,” Demit begins to explain. “But she always follows through with her actions. My Dad is the opposite, he’s very outspoken and he’s often the narrator in my head. A lot of the time when I’m faced with difficult decisions I think of what he would say and I think about the work ethic that they installed into me, and that puts me right.
To be honest, I even remember this one moment in my early football career, I think I was 12 years old. I had been getting a lot of interest from other teams to train outside of my hometown. We were driving to a new team’s training and I was completely lost, kind of crying to myself.
He pulled over the car and asked me what I was afraid of. Was it not knowing the people there? Failing? Playing with kids that were better than me?
Ultimately, I was afraid of change and the unknown that came with it. It was a fear.
We talked it out and I came to the decision that I wanted to be at the new team’s practice. And he let me make that decision. So we continued to drive.
What he was trying to teach me was that there are uncomfortable, but necessary steps I need to take to achieve my dream.
I’ve carried this sort of risk taking and courage into who I am today as an artist and creative. It’s that attitude that first took me to Lisbon, too.”
At 16 years old Demit was one of the most promising footballing talents in the US and was tracked by the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United. A club liaison with links to Portugal secured Demit a two-week trial at Sporting Lisbon. Demit arrived alone. Incidentally trained with the Sporting Club de Portugal Juniores, with players up to four years older than him, and excelled. “To be honest, I fucked up my timing and I turned up to the wrong team training but the coached told me to stay and play anyway,” Demit begins to explain.
“These guys were so fucking good, all older dudes, and they didn’t even realise I was as young as I was and that I was supposed to be with the younger groups. The group I was originally supposed to train with didn’t want to keep me on but the older team, the Juniores, did. So, I stayed there and trained every day with the team [a team that included the likes of Rui Patricio and Adrien Silva.] As soon as I turned 18 they were set to offer me a three-year-professional deal.
“I was three months away from my 18th birthday and I woke up one morning with blurriness in my right eye that wouldn’t go away. I was rubbing my eyes, but thought I was just really tired. I went to have breakfast and it just didn’t go away, almost like something was stuck in my eye; I just kept rubbing it.
“In practice I noticed my depth perception was off, I kept losing the ball and I was a little off balance. It was really strange.
“A couple doctor appointments later, no one was really sure of what was going on. So, the next thing I know I was on a flight back to California with the fear that if my eye problem was hereditary, I would go blind. It ended up being optic neuritis, which took several months to heal from.
Ultimately, I never returned to Portugal and lost my dream of signing a professional contract.”
“That night I packed my bags and I left in the middle of the night. I waited for my roommate to fall asleep, hauled everything I had into a taxi, took off to the airport and got a rental car. It was time to start a new chapter.”
As a footballer, Demit embodied the best of what a player can be – confident, courageous and wide-eyed in wonder at the world and the experience he found himself in. At no point did he take anything for granted. Now, as an artist, he follows the same level of fearlessness. His unique way of seeing the world and navigating through it is what allows him to push way beyond people’s expectations. He now knows that it is important for an artist to just let the art be created. To allow yourself to follow your natural instincts. Because everyone is lost at some stage. But being lost is the only time that we can work something new into reality.
So, this is where we rejoin the journey with the first chapter in the story of Demit Omphroy. What happens when the world is not the same as it was before? [The following text has been edited for clarity.]
Chapter One: The World Is Not The Same As It Was Before
The entire process to get my vision back took, like, eight months. I was so close to signing my contract and that was always my dream. To get that dream taken away from me was my fuel to be like, fuck this.
I don’t want the end of my career to be like this. I didn’t want to just make it this far. Yes, everything has changed, which means the route for me to become a professional is going to have to change, too.
I didn’t leave for Portugal, struggle with homesickness, have to deal with my parents’ divorce, all by myself to just stop playing. I know now that those experiences shaped me into who I am today, there’s parallels that I draw on now as an artist in terms of how my relationships are formed and how I see things.
All of my art is about relationships. Even though they’re beautiful, uplifting and have pops of colour, there’s a lot of pain behind them. I think this idea of being alone a lot of the time early on, the digital relationships I had with friends, family and girlfriends, definitely play into my ideas now.
At that time growing up in Portugal, nothing felt real. I felt like I was sacrificing everything but I didn’t necessarily know why I was doing it. When you do things at such a young age you just feel like you have to do it. That’s why I was never going to just give up.
