The Beautiful Game, Turned Ugly

FOR REFEREE RICARDO PORTILLO, SOCCER WAS LIFE—UNTIL, WITH ONE SWIFT PUNCH FROM A 17-YEAR-OLD PLAYER, IT BROUGHT DEATH. NOW TWO FAMILIES, A SHATTERED COMMUNITY AND THE WIDER SPORTS WORLD ASK, WHAT WENT WRONG?
May 27, 2013

The card is made of cream-colored construction paper, with cheery pink and purple zigzags drawn around the words I Love You, Mom. But what's written inside paints a grimmer picture. Dear Mom, I am sorry to have ruined your Mother's Day....

Seventeen-year-old José Domingo Téran fills the inside of the card with his small, precise Spanish script from behind the walls of Salt Lake Valley Detention Center, a juvenile facility in Utah's capital where he's being held pending a yet to be scheduled detention hearing. The message is meant only for his mother: He tells her of his heartbreak, of his confusion and contrition, and of his hopes of someday soon being able to go for hamburgers again with his family. But what he can't explain—to himself, to his mother—is why, on the morning of Saturday, April 27, "God allowed my hands," in his words, "to become those of the devil."

ON THE soccer fields behind Dwight Eisenhower Junior High, in the Taylorsville suburb of Salt Lake City, no traces remain of the incident that resulted in the death of 46-year-old referee Ricardo Portillo. That Saturday, according to police, José, playing goalkeeper in a youth soccer match, became upset by a yellow card that Portillo had issued him, and punched the referee in the head. Since then, rain, wind and time have scrubbed the field clean of the blood that Portillo spit out that day as he lay curled on the ground, nauseated and suffering pain in his head and back. Seven days after the punch, Portillo would be dead from what doctors believe was a tear in one of his main arteries.

Eisenhower's four-field facility serves as the borrowed home of La Liga Continental de F√∫tbol, a soccer league that caters to Salt Lake City's flourishing Latino community. Utah's Hispanic population has quadrupled in two decades, from an estimated 85,000 in 1990 to 358,000 in 2010. Two events fed that surge: the 1994 passage of Proposition 187 in California, which sought to prevent undocumented immigrants from accessing certain social services and sent many Latinos to nearby states; and Salt Lake City's winning the bid for the 2002 Olympics, which created demand for construction and hospitality jobs.

Alongside the pitch on which Téran and Portillo encountered each other, a manhole cover interrupts a sea of patchy grass, and the goalkeepers' boxes are worn bare from use. But La Liga's participants aren't looking for perfection, just a place to play the game they grew up with.

Such grassroots leagues have cropped up all over the U.S., arising from a confluence of athletic passion, cultural flair and economic necessity. La Liga's $45 summer fee is affordable to working-class families, and its less-strict registration attracts those who may not be able to provide birth certificates or steady addresses. Everyone is welcome; anyone can play. Roughly 1,800 men, women and children are registered across 116 teams. Former low-level soccer pros dribble alongside weekend hacks, and promising young players sometimes team with kids recruited from the crowd.

More than anything, the games are a backdrop for larger gatherings, friends and families relaxing on the sideline while downing bottles of the Mexican soft drink Jarritos; eating puffed-wheat wagon-wheel duros; speaking in a cultural shorthand afforded by shared histories and geographies. Utah's Mormon population packs the churches on Sundays; Latino households head to the dusty soccer pitch. "At the end, [La Liga] is a family thing," says Mario Vazquez, who founded the association in 2009. "That's why this situation hurts a lot."

Portillo's death has reverberated throughout the Salt Lake community and into the wider reaches of American sports, raising all-too-familiar questions about respect and civility in the games we play. In this instance, however, answers are not easy. The incident, tragic as it is, doesn't fit the standard story of sports culture gone bad.

In the two weeks preceding his death, Ricardo Portillo had begun to grumble to his three daughters about the state of La Liga's Saturday games, which were reserved for youths. "The parents are getting involved," he told his oldest, Johana, 26. "It's getting out of control, and I don't like it."

On Tuesday, April 23, Portillo pulled up to his weekly officials' meeting and found Eliseo Flores, La Liga's director of officials, waiting with a cold beer. Flores offered up the brew as a reward for the way Portillo had quickly diffused a fight between players the previous weekend. "I could always put him in close games," Flores says of Portillo, who began refereeing eight years ago, after a few rough plays had left the former goalkeeper with battered ribs and torn knee ligaments.

