Mateo Restrepo

Mateo Restrepo: “You can lose, but you can never be a loser”

This article has been reposted with kind permission from TheJourney, a blog that shares the story of individuals, providing insight into their unique journey and obstacles they have faced along the way. You can find the original article here.

Chapter 1: Journey to Canada

We left the country not knowing where our journey would take us

Told by Mateo Restrepo of HFX Wanderers, written by TheJourney.

In 2001, my family and I got into a caravan and made our way to Canada.

It was one of the scariest, yet hopeful moments in my life.

Mateo Mejia

The living situation in Colombia was not good at the time. There was a lot of violence and people were getting killed on a daily basis. My parents felt it was best to flee the country in order to give my sister and I a better future. We left the country not knowing where our journey would take us. We didn’t know how long it would take us to get to Canada or even how to get there. The journey took us about six months, but we finally made it.

When we arrived in Canada, my parents worked at a factory during the day, and at night my father would push buggies for a grocery store. They didn’t speak English and it was the only job available at the time.

We moved into a one bedroom basement for a few years while my family was getting back on their feet.

It was tough, really tough. However, the tough life was normal to me. This was an opportunity for us. Everyday, I woke up asking myself, what does today have to offer?


Chapter 2: Life In Canada

Now Canada, a dream land full of opportunities.

We tried to take every opportunity that was given to us and make the best out of it. Life changing opportunities don’t come around often, but when they did we didn’t want to take them for granted.

Looking back, if I didn’t play soccer, my life would’ve been completely different. This sport has exposed me to environments, where I have been able to express myself and meet people from various backgrounds. The brotherly connections within the team allowed me to cope with my hardships outside the field.

Looking back, if I didn’t play soccer, my life would’ve been completely different

Early on, I developed a competitive mentality where I thrived to be the best or one of the best on the field. Every team that I played on, I always paid attention to the hardest working kid and I was like I’m gonna learn from you. Eventually, I became the player I set out to be, where my role was to be an example for others.

I was always pretty disciplined and self motivated, but soccer gave me those principles to be able to push myself beyond what I thought was possible, even in a classroom setting. If something didn’t come to me naturally or I didn’t understand something, I would work on it until I got it. I would be so stubborn, I wouldn’t take defeat lightly.

These are the values that soccer instilled into me.

There was a lot of pressure on me just from playing soccer. My dad would always tell me “you need to be faster, you need to be stronger, you need to be more explosive.” I remember this one time I was playing Center Back and the ball rolled under my foot in the 90th minute and we lost the game 1-0. I was eleven years old and absolutely devastated. I cried for hours after the game.

I felt that responsibility and knew I needed to get my sh*t together.

Soccer put me through every emotion week in and week out.

One day you’re on top of the world, the next day you’re at the bottom. You experience a mix of emotions in between and you have to figure out how to manage those emotions to maintain your confidence level.

While playing for my local soccer team, at age 13, I was scouted to play for the Ontario Provincial team. A few years later, Toronto FC Academy came knocking on the door. During my time at both clubs, I was given the captaincy role. While representing the Canadian Youth National Team, I was given the captain’s armband as well.

Mateo Mejia

Considering my life upbringing, my father never thought about how far I could go with this soccer thing. To be honest, neither did I, until I realized soccer was an opportunity to escape my life struggles.

In peoples’ eyes, I was this elite soccer player who played for great teams, but they didn’t see what my life was like outside of it. After my trainings with Toronto FC, I would go do a cleaning job with my mom at night.

In order for me to attend training, the deal with my parents was they’ll take me to training from 7-9PM and after that from about 10PM-1AM we would go clean dental offices, gyms, factories, and stuff like that.

This pretty much happened throughout all of high school. It was definitely challenging, but I knew that I had that responsibility towards my family, and that I couldn’t let that affect my performance on the field and in class. This is when I became really effective at time management.

I was super embarrassed of the cleaning job. I didn’t want to tell anybody, I thought I had status. I was the national team captain and player for Toronto FC. I thought I was too good to do that. I even resented my parents a little bit because I didn’t understand. But I still did it.

I couldn’t let my family down. In my head I hated it. I never stopped hating it. Actually I still hate it.


Now that I’m older… There’s no shame in that. There’s no damn shame in doing a job like that.

Parents like mine have to start somewhere. If that entails cleaning or doing some ‘crappy’ job, there’s no embarrassment in that, as long as you are working and providing for yourself and your family.

Chapter 3 New Challenge: Europe and America


Or soccer as we would call it in North America, has taken me to so many places around the world. From Canada, to Europe, Africa, South America, practically everywhere.

These were all for either tournaments or games. But this time, it was different.

Wearing the Canadian national shirt is one of the proudest moments of my life. Giving anything less than 120% of every second I’m there was unacceptable. I played my heart out every game and left it my all on the field.

On our way back home to Canada, my agent calls me at the airport and tells me that there were some scouts from some European teams interested.

“Mateo, they aren’t just interested. They want to SIGN YOU!!”

He said.

FC Ingolstadt’s U19 Bundesliga team offered me a spot on the team for the upcoming season. I was going nuts. It’s every soccer kid’s dream to play in Europe. I spoke to my family, and knew it would be a challenge but I was up for it. I’ve been challenged my whole life and this was no different.

Mateo Mejia

I moved to Germany for the 2015/16 season. I left behind my family and friends in pursuit of a dream. Every day, no matter what, I gave it my all in training and games. During my time there, I had to take German language courses.

I struggled, I suffered, I pushed through. It wasn’t easy but it was worth it.

I met some amazing people and made some really good friends who I’m still in touch with to this day.

My time in Germany was great. I live with no regrets. I worked hard and enjoyed my experience.


It was time to move on.

