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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 Fútbol, 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.