The league pays its referees between $20 and $30 per game, a welcome supplement to the modest wages Portillo earned unloading trucks and assembling bed frames at the Diamond Mattress factory. With the extra income, he was able to take his family to see his favorite wrestler, Triple H, when the WWE came through town, and he treated his youngest daughter, Valeria, to a Lady Gaga concert. Lately he'd been saving up money to take his kids and three grandchildren to Disneyland.

Portillo had spoken often about the trip, especially that Friday afternoon, as he visited fellow referee Gustavo Espinosa. Valeria would be turning 15 the following week, and she had insisted she didn't want the frilly dress or double-decker cake of a quinceñera. But this was his baby's 15th, the seminal birthday for a girl in Mexican culture. "I really want to get her a special gift," he told Espinosa. "Something really nice." Officiating a few more Saturday games would help him do that.

Over a dinner of rellenos and pasta that Friday night, Portillo confided in Johana and Valeria how much he didn't want to work the next day's slate of games—but then he changed the subject. Looking over at Johana's husband, Juan, he said, "If you would ask me right now if I was happy, I would tell you yes. I have everything I want. I have you guys. If God would want me to go right now, I would go."

On the same Friday, José Téran arrived home earlier than usual. Typically he trod a straight, almost invariable path between school and home, home and school. But on this day he didn't have to make his usual stop at a nearby elementary school to pick up the two younger brothers whom he nearly always looked after.

Despite his older sister's offers to take him and his friends out, José tended to stay home and dote on his brothers, as well as his sister's two young sons. The boys gave him cover to watch cartoons and play with their wrestling figures. "He's 17," says his sister, "but he acts like a 10- or 11-year-old."

Still, José knew the difference between playmate and caretaker, a lesson that hit home a year and a half earlier when, according to the family, an alleged drunk driver collided with his sister's car, leaving her infant son with his lungs collapsed and his legs paralyzed. Caring for his nephew later on, José learned how to use a machine to extract the mucus that filled the boy's nasal passages, and how to remove his waste when he lost the ability to go to the bathroom on his own. At parks, José jury-rigged slides and swings so that his nephew could play like the other boys.

"He always thought of ways to make him like the rest of the kids," says José's mother. "He never treated him like he was disabled."

Likewise, on most weekdays José insisted that his mom, a hotel housekeeper, call when she was coming home, because he wanted to have dinner waiting on the table when she arrived. He worried about her and her kidney ailment. "Mamí," he would scold her, "you have to control your stress."

But this was Friday, and no one needed to cook that night. José's parents had saved for a trip to McDonald's. When the family returned home from dinner, José insisted to his mom that he would put the boys to bed. By 10 p.m. all the lights were out. For the little brothers, the soccer season would begin early the next morning.

Flores, the referee coordinator, had laughed when Portillo told him nearly a decade ago that he was interested in becoming an official. "You protested calls more than anyone else!" Flores told him. But wearing a referee's jersey would at least extend a soccer career that had begun 34 years earlier in the streets of Guadalajara, where he immigrated from in 1997. Portillo still played on his lunch breaks at the mattress factory; he watched as many matches as he could on TV; and now that he was officiating, his daughters often found him buried in the rule book. "One of these days I'm going to be there," Portillo would tell his daughters, as he pointed to the TV screen.

José was a different story. He didn't play soccer, didn't watch much soccer, didn't even particularly seem to like the sport—but he loved his little brothers. So on the morning of April 27 his father squeezed the three boys into his blue Chevy Cavalier and pointed the family car toward the Eisenhower fields.

Police reports and interviews with witnesses offer conflicting details about what happened next, but this much seems clear: José never planned to play that morning. Portillo (who to anyone's knowledge had never met José or his family) had already refereed an earlier youth match when he drew officiating duties for an 11 a.m. game in the 13-to-15 age group, a division with thinning ranks. There would be two referees for the teen game rather than the standard three. And as James Yapias, an elementary school principal and part-time soccer coach, surveyed his shallow roster, he determined that he needed more kids.

José was on the sideline, waiting for his brothers to finish their games. It's not clear who exactly plucked him from the crowd to play in his first-ever competitive soccer match, but he ended up in the goalkeeper's box—perhaps the best place for a 5'8", 220-pound novice—wearing a borrowed jersey.

