Dema Kovalenko has proven to be one intense competitor for every team for which he has played. (Photo courtesy of the LA Galaxy)

This is a story I wrote about Red Bulls midfielder Dema Kovalenko on May 24, 2007.

First of a three-part series

By Michael Lewis

Dema Kovalenko was so crushed by Indiana University losing to UCLA in the 1997 NCAA Division I semifinals that he did not want to forget the pain and disappointment he had endured.

So, he hung a picture near his bed of himself and his teammates on the ground crying after the extra-time defeat.

“I put the picture in my room to motivate me. It motivated me,” he said. “Every time I looked at it I got so mad.”

Kovalenko, who had been on the fence about returning for another year of college ball, came back and help the Hoosiers win the title.

That picture says a lot and yet it is only the tip of an iceberg, in some respects a portrait of man who is driven to win at everything he participates, whether it is soccer with the Red Bulls, billiards with a teammate or basketball with his father.

Even Kovalenko — he turns 30 on Aug. 28 — said that he realizes he can become too intense at times.

“Sometimes too much,” he said. “I realize that and sometimes people take me wrong. I always say that I will do whatever it takes to win. And it’s true. but when happened in the past before a couple of times with Dallas players, and this and that. I’m very competitive. You ask any guy in the locker room of any team I’ve played for — D.C., Chicago and now New York — man, I hate losing.”

But that drive and determination go beyond soccer.

“I lose to Markus [Schopp, Red Bulls midfielder] in pool and I can’t sleep,” Kovalenko said. “I think about it until the next day so I can win. That’s the truth. If I play with a little kid, I want to win. This is crazy but it’s so true.”

That’s because Kovalenko’s competitive fires were stoked by his father in his native Kiev in the Ukraine.

“He raised me that way and it shows,” he said. “Sometimes I do too much. On the field I argue. In my early years I was thrown out so many times from the games. Some stupid things and sometimes that I’m very, very competitive.”

Kovalenko felt his father went over the top in every sport in which they played together.

He said parents are supposed to let their children win, at least once in a while.

“He never did. Never. He never lost to me,” he said. “He always beat me. He laughed at me and I might cry, and I’d go crazy. I wouldn’t come home. It happened many times. There was some point when he visited me here for the first time when I was here, and he couldn’t beat me anymore in anything. I got older and better a little bit.”

Kovalenko remembered when his father put up a basketball hoop at their house.

“He was so tall and I was so short,” he said. “He just put the ball in. I would shoot and miss, and I went go crazy all the time. Everything we did was competition. That’s why I’m like that.”

Kovalenko’s housemates and teammates have seen that competitive side.

“He holds himself to a higher level, a higher standard,” rookie midfielder Sinisa Ubiparipovic said. “He wants to do the best he can. He will critique himself to demand better. Sometimes he is a little bit harsh on himself.”

Yet, that competitive side also has a compassionate one as well.

“He can be very nice. He can be very crazy,” rookie midfielder Dane Richards said with a laugh

The nice part is when he imparts some of his soccer wisdom to the next generation of soccer players.

“I learned how to be a good professional,” Richards said. “Every day is like trying to make the team. It’s like pre-season for him each day and that’s a great quality for a pro.”

The craziness? Well that’s another story.

After last Saturday’s victory over Columbus, the players were to attend an autograph session with fans. Kovalenko’s official Red Bulls shirt was too big, so he borrowed Ubiparipovic’s medium-sized one. While Kovalenko was in the shower Ubiparipovic switched the shirt back to his possession.

“He was getting crazy,” Richards said. “Everything is ok. We got over it. We managed to calm him down.”

Kovalenko’s soccer career — from youth to high school to college to the pros — has been filled with many twists, turns and controversies.

During a U.S. tour in 1991, Kovalenko, who then participated in the Dynamo Kiev youth program got a taste of what the U.S. was all about. He and eight other players returned a year later and were taken in by a family in Honeoye Falls-Lima outside of Rochester, N.Y.

“Everything in general was so much better than it was at home,” he said. “That’s why I wanted to come back. When I came back here, I missed my family crazy. I cried sometimes. I really missed them.

