The punch that staggered Ricardo Portillo, which is likely what killed him, came on a soccer field two Sundays ago in suburban Salt Lake City. Portillo, 46, a longtime soccer referee, had just issued a yellow card and did what referees do, started to jot down details in his tiny official’s book, to make note of offender and circumstances, when the 17-year-old goalkeeper he was in the midst of writing up socked him in the face.
According to the police report, Portillo was balled up in a fetal position when first responders arrived at the field. He complained of pain in his face and back. He said he felt nauseous. Rushed to a hospital, his brain swelling, he slipped into a coma later that night and died last weekend, just days after the birthday of his 15-year-old daughter, Valeria.
“We brought cake and sang to her [in the hospital],’’ Portillo’s oldest daughter, Johana, told the New York Times last week. “We were hoping for a miracle.’’
Because he is a juvenile offender, the name of the player who assaulted Portillo has not been made public. Soon after the incident, he was held in juvenile detention on suspicion of aggravated assault, and authorities last week pondered additional charges in the wake of Portillo’s death. Pending an autopsy, no cause of death has been released. Portillo’s demise is an extreme example of youth sports gone bad. Thankfully, regular reports of dead, wounded, or seriously injured referees are not the norm. At least not yet. In fact, the Wisconsin-based National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) has in its files only one other case in the US that involved the death of a game official while on the job.
On July 30, 1988, Gregory Vaughn, a high school basketball coach and elementary school teacher, was beaten to death while working an outdoor basketball game in Queens, N.Y., at the edge of JFK Airport. According to reports, Vaughn refereed the game at Baisley Pond Park, all the while unaware rival drug gangs had big money riding on the outcome. When a crazed gang member in the crowd objected to one of Vaughn’s calls, he rushed the court and pounded the life out of the 33-year-old.
Barry Mano, who founded NASO in 1980, said last week during a telephone interview that game officials across the country in recent years have been faced with ever-increasing numbers of incidents of physical and verbal assault. His office, he noted, receives an average of one call a week, often from the media, either seeking comment about the latest assault incident somewhere in the US or to report on such abuse.
“Now, we only hear what we hear . . . we are not a formal governing body, and no one is obligated to report to us,’’ said the 69-year-old Mano, noting that NASO has some 19,000 members, including game officials in all four major sports in North America. “But we do get calls from all over. If you’re asking me where the preponderance of physical abuse toward officials occurs, I’d say it’s soccer, specifically youth and recreational soccer, and also youth football.’’
Portillo, who brought his family to the US 16 years ago from Guadalajara, Mexico, was a soccer referee for the last eight years. The day he was assaulted, Portillo was working in Taylorsville, about 10 miles south of Salt Lake City, in La Liga Continental de Futbol, a youth recreational league founded in 2009. Its mission: expose local Hispanic kids to soccer in the suburbs.
The 17-year-old accused of assaulting Portillo, according to a number of print and broadcast accounts, was tagged with the yellow card when he shoved an opponent who attempted a corner kick. The goalie first yelled at Portillo, then followed with the punch, setting his life directly down the road to perdition. All because of a yellow card in a Sunday rec league designed to give kids a chance, a taste of the suburban soccer spirit.
“A horrible tragedy,’’ said Mano, who refereed basketball games on various levels, including international play, for more than 20 years before he began NASO. “The reality is, [officials] are constantly being faced with the prospect of being assaulted, be it verbally or physically. And in some leagues, especially youth and rec leagues, some people also think refs and umps also should be the first line of security when trouble breaks out. It’s ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous.’’
Mano recalled refereeing an international basketball game in Chihuahua, Mexico, at the start of the ’70s when a spectator stuck a gun in his ribs as he made his way back to the playing floor after an intermission.
“Guess it wasn’t too hard to spot me,’’ Mano recalled. “I was the 6-foot-4 white guy from Wisconsin who stood out in the crowd.’’
To his delight and fortune, Mano lived to ref another day, recalling last week that the gun-toting local probably was inebriated and that he was able to push aside the gunman’s arm and zip straight to the playing floor.
“Whenever play stopped, I went and stood next to the home team’s bench,’’ said Mano. “I figured if the guy was from there, then he probably wouldn’t be as likely to start firing near the home bench. Not sure I was right about that, but I got out of there OK.’’
It wasn’t a gun that took down Portillo. It turned out to be one of the kids that the game was trying to help. Over the years, according to his daughter Johana, he twice was assaulted in similar circumstances, leaving him with fractures to ribs and legs. Those incidents, she said, led family members to beg Portillo to quit refereeing. He continued, she said, because of his ardent passion for the game. The Portillos held a candlelight vigil last Sunday on the front lawn of the family home in Salt Lake City. Friends and relatives celebrated the ref’s life and talked of the joy officiating brought to him. Johana focused but briefly on the 17-year-old now held in her father’s assault.
“I feel sorry for him,’’ she said, according to the Associated Press. “I feel sorry for his family. But if he was old enough to do what he did, then he’s responsible to pay for it.’’