How things have come full circle for the UCF kicker who chose YouTube over football

Donald De La Haye has 5 million subscribers on YouTube. Justin Jackson

NEARLY FIVE YEARS ago, Donald De La Haye tried to blend into unfamiliar wallpaper as he shuffled quietly through a party at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Los Angeles. He looked to his right and saw former NBA star Paul Pierce and NBA coach Ty Lue. He glanced to his left and saw former NFL running back Eddie George. All around him, professional athletes, coaches, power brokers and other celebrities mingled with an aura of belonging. They were used to coming to parties like this one. De La Haye, a kicker for the University of Central Florida, was not.

He wasn't supposed to be here. Then again, he wasn't UCF's kicker anymore.

In the span of a few weeks, De La Haye had gone from having a customary college athlete story to having a unique one. He had started a YouTube channel even before entering college, populating it with everything from vlogs and reactions to commentaries and skits alongside his friends while slowly building an audience. The channel was growing in subscribers, and that meant in revenue too, however small. The NCAA, and by extension UCF, was not having it. In a world before name, image and likeness, De La Haye was forced to choose: football or YouTube.

"I cried a lot," De La Haye said of the decision. "At the time, football, schoolwork, it was all a grind, it was stressful and straining. The videos were my outlet to be myself."

In the current college football landscape, De La Haye's video-making endeavor could have made for another feel-good NIL story: a kicker by day, vlogger by night. Instead, he had to either give up his burgeoning and potentially lucrative online audience or his football scholarship and everything that came with it.

"I had to move out [from athlete housing] two days after I made the decision," De La Haye said. A friend who lived in a one bedroom apartment in Orlando at the time told De La Haye he could crash on his couch. "I was there for five months. Five months where we would wake up every day and make videos. We were workhorses."

Today, De La Haye is much more comfortable. Inside the FaZe Clan offices near West Hollywood, De La Haye (who goes by "Dee" to everyone who knows him) lays back on a couch and remembers the days when he was pumping out nearly double-digit videos a week on his own. A lot has changed since: The 25-year-old now has nearly 5 million YouTube subscribers, a small team of people who help him produce the channel and representatives from FaZe Clan who handle his appearances and schedule.

College football has changed, too. In the second year of NIL, athletes aren't just able to make money off their image and likeness by making deals with companies, they're also now starting player-led collectives to which fans can donate and get exclusive player content not so different from what De La Haye was creating back then. His story now looks like a harbinger of the modern college athlete, where winning still rules, but leveraging your audience and exposure also matters. As does making sure there's another path to success that doesn't involve the pros.

"There's an alternate world where he's a YouTube celebrity playing college football and he could have been massive and brought a whole new audience of fans [to UCF]," said Zach Soskin, co-founder of an NIL firm that facilitates deals for college athletes. "Someone like that, in this NIL age, can be a cash-flow positive for a program's NIL efforts."

De La Haye wants you to know he's not upset at how things turned out: His dream had always been to make it to the NFL, but now he's made it so big in the digital world that both the entity that pushed him away and the one he wasn't able to reach want to draft off his success.

THE NFL MEDIA cameraman has a simple task: follow De La Haye everywhere.

On a hot July day at the Los Angeles Rams training camp in Irvine, California, long after Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp have gone home, a throng of people have stuck around for two reasons: to be part of a 1ON1 video by De La Haye (or as he's more commonly known to his audience online, Deestroying) or to watch one unfold.

The premise of the videos is simple enough: Players 14 and older come to the event and get to play both wide receiver and cornerback once in a ladder-style match in which volunteer quarterbacks throw different routes. The receivers who complete a catch advance, as do the defenders who deny a catch -- and yes, there are referees calling out pass interference. The field whittles down to the final few and the winner takes home $10,000. Or, in the case of a recent video in Detroit where rapper Tee Grizzley matched the original prize money, $20,000.