Yet another challenge. This time in the United States.

I received an athletic scholarship from the University of California, Santa Barbara to play on the Men’s Soccer team.

School is something extremely important to me. I know there’s life after athletics and one day or another I would be done playing. This challenge provided me with the unique opportunity to pursue both academics and soccer.

I became a student athlete.

Oh boy. It was a challenge.

People underestimate the amount of work and how difficult it is to manage and balance.

A typical schedule for me would be lift from 6-7AM. Then, go to class from 8 or 9AM until 1PM. I would have training from 1-3PM. After training, I worked at an office of an Orthopedic surgeon in downtown Santa Barbara from 4-8PM. I would get home at around 9PM and study until midnight. You’re up again the next day, following the same routine.

You learn how to function on five or six hours of sleep. You still have to be physically and mentally sharp to perform. Somewhere in between the day, you find time to eat, rest, and do other things.

Often, I didn’t even eat properly. I just grabbed something on my way out.

It was very challenging.

I went through some ups and downs at Santa Barbara. I played a decent amount my Freshman and Sophomore season, but my Junior season I did not play at all. It was difficult for me, I almost wanted to quit or transfer. I told myself if I quit now, I’ll quit for the rest of my life.

I was really down, I didn’t enjoy soccer anymore. I felt like it was time to move on. However, I decided to stick through it. Even if I don’t play a single minute, I’m gonna figure out a way to be there for my team.

I said forget it, junior year didn’t go my way. Although I had issues, I said to myself I’ll focus on what I can control; I’ll take care of my academics and push the boys in training.

I asked myself how can I contribute off the pitch? How can I be the best training player, how can I be the most competitive, get under my teammates skin, truly challenge them, be an a**hole even. I told them if you can deal with me, you’ll be fine in the next game. It was just the competitive nature in me.

During my senior season, I waited for my opportunity to play. Once I did, I never came off the damn pitch. After that, I never looked back and continued to work hard, and persevere.

We went on to have an amazing season. We made it to the Elite 8 of the NCAA National Tournament. I played every game and fulfilled an integral role.

Through that season, there were many challenges but there is one in particular that stood out to me.

Our finals week happened to be at the same time as the National Soccer Tournament. We’re in the Quarter Finals against Wake Forest. Our professors didn’t give us any extensions for our finals. I begged my professor, I emailed him many times, but he simply said no.

People from the athletic department were sending him emails and vouching for me. “He’s representing our school at the national level. We just played 90 minutes, and you expect him to take an exam the next day at 8AM across the country.”

He didn’t budge. He said I have to take it.

We played on a Sunday night and lost. We were all devastated.

At the hotel right after the game, I took a proctored final. I studied on the plane, at airports, whenever and wherever I could.

Then at 8AM the next morning, I had another final to write. I hadn’t studied for this exam at all.

I was emotionally drained. It was my last collegiate game ever.

Anyway, after I wrote the final at the hotel we flew back to California a few hours later

I went straight from the airport to the library. I drank 2 red bulls, 3 coffees, and pretty much consumed as much caffeine as I possibly could. I studied from like 2AM until about 8AM for my micro-biology exam.

It was so hard, but I didn’t have a way out. I knew I had to maintain my academic standards if I wanted to someday go to medical school.

Thankfully, I ended up getting a 90 on the final.

It was a very unique experience. I had to dig deep within myself to find a way past this. I was really proud of myself.

At that moment, I realized that I could do so many more things. Your mind is such a powerful tool. When you set your mind to something and challenge yourself, you’d be surprised what you’re capable of.


Once I took it, I went into his office and I said.

Professor, you know who I am right? My name is Mateo, the kid who is on the soccer team.

Before I could finish, he cut me off. “Yes yes, I know who you are.”

Mateo Mejia

He said, “If I didn’t do that, you wouldn’t have known that you are capable of doing that.” At that moment he knew who I was. He checked my midterm grades, he knew I was a high achieving student and he challenged me to see if I could do it.

I said Thank you, that was one of the toughest challenges I had to do. You pushed me a little bit harder than I ever thought I could go. Thank you for that experience.

At the time I hated him though, I thought he was unreasonable!

I graduated from University of California, Santa Barbara with a major in biological sciences.

Some of the hardest moments are the best learning experiences. It teaches you so much about life and yourself.

Thank you to my family, friends, coaches, teammates, and anyone else who has supported me along the way. Thank you to even my professor who didn’t give me an extension for one of my finals.

Without you all, it would simply NOT be possible.

Chapter 4: Professional Footballer

As a child I always had this one dream. Every soccer player’s dream

To sign a professional contract.

After my final game with Santa Barbara, Stephen Hart from Halifax Wanderers called me and said we want you on the team. It was a surreal moment. Something I’ve dreamt of for as long as I can remember.

It was one thing to get the phone call, but another to put pen to paper and really become a pro. I can’t describe it in words but it is an incredible feeling.


Mateo Mejia

Now I’m at Halifax, and I’m loving it. Unfortunately, the season has been postponed for now due to the coronavirus. I can’t wait to get back on the field and put on the jersey and represent this city. I know it’ll be a tough task, but I’m up for it.

To the people of Halifax; I can promise you – that I am going to leave everything on the field as long as I’m here

There are so many great stories behind the scenes that people don’t know about others. I wanted to share mine so you can get a glimpse of what I have had to overcome to get to where I am today. People have different success stories, but what’s behind the success is the unknown. We all struggle, we have our own journeys, and reading our stories may help you understand why we are the way we are. I have so much more to say, but maybe another day.

For now, I have one final message for you, and for my younger self.

Don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t let the fear of failure stop you from trying. Don’t be ashamed of who you are.

Work hard and enjoy the process.

You can lose, but you can never be a loser.