SALT LAKE CITY — As those close to Ricardo Portillo mourned on Wednesday, I felt as though I shouldn’t have been there.
On the other hand, neither should Ricky.
I was among three-dozen media members who came to cover the sad story of a volunteer soccer official that police say was punched by a 17-year-old player and died a week later.
The private funeral was in the evening. Earlier, at the Rail Events Center near downtown, a public viewing was held. The closed casket stood by itself at one end of the room, adorned with three modest floral sprays. There were no mementos, no looping videos of his life, either. Just a single picture of Portillo, his arms joyfully stretched skyward.
But there were plenty of cameras and recorders, intruding just like me.
Though the wake began at noon, when I left at 1:30 a guest book had been signed by just three people. Only about 20 mourners sat on couches and at tables positioned around the concrete floor. That wasn’t because he was disliked. He was beloved. It’s just that those closest to Portillo waited until the evening ceremony, at a different location, where they could more privately pay respects.
The wake was simultaneously for Portillo’s friends and the world. CNN, CBS, National Public Radio, Univision and other global outlets were represented in the afternoon, as well as all the local media. It was a story impossible to ignore: How one apparently thoughtless act affected everything — for Portillo’s family, for the teen charged with third-degree felony homicide by assault, and for every fan of every sport.
It made Portillo famous for the wrong reasons.
“I guess at some point, before this happened, he made the statement that ‘Someday I’m gonna be a famous referee,’” family spokesman Tony Yapias said. “It’s ironic ..."
Booing the refs is considered an inalienable right, fair or not. But assaulting a ref has always been, well, out of bounds. I’ve known referees in a variety of sports, at a wide range of levels, reaching to the NFL and NBA. All said they loved their sport. That wouldn’t be easy to do when you’ve endured both taunts and garbage hurled from the stands.
It’s a job that only invites criticism, not praise. Players have their detractors, but mostly they have fans; same with coaches. But there are no referee fans, unless you count other refs.
I ran into an NBA official a few years ago at an airport hotel. I’d known him casually since he was officiating low-level college games. What struck me was what a normal, nice man he was, but his life seemed solitary. At that level, the games they officiate are kept secret until tipoff.
It’s hard to have close friends when the outcome weighs so heavily.
So I went to the viewing on Wednesday, hoping to put a face on Portillo the person, not the referee. The family, understandably, didn’t want to talk on that day. I know he had three children and three grandchildren. I know he didn’t make his living as a referee, he volunteered. Some might contend that the risk of harm is part of the job. It shouldn’t be, particularly if it’s not really your job.
For Portillo it was a hobby at least, a community service at best.
“We all have a passion for sports,” Yapias said. “We all are either fans or played the sport, or sometimes some of them are referees. And we just have to be conscious that every game has a rule. And if you’re a player, obey the rules. That’s why you have a referee, like in any other sport. Hopefully this will be something that all of us will learn from.”
The only lesson learned here is that officials are people, too, who have loved ones. And that snap decisions can change many lives, whether it’s texting while driving, accepting a dare or lashing out at an official.
All I know is this: Wednesday shouldn’t have been Ricky’s famous day.
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