Los Angeles was the third stop in what was a two-week, seven-stop, cross-country training camp tour in August for De La Haye and his 1ON1 series. In the past, these videos have featured other celebrities, top-ranked recruits and even NFL players. But spend some time around the event and it's easy to see that, for the younger crowd, De La Haye is the star.

"Dee, I want to be on YouTube!" a kid calls out as De La Haye walks out onto the field wearing a custom Rams jersey with "Deestroying" on the back. De La Haye turns to the players, who have changed into their cleats and have huddled around him, and goes into hype man host mode.

"L.A., we brought you to the Rams' facility, no one else is bringing you out to the Rams' facility," he said. "We didn't come all the way out here for y'all not to put on a show!"

The first videos of this kind featured De La Haye challenging people to different things on and off the football field. Then, a coach he used to train with in Sarasota, Florida, told De La Haye about a local meet-up that often featured high school recruits going up against each other in a one-on-one format. De La Haye showed up and recognized how he could elevate the event.

"It's just a big hangout and it brings out the entire community, whether you're Black, white, Hispanic, Chinese, whatever," De La Haye said. "We try to go to lower-income areas. We want to make these events accessible, free for everyone, free to compete, free to watch. We'll go to the hood. And during events, it's like a big block party."

At first, De La Haye would buy a Playstation 5 to give to the winner. Then, as the videos started getting more popular, he wanted to give out cash. He took the series to different locations around the country and put up his own $10,000 money as prize while spending about $25,000 total to put the events on as he had to rent fields and hire security, among other things.

Earlier this year, the NFL called. The league wanted in, and it wanted to have De La Haye host the 1ON1s at different NFL training camp locations around the country. Most importantly, the NFL would fund it. De La Haye rejoiced; this felt like the stamp of approval.

"Deestroying is so credible to the game of football and sits perfectly at the intersection of content creation and the game," Eddie Capobianco, vice president of culture marketing at the NFL, said in a statement. "Our continued collaboration with Deestroying and FaZe Clan drives genuine connection particularly with our younger fans across diverse communities including Latinos, all while giving emerging athletes the opportunity to compete, have fun and most importantly, bond around the sport we all love in an exciting way."

Every time De La Haye hosts another 1ON1, the scene seems to get wilder. In Florida, De La Haye's team had to shut down the event because of overcrowding. Recently in Detroit, the team was able to host the event on Ford Field.

The irony of the situation is not lost on De La Haye.

"It's funny, because a lot of my fans and stuff are like, 'Bro, when are you going to make it to the league?'" De La Haye said, flashing a smile. "Technically, I made it to the league."

BACK IN 2017, the immediate aftermath of De La Haye's decision brought him a lot of attention. But soon that dissipated and reality set in: With his scholarship gone, along with his place on the football team, he couldn't live in athlete housing or get athlete meals. His only recourse was sticking it out in Tampa, sleeping on his best friend's sofa and continuing to make more videos.

"In the back of your mind, you're like, 'What if this just falls off? What if no one cares about my videos anymore?'" De La Haye said of those early days when he wondered if he made the right call. "I thought, 'I can't just live off this for the rest of my life.' So in the back of your head, you're scared and cautious, but you're still working."

In 2018, De La Haye ended up suing UCF, claiming the school violated his free-speech rights. Even after he offered to demonetize the YouTube channel, UCF said De La Haye wasn't allowed to post videos there "based on his athletics, reputation, prestige or ability." The two parties settled in November 2018, allowing De La Haye to finish his education.

At the time, the YouTube channel was gaining popularity, but it wasn't so popular that he could live off of it. Yet. De La Haye, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Costa Rica when he was 7 years old, buckled down: This had been his choice and now he had to make it work. His parents were supportive, but his family as a whole questioned the idea of rejecting a college scholarship for an online hobby.

De La Haye had started making videos during his first year of high school as a hobby born out of his dad's affinity for always having a camcorder around his soccer games growing up. That led to De La Haye downloading Modern Warfare videos off the internet and editing them himself with his own commentary, or messing around with a GoPro he had saved up to buy, creating skits out of everyday situations. By the time he got to college, it was easy to transition to videos about his life as an athlete while also making behind-the-scenes videos of his trick kicks or meet-ups with notable college and NFL players.