Chapter Two: Why Worry About What’s Coming Next?
You can wonder about what is coming next or you can learn to live in the moment. When I returned back home to California, I was devastated, I was scared of going back to playing football and studying in America. But as my next step I decided to attend UC Berkeley on a football scholarship. Maybe it was a blessing that I didn’t sign that contract because I wouldn’t have been able to get a college education and have a range of different experiences because I genuinely think everything happens for a reason.
Three years later, going into my Senior season, I was suffering with numbness in my foot and I needed to get the feeling back to ensure I was ready to potentially be drafted into the MLS.
That was when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
Again, it became my fire to not let this thing determine how I’m going to end my college career or what I’m going to do next. When I received that diagnosis it was really scary. There’s such a wide range of severity and one day could be completely different to the next.
But, again, I took that tenacious attitude from my parents, to just keep going and to not let things define me. The vocal part of my Dad and the proactive side to my Mum.
They always said ‘work when no one is even watching so you know you’re doing all you can.’
At the age of 21 I was then drafted in the second round of the draft [26th pick overall] to Toronto FC.
Chapter Three: Never Be Afraid To Turn The Page
There were a couple of moments that I knew I wanted to step away from the game.
After my first year playing with Toronto I was in a really low place, I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t making great money, I hadn’t saved any money.
So, in the off-season I came back home and I had a wonderful time just being a regular guy.
I rang my agent and told him that I’m not going back to pre-season even though I had just signed for a new team. I told him I wanted the papers to officially retire, I don’t want to play any more.
I remember just thinking for a very long time that it’s quite impulsive to just retire in the off-season.
So, I took a longer period out of the game and had like six months off, and I realised I was still only 21. There was a part of me there that still wanted to play.
The Filipino national team were out in Chicago and they invited me to train with them and they wanted me to play for the Philippines and play across all these different international tournaments.
That was my way back into the game and I loved playing out there for three months.
I came back and was like, get me back into the MLS. The team that offered me a contract previously invited me back.
During pre-season playing in a couple of scrimmages, I was playing well and then I just remembered the grind of it. There were a couple of days where I thought I’m getting this feeling again. What am I doing here?
I spoke to the coach to explain how I felt and to see what intentions he had with me in the upcoming session. He said that they wanted to keep me, that they love me, but they wanted to loan me out to a second division team so I can get some proper game time and then they’ll bring me back.
That was it.
I didn’t want the roadmap that was set out in front of me. I didn’t want to grind in the second division to just see if I could play again, it just wasn’t me any more.
That night I packed my bags and I left in the middle of the night. I waited for my roommate to fall asleep, hauled everything I had into a taxi, took off to the airport and got a rental car.
I then drove to Disney world and went to Disney for the whole fucking day. I called my family, I called my girlfriend, my friends and told them I was done.
I think it took me a whole other year away from the game to figure it all out but that was then I knew and they all knew that I was officially retiring.
I just needed some closure. It gave me the realisation that it was time to close this chapter and start a new one.
Chapter Four: Look Back At What You’ve Always Done, The Answer May Be There
When I was younger we used to paint with my Mum a lot.
We would always have these painting nights, they are the very reason why I fell in love with art.
We would always display our work on the refrigerator each week, it would be our very own little gallery.
I had a family that continued to encourage this level of creativity.
My Mum used to let us paint and draw all over the walls. I created my own Disney mural in the room I shared with my brother, where I had drawn Tarzan and Hercules across all my favourite characters.
Throughout high school I continued to paint. I didn’t know you could ever have a career in art, my Mum was just an artist for herself, not as a career. It was never anything that seemed a viable option, it was just something you did for fun.
So, I just kept drawing and experimenting until I got to college.
Getting into Art Collage is when I thought this is something I could do alongside football. I declared as an Art Major whilst still playing football at that time.
I carried on messing about with art but it wasn’t until I was in the Philippines, when I just got back into playing football, that art really found me again.
I started painting out there while I had time on my hands and I ended up meeting a few people that liked my work, so I sold a few paintings every couple of months, it was a hobby, an outlet for me at the time that I needed.
Chapter Five: Never Stop Creating
My Grandpa always told my Dad – always be creating.
It’s something that my Dad passed onto me and it’s so simple, but everything I do is led by creativity now.
