TAMPA — For University of Tampa senior forward Felipe DeSousa, a second chance at college soccer has paid off in ways he never expected.
• He was selected Sunshine State Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
• The Spartans earned a bid in the NCAA Tournament.
• UT also captured the SSC Tournament title. DeSousa converted one of the penalty kicks in a dramatic semifinal shootout upset of Lynn University, then opened the scoring in a 2-1 championship victory against Rollins College.
Quite a year.
And that was after DeSousa sat out for two seasons.
"I wondered what it would be like (coming back)," said DeSousa, 23, who has a team-leading nine goals in 12 matches. "Sometimes, you never know. I really didn’t believe in second chances. I thought I was done. What happened this season was kind of overwhelming."
For DeSousa — and the Spartans.
Several months ago, UT coach Adrian Bush never allowed himself to believe that DeSousa could play for the Spartans. There were too many hurdles to cross.
DeSousa, from Wharton High School, played three all-conference years at Florida Gulf Coast University, but left school before his last year.
"I had to come home to Tampa," DeSousa said. "I couldn’t concentrate on the game. My mind was somewhere else."
DeSousa said his mother, Maria, was suddenly diagnosed with bacteria in her brain. She underwent surgery and things were dicey. Over time, DeSousa’s mother recovered and she’s fine now.
But DeSousa, while pulling close to his family, drifted far from college soccer. Here and there, he played in some weekend leagues. He studied a professional future, but never fully closed the door on college.
"I ran out of time to play (at a Division I-A school) — nobody told me about that — but there was hope to get into a Division II school," DeSousa said. "I just had to get my work done."
Bush said DeSousa had to complete a considerable academic load before he was accepted at UT.
"Look, Felipe DeSousa is definitely a game changer because of his ability," Bush said. "But I’m more proud about what he had to do get back in school.
"It shows so much about his character when he’s focused and driven to do something. He kept saying, ‘I promised my family I’d get my degree.’ When I hear somebody talking like that, it gets my attention. Felipe has done everything he said he would. And that’s a good thing for our program because we’re so glad to have him."
DeSousa grew up in soccer-crazy Brazil, doing what he could to get by with his family. Sometimes, he’s amazed watching American kids and their proliferation of electronic gadgets, almost taking things for granted. In his homeland, he had none of that.
When he was an eighth-grader, he and his family migrated to Tampa. He didn’t even own a soccer ball, usually practicing with a basketball against the wall of his apartment complex.
At Wharton, he didn’t initially play on the team. He missed tryouts because he didn’t have a ride. Soon enough, though, coaches found out about his ability and he played his final two seasons with the Wildcats.
"He tore it up in high school," Bush said. "Of course, we knew about him then, but he had a lot of options."
DeSousa said he felt the best option was at FGCU, playing for coach Bob Buttehorn, who is now at USF. He loved his time there and has maintained plenty of close relationships.
Now he has a new soccer family at UT.
"When you work hard and care about the team like Felipe does, you’re going to fit in just fine," Bush said. "In 13 years, he’s one of just a few guys I’ve had who has cried after losses. The game means that much to him. And every one of those guys ended up being pros.
"When we played Lynn (in the regular season), Felipe was in tears. And we tied that game. He felt like he hadn’t done enough with his opportunities. He has that much passion and drive. That’s going to take him really far."
DeSousa wants to play professional soccer. Soon, he will investigate his options.
But wherever he lands, DeSousa will always be grateful for his one season at UT.
"Everybody here has made me feel welcome," DeSousa said. "Nobody complained and we all worked together. It was a team atmosphere.
"I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I was so happy to be back. I came every day to practice with a smile. On the soccer field, I feel like I’m home. It’s nice to feel that way again."