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May 5, 2013

Utah soccer ref dies after player's punch

SALT LAKE CITY -- Family members of a Utah soccer referee who died a week after a player punched him in the head called on athletes around the world Sunday night to hold their tempers in check so another family doesn't have to suffer.

They spoke at a candlelight vigil held on the front lawn of the Salt Lake City home of Ricardo Portillo, 46. Wearing white shirts and holding signs that read, "In loving memory of Ricky," family and friends stood around a table that had a picture of Portillo raising his arms in victory, with flowers and candles surrounding it.

Police have accused a 17-year-old player in a recreational soccer league of punching Portillo after he called a foul on him and issued him a yellow card.

Portillo died Saturday night after a week in a coma.

"He was a father, he was a friend, he was a grandfather, he left a whole family behind," said Johana Portillo, the oldest of his three daughters. "They should think before they do something stupid."

The suspect has been booked into juvenile detention on suspicion of aggravated assault. Authorities will consider additional charges since Portillo has passed away. An autopsy is planned. No cause of death was released.

Asked if she can forgive the teenager, Johana Portillo said she hopes to someday, but isn't ready yet.

She said Sunday she doesn't care what the punishment becomes since it won't bring back her father. She only hopes he can't get out and do the same thing to somebody else, she said.

"I feel sorry for him. I feel for his family," she said. "But if he was old enough to do what he did, then he's responsible to pay for it."

The unaffiliated soccer league, Liga Continental de Futbol, updated its Facebook posting Sunday with a tribute to Portillo including a number of photographs of him refereeing and playing soccer. It also set up a bank account to accept donations for his family.

Mario Vazquez, the league president who also was a friend and worked with Portillo, said Sunday everyone in the league had the greatest respect for him. He had a great sense of humor and loved refereeing, he said. The league plans to honor him with a tribute at next Saturday's games.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the Portillo family during this difficult time. Ricardo will always be with us," he said.

Johana Portillo said she hopes her father's death leads to more security at sporting events and better self-control from players. She said her father had been attacked by players twice before in his eight years refereeing soccer matches -- even having his ribs and legs broken.

Pedro Lopez, his brother-in-law and a fellow soccer referee, called on soccer players worldwide to respect referees and remember it's a sport meant to relieve stress -- not cause pain.

"Remember that we are human beings, and we make mistakes," Lopez said in Spanish. "Don't take justice into your own hands."

The former professional soccer player said he plans to continue working as a referee. He said leaving it behind would be abandoning his passion. He said he'll do so remembering Ricardo Portillo.

Ricardo Portillo's daughters had begged him to stop refereeing in a soccer league because of the growing risk of violence from angry players. But, like Lopez, Portillo told his daughters he couldn't quit.

"It was his passion," she said. "We could not tell him no."

Now his three daughters are faced with planning his funeral after he succumbed to injuries late Saturday that had put him in a coma for a week since teenager goalie punched him in the head.

James Yapias, a longtime friend of Ricardo Portillo and youth soccer coach, said coaches and parents need to do a better job teaching children about sportsmanship and being non-violent. He also called for more police presence at games. Portillo's death is a reminder that life can change in a second.

"We all love this sport," Yapias said. "But we all need to respect the rules."

Accounts from a police report, Portillo's daughter and others offer further detail what occurred.

The teenager was playing goalie during a game at Eisenhower Junior High School in Taylorsville when Portillo issued him a yellow card for pushing an opposing forward trying to score. In soccer, a yellow card is given as a warning to a player for an egregious violation of the rules. Two yellow cards lead to a red card and expulsion from the game.

The teenager, quite a bit heavier than Portillo, began arguing with the referee, then punched him in the face. Portillo seemed fine at first, then asked to be held because he felt dizzy. He sat down and started vomiting blood, triggering his friend to call an ambulance.

When police arrived around noon, the teenager was gone and Portillo was laying on the ground in the fetal position. Through translators, Portillo told emergency workers that his face and back hurt and he felt nauseous. He had no visible injuries and remained conscious. He was considered to be in fair condition when they took him to the Intermountain Medical Center.

But when Portillo arrived to the hospital, he slipped into a coma with swelling in his brain. Johana Portillo called detectives to let them know his condition had worsened.

That's when detectives intensified their search for the goalie. By Saturday evening, the teenager's father agreed to bring him down to speak with police.

Johana Portillo said she last spoke to him that night before he fell into a coma. She grabbed his hand and told him he was going to be all right. He held her hand tightly and said, "no." Within seconds, doctors ushered her out of the room and he lost consciousness.

She said Sunday night, with tears streaming down her face, that her father will always be in her heart.

"It's going to be very difficult," she said. "But I know he's going to help us from heaven."

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