Somewhere around 11:30 a.m., Portillo awarded a corner kick, and as the players jostled for position, the makeshift goalie—older than his competitors but unaccustomed to the bumping and banging typical in the box on a corner—pushed an opponent. Portillo flashed his yellow card and pulled out the form for tracking official cautions. As he recorded the infraction, José raised a hand (believed to be his right) and punched Portillo in the head. The ref never saw it coming.

"That's not what we're here for!" Yapias was heard yelling. Vazquez, the league administrator who'd been surveying the games from afar, ran toward the unfolding scene, dialing 911 as he did so. At first Portillo remained standing, but as Vazquez closed the distance, the referee collapsed to the ground, complaining of nausea and dizziness and spitting blood.

José's brothers, standing nearby, bawled at what they'd seen. As tension mounted, the boys' father waved his three sons toward the blue Cavalier, and they drove off.

Johana Portillo was still in her pajamas that afternoon when an uncle, José Lopez, called the house. "Get to the hospital," he said. "Now."

At Intermountain Medical Center she was bombarded with forms permitting doctors to drain the fluids building up in Ricardo's brain. But around 2 p.m. she was allowed to visit his bedside. "Daddy," she said, "we're going be fine. We're going to get out of this."

"No," he said, in tears. He squeezed her hand, and the machines monitoring his vitals barked. Doctors ushered Johana out. Her father had gone into shock. He would never wake up.

One week later, on May 4—the day after Valeria's 15th birthday and what would have been Day 3 of Disney—doctors showed Portillo's daughters slides of the damage to their father's brain. The girls already knew, from the bruises across his body and from the way his skin, when pressed, remained indented, that he would need a miracle to recover. Later that day, they removed their father from life support. At 9:33 p.m., Ricardo Portillo died.

José's lawyer, L. Monte Sleight, has asked the Térans not to speak in detail about the incident. Still, for them knowing how it happened does nothing to explain why it did. "He's not a violent or aggressive person; in my house he's never raised his hand," says his mother. "I can't believe it or accept it. He's the motor of our family, and now he's not here."

Teachers from the high school where José was on pace to graduate a year early have offered to write letters to the court on his behalf. Meanwhile, the little nephew that he took care of asks, "Where my uncle?"

"On vacation," the sister says—because how does anyone begin to explain why and how a teenager with no documented history of violence ends up killing a man with a single punch?

Salt Lake City district attorney Sim Gill has charged José with homicide by assault, a notch below Utah's definition of manslaughter, and has filed a request for the 17-year-old to be tried as an adult. He would face a maximum of five years in prison if convicted.

It's a fate Sleight hopes to avoid. "He made a juvenile decision, and that's why we have a juvenile court system," he says. "José is very close to his father, and I know that he is wondering what it would be like if someone did this to his father."

For Portillo's daughters, the scenario isn't hypothetical. They have been asked many times about forgiveness since Ricardo's death. "I'm not going to forgive him right now," Johana says of the alleged assailant. And then a pause.

There, in an oversized photo at her home, the referee's arms are wide open. "But I will," she says, "because that's what my dad taught us."

Follow @MelissaSeguraSI

"IF YOU'D ASK ME IF I WAS HAPPY," PORTILLO SAID TO HIS FAMILY THAT FRIDAY NIGHT, "I'D TELL YOU YES. I HAVE EVERYTHING I WANT."

PHOTOPhotograph by GEORGE FREY/EFE/ZUMAPRESS.COMFRAME OF REFERENCE Johana struggles to comprehend her father's death, but the memory of Ricardo—pictured open-armed at Disneyland—steers her toward forgiving José, whose family provided SI a photo (right). PHOTOCOURTESY OF THE FAMILY OF JOSÉ TÉRAN[See caption above] PHOTOCOURTESY OF JOHANA PORTILLO (RICARDO IN REF UNIFORM)THE AFTERMATH Portillo (top) reffed in La Liga with brothers-in-law Pedro (above left) and, formerly, José Lopez, here pictured at an Eisenhower field in the orange shirt Ricardo was wearing the day he was struck; the two were among the pallbearers at Portillo's funeral on May 8. PHOTORICK BOWMER/AP (FUNERAL)[See caption above] PHOTOBEN FONNESBECK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (LOPEZES)[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)