“Of course, it was tough. I didn’t even understand, at 14-years-old, my family really made a decision for me, which at the time, I wanted to go back because I met nice people. It was fun. They got me a lot of things. . . . I say this now, I don’t know if I would have done it again.

“It’s difficult to be without your family. One thing everyone is entitled to is to be with their family. At a certain age, from 14 to 18, that is the time you really need them because you make wrong decisions, you make wrong steps. They’re there for you to guide you in the right direction.”

He played a year at Honeoye Falls-Lima High School before moving to Greece, home of Greece Arcadia High School, located in a northwest suburb of the city.

“They didn’t treat me right,” he said. “I went with another family. They didn’t have much. They didn’t have a huge house like the family that brought me here. They didn’t have a lot of money. I was very, very happy with them.”

He stayed with Ted and Cathy Hershey, who had three children. Ted Hershey was Arcadia boys soccer coach. Section 5, the governing body of high school sports in the Rochester area, said that Hershey recruited him, Kovalenko said. They gave Hershey a choice: Kovalenko could play a year, but he couldn’t coach or the midfielder couldn’t play and he could continue coaching.

“He chose to not to coach, so I can play that year,” Kovalenko said. “He stepped a away a year and he came back after that. The year he stepped out we won the sectional title. It was unbelievable. They are great people. I still talk to them. I love them like my own family. They treated me like a son and I will never forget that. . .. They were there when I needed them. They took me in when the other family kicked me out.”

At Arcadia, Kovalenko thrived. He led the team to a Section 5 title and a runner-up berth. Personally, he earned All-American honors twice and was named the New York state player of the year in 1996.

In the classroom, he forged a 3.1 grade-point average, which was an achievement in itself considering Kovalenko did not know a word of English when he came to America. In fact, he took freshmen courses two years in a row “because I didn’t know the language.

“It was very difficult to communicate and ask for things just for a normal life.”

Kovalenko was a highly sought-after player. He said more than 150 colleges were interested, many offering full scholarships.

He wanted to go to the University of Virginia and play for Bruce Arena, now the Red Bulls coach.

“I could have gone to Yale, Dartmouth,” he said. “I could have gone to any school I wanted to go. I could have gone to Virginia. Bruce recruited me. I’ll never forget. Every college visit I had the assistant coach picked me up. I went to Virginia and Bruce came to pick me up. We went to dinner and I loved the school. When I started looking for schools in my sophomore year, that’s all I heard. Virginia. Virginia. The best school. They won like five titles in six years, four in a row. So, I told myself that’s where I want to go. That’s the best school. I had a chance to go there.”

But Arena decided to turn pro and became coach of D.C. United in MLS’s inaugural season, forcing Kovalenko to alter his plans.

So, Kovalenko decided to go to Indiana and two other Ukrainian players who settled in Rochester area came along with him — Yuri Lavrinenko and Aleksey Korol. They helped coach Jerry Yeagley, who for most of his career, had resisted using foreign-grown talent until then, capture the 1998 Division I crown.

Kovalenko wanted to turn pro after his sophomore year. But losing in the semifinals and some convincing from Yeagley and assistant coach Michael Freitag (the current head coach) brought him back for one more year — 1998 — and won a national title.

He was able to take down that picture from his wall.

The picture may be gone, but the fire still lives inside Kovalenko.

He admitted he is always working on tempering his temper without losing any of his passion. Through last Saturday’s 4-0 triumph over the Columbus Crew, Kovalenko has accrued 43 yellow cards and five red cards in 186 games over nine seasons.

It hasn’t been easy.

Kovalenko said that he “realized one thing” early on: “It’s not about me. That’s one thing that you forget. You’re in a game and you’re so emotional, so crazy. But you know what? There are 10 guys on the field and 20-24 guys in the locker room. That’s what you’ve got to think about. If you play tennis and get thrown out, you know what? That is my fault and I blame myself.

“To leave the other players down. In soccer you play one man down, it’s a big difference, especially at this level. That’s what I really realized. I still do some things sometimes. I think I’ve gotten a little bit better, but I still have a long way to go.”