It’s simplified the way I look at everything.
If I just lead with this idea to be creative for myself, all the other stuff comes you know.
As long as I’m able to create and be authentic to myself, then it’ll all work out.
So, when I returned from the Philippines, I was trying to find my own style.
I moved into this place and I started working at GoPro after I stopped playing. I would randomly get this painting urge.
So, I would start painting and replicating some Basquiat stuff that people were really showing some love for. And I was like, this isn’t my fucking work. Like I feel this isn’t mine. But people were loving it, buying these different paintings that looked sick but they weren’t really me.
I was coming straight out of the football world and I was trying to find love for what I was doing.
I found it really difficult to figure out what my voice was, I didn’t know at the time who I wanted to be or what I wanted to do.
But I just kept creating, I just kept feeding this urge of wanting to paint.
Chapter Six: I Found My Place When I Stopped Looking For It
In 2020, I went into this spiral, a place where a lot of us felt lost, we were all stuck.
I just split up from my girlfriend.
All this stuff came to a head and I was stuck by myself in New York.
So, I just kept on creating, kept on shedding the stuff I was carrying, my feelings, onto the canvas.
Then it hit. I remember making this piece, this kind of self-portrait. With these sculpted, smooth lines.
I remember just thinking. Holy shit. Like I made this and it just doesn’t look like anyone else’s work, it’s fucking me.
In the past 10 years, on and off, I’ve never made anything that made me feel like this. I was always like, oh, it looks like someone else’s. I looked at someone’s work and I sort of made an iteration of it.
And I finally felt like this is it.
I didn’t want to go to bed. I just kept painting and painting. I then did another one that was really similar just like a female version.
At one point I had like 15 paintings and they were all like line drawings of this same abstract portrait.
It’s my style, it’s my work that you see today.
I woke up the next day and I was like this is so fucking amazing.
I haven’t ever felt like this before.
I knew I needed to make more. But I was also really afraid.
Because I was afraid that I was going to lose it.
I guess I should just keep doing this until like, I lose whatever has happened, you know, because this isn’t normal. I don’t really know what this is like.
It was a massive flip the switch moment.
A couple of days later I posted one of the pieces. And someone was like,’ Hey, I love that piece, can I buy it?
I remember selling a piece, my first piece.
I sold it for $250. I spent like $120 on just wrapping a small piece so perfectly.
I couldn’t believe that I created something that someone saw something in.
It’s cool to remember that feeling, again. Because it’s the first time I felt like I had just become an artist.
Chapter Seven: Catch Any Ideas When They Come
A big thing for me was learning to be clear and intentional with my ideas when they come.
It comes with unlearning a lot of things that you learned as a kid.
You have to unlearn a lot of stuff about ideas, concepts and barriers. Like, flowers should look like this. Or if you draw a face it should look like this.
Nothing has to be a certain way to make sense.
From a young age we’re told whether you’re a good artist or not. Which is so fucked, that someone said that because you didn’t draw something in a certain way you’re a bad artist.
Part of the process is to learn to accept and enrich your creativity when it comes to you in any way that you can.
“You can wonder about what is coming next or you can learn to live in the moment.”
Chapter Eight: You Don’t Always Have To Work
Your individuality separates you from other people.
Which is why you need to feel comfortable with doing things that are not always accepted by everybody.
I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned in the last year is that I don’t need to be working all the time.
I don’t need to be painting every day to be the best artist. I just need to be creating.
Because, on your days off you’re still thinking, creating, idealising.
There are days when you are inspired. There are days when you’re resting and you’re in a completely different mental state and everything you’re doing takes on something new; whether that’s in your personal life and creative life.
You’re always interpreting new things to make part of your story.
Individuality is what sets the best footballers and the artists apart.
And I think that if you have a really unique individual style with sort of a great work ethic, that’s when you succeed.
I wish that I had this brain when I was playing. Because you get to a certain point where you’re so in your own head.
I was trying to please the coach, the players, and the fans.
If I got yelled at, it was just one of those things. One of those things I had to try and work out.
Now, my head is clearer. I know my intentions and I know my work ethic.
So, whatever happens I am staying true to myself and my own way of thinking.
The GAFFER x Beautiful Struggles collection launches exclusively via StockX on 28/04/2022.