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.