Youth soccer referee Ricardo Portillo probably thought little of the game he went to call last Saturday morning in Taylorsville, Utah. Little did he — or his family — know it would be the last game he would ever call, and in fact be the beginning of the end of his life.
After issuing a yellow card to a goalie who aggressively pushing an opposing offensive player to the ground, Portillo was hit with a blindside punch by the 17-year old goalie who struck him in the side of the head, causing massive internal bleeding and swelling of the brain and spine. By the time Portillo’s friends who were at the game had summoned an ambulance to the site, Portillo was in the fetal position and they struggled to help him maintain consciousness.
Portillo slipped into a week-long coma when at the hospital in Salt Lake City and passed away earlier this morning at the age of 46, leaving behind a wife and two daughters. The 17 year old responsible for the punch initially fled the scene but was given up to authorities by his father the day after the incident and is being held in a juvenile facility in Utah awaiting charges — charges which will likely now be amplified from simple assault due to Portillo’s death.
It’s hardly the first time that youth sports have resulted in tragedy, but it’s yet another sad example of how pressurized the environment is now that kids like this goalie can lash out in anger and physically abuse a referee as a result of a call that doesn’t go their way. He may have no clue what he has done just yet — apart from what is happening to him on the surface — but this young man has permanently changed the lives of a family that depended on Ricardo Portillo, that loved him, that called him dad and husband.
Never in a million years should a soccer game on a Saturday morning end in a death, but in our current sports-crazy culture where winning is everything and aggressive attitudes on the field, on the court, on the pitch are often not tempered with common sense by the coaches that foster them, the result is surprising, but far from mindblowing.
Coaches absolutely must in all instances take the precautions necessary to ensure that something like this never happens again and that volatile 17 year olds know when enough is enough, when a game is a game, not a matter of life or death.