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The Beautiful Game, Turned Ugly
Melissa Segura
May 27, 2013
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?
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May 27, 2013

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?

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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.

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