Once he made his decision to leave football (chronicling all of it on his channel, of course) the transition was difficult, but De La Haye knew he needed to trust that the same passion that moved him to choose this over football would be what would lead to success.

"It was a gradual thing," De La Haye said of his channel's growth. "Just consistently putting out the content, consistently promoting my content on other platforms and stuff. Just putting in the time and thinking of good ideas and making good stuff."

One pivotal moment was when De La Haye attended an open tryout for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League team in 2019 as a way to create more videos around his quest to play football. By then, his channel was making decent money, but once he was signed (to his surprise) to the Argonauts' practice squad, the team gained 15,000 followers off his Instagram and his videos of making it on the team started to be featured on YouTube's trending page. His page took off. The football dream, well, that was a different question.

"It was weird, to be honest," De La Haye said of the CFL experience.

The pay and conditions were subpar, and the chances of him getting on the field were slim to none given that the team didn't prioritize the kicking position.

"Eventually, I came home because it wasn't worth it."

That signaled a turning point for De La Haye. The experience helped his YouTube dreams more than it helped his football ones. He had about 1 million subscribers at the time, and there was a realization that his goals had shifted. He now wanted to focus on building out his team, reinvesting in his videos -- adding a camera here, an editor there -- investing his money in everything from stocks to real estate, as well as helping his parents retire.

"My mom doesn't have to go to work at 4 a.m. anymore," De La Haye said. "My dad, I'm still working on his retirement, but obviously I've been able to help them financially, and that's made me feel really happy and proud."

SINCE DE LA HAYE'S rise as a YouTuber, the NFL isn't the only one wanting to get in on the fun. Colleges have started calling, too. This year alone, De La Haye has been on the UCLA, USC, Michigan and Jackson State campuses, wearing a full uniform, getting a tour of the facilities and even creating video content with some of the programs' star players such as Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams.

"It's cool to see things come full circle; I'm embracing it," De La Haye said. "[Schools] are realizing how important that social media stuff is. Now, coaches and staff know that stuff is moving the needle."

De La Haye is not bitter, but he would be lying if he said he didn't wonder how different his life would have been had he been a college athlete now or if he had given up his YouTube career instead of football then. When the possibility of name, image and likeness reform came up in the past few years, De La Haye's only thought was: "I'll believe it when I see it." Then, he and the rest of the college sports world saw it happen. People peppered De La Haye with questions about his feelings. It was easy to think of the "what if's" because they were so tantalizing.

"Imagine [De La Haye] in the portal right now -- how much would a collective pay to get him to the school? He could be the megaphone [on YouTube] for everything they're doing," Soskin said, noting that De La Haye could diversify and expand a team's audience in the same way Livvy Dunne and the Cavinder twins have done for LSU gymnastics and Fresno State (now Miami) basketball, respectively. "Then the value of having someone like that on your roster is a great recruiting tool because they allow your other players to get more exposure, build their brand, build their audience."

As colleges have begun wanting to get De La Haye on campus for videos and more, he sees it all as validation. A few days ago, he took to Twitter to express that sentiment, saying his scholarship from UCF would have never been able to help him pay for his mom's mortgage and help her retire the way his career has allowed him to.

And even though De La Haye can still kick a 60-yard field goal, the NFL dream has been permanently and peacefully deferred.

"What I'm doing, showing people that there is more to life than just playing football, is far more important," De La Haye said. "I've been able to turn that passion, that love for the game into a career. So I continue to build something out of it that's going to outlast my body."

Aside from continuing to expand his online audience and his reach in other businesses, De La Haye hopes to keep advising younger athletes about finances and building their brand. He often fields questions in his Instagram DMs from college athletes asking about NIL, money, investing and other financial topics that De La Haye has had to learn on his own, and he's already had at least one university reach out to him about coming onto campus to speak to athletes.

That university? UCF.