‘What do you girls want to do?’
An El Paso soccer team was raising money when a gunman attacked. After the horror, the players faced a decision.
EL PASO — Five days had passed since the shooting, and some girls on the El Paso Fusion soccer team still felt numb. Some could not stop crying. Others refused to go outside.
Assistant Coach Benny McGuire had barely slept since the team’s fundraiser on Aug. 3 had dissolved into terror, since he yelled “Run!” and sprinted in a zigzag pattern through Walmart’s linens department as bullets flew.
One team grandparent was killed, five team parents were wounded, among them the head coach, who was shot multiple times.
Everyone knew the story — a white man from 10 hours away was accused of killing 22 people and wounding dozens of others in attack that targeted “Mexicans” — but few wanted to talk about it. They wanted, instead, to discuss the reason the girls were there that morning, the reason for everything when you are 10 or 11 and love the beautiful game.
They were raising money for their team, a ragtag band of girls that cared more about playing than winning, that had staved off dissolution because the players
loved being together. The shooting came a week before the season’s playoffs, when sometimes pressure brought out the best in them, when anyone can take home the trophy.
But in tragedy came doubt and trepidation. Their parents could not decide whether the girls, traumatized, should play.
McGuire invited the team to a quiet pizzeria Thursday night for the players’ first gathering since the shootings, and he watched as they hugged, ate pepperoni slices, and laughed when professional players dropped in to autograph their jerseys.
Then McGuire called for silence.
“All right, girls, for real,” McGuire said. “Playoffs are coming. What do you girls want to do?”
A fundraiser shattered
Soccer is one of the country’s most popular youth sports, and it is king in El Paso despite the scorching desert heat. Parents sweat sitting in lawn chairs on the sidelines, holding water spritzers and battery-powered fans. Some shelter under umbrellas or popup tents.
McGuire could not believe it when his daughter Madison chose soccer, a sport he and her mother never played.
“You know it’s outside, right?” he said Madison’s mother asked when they discussed it.
Soccer is also expensive. Some can afford fancy uniforms and pricey trips to tournaments in California, Arizona, Tennessee. Others sell water, raffle tickets, and candy bars to get there. Some do their sales at Walmart, a popular destination for shoppers from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“That could’ve been anybody, any team out there,” said Mike Lopez, the director of another El Paso soccer league. “Tournament fees are not El Paso fees. So they have to do fundraisers.”
The girls dreamed of new ninja-like uniforms — black with a hot-pink stripe — to replace the pink and yellow candy-colored uniforms that head coach Luis Calvillo had picked out on his own. They were too long and looked like “Popsicles,” they teased him. They hoped for duffel bags, jackets, and to raise enough to pay the fees to attend a tournament in Arizona.
When a baseball team offered them its spot at one of the nation’s busiest shopping centers on Aug. 3, they jumped at the chance. Parents drew signs saying “thank you.” The girls wore blue jerseys. They sold bags of chips for $1 and drinks for $2.50. They set up morning and afternoon shifts, with girls and parents at both entrances.
They hoped to make $1,000 to $2,000, McGuire said.
The shots were fired — so many of them — an hour after they set up their tables, and parents and children frantically scattered. At one end, McGuire grabbed his daughter and other girls and they raced through the Walmart and out the back door to a movie theater parking lot, where he hid them behind a tree and returned to help the others.
On the far end of the store, some girls followed Jocelyn Atilano, 16, a team member’s older sister, into the Walmart baked goods section. Jocelyn said they pushed their way into an employee-only area and told the bewildered workers to crouch and be quiet.
Outside, she heard the shooter yell: “Get out!” and “Where are you?”
All the girls were safe. But several parents were down.
Jorge Calvillo, one of the team’s first customers that day, was shot and killed.
Luis Calvillo, his son and an Army veteran, was shot multiple times, along with Jessica and Guillermo Garcia, a bearlike man nicknamed “Tank.” Also wounded were parents Maribel Latin, who posts the team’s photographs online, and Enrique Atilano, a U.S. Marine who served two tours in Iraq.
Some parents were quickly released from the hospital, though they remain seriously injured.
Calvillo and Garcia, who ran the team and the practices, were hit multiple times and were the most critically wounded. They underwent several surgeries and might face more. Calvillo still has bullet fragments in his kidney and liver and is considered to be in stable condition. Garcia has a bullet in his back, possibly in his spine, and is in critical but stable condition.
McGuire said that as Coach Calvillo began his recovery last week, he made everyone laugh by managing to ask whether the girls were practicing for the playoffs.
“Relax,” his relatives told him.
‘You need to try’
The Fusion is part of the Paso del Norte Soccer League, which has ballooned from nearly 400 players in 2006 to 4,100 today. They start at age 3, kicking tot-sized soccer balls toward miniature goals, and the teams that persist here have developed into seamless machines that crush other teams. High school and club teams have won state championships, and one teen girls’ club team won a national title. The Fusion was not that. Some of the girls had previously played for another team, but the Fusion officially started in January, when Calvillo and Garcia took over from another coach, Hugo Ornelas, who moved too far away to attend practices.
Ornelas said the men agreed that the team’s goals went well beyond winning. They wanted to teach the girls they could do anything, telling them, “You’re good. You need to be here. You need to be something. You need to try.”
“It’s what makes a person,” he said.
He saw them grow from a soccer version of the Bad News Bears into “hungry little women on the field who wanted to win.”
In the Paso Del Norte league, from age 3 to 19, everyone plays three seasons, spring, summer and fall. Everyone plays in the playoffs.
The best teams play in the gold category. Others play in the silver category, and still others in bronze.
The Fusion won the bronze category in May, for the second consecutive season, and the players celebrated with medals and a water-balloon fight.
“Very proud of these girls,” Calvillo posted on Facebook.
They hoped to win again this year.
Thursday night at the pizzeria, time was running out for Fusion because the playoffs were hours away — the games started Friday night.
When McGuire asked whether they wanted to play, their hands shot up: Yes.
Françoise Feliberti, the league secretary, who runs the organization with her husband, Manuel “Doc” Feliberti, said they canceled games the day of the shooting. The ordeal had frightened everyone, and they worried that some players might not want to come back.
El Paso Express, the team that once fielded Javier Rodriguez, a 15-year-old killed in the massacre, played its game.
“We’re not going to stop living,” Françoise Feliberti said, then paused.
“It did occur to me, ‘What if one day we had a live shooter in the park?’ ” she said. “What do we do? Where are we going to hide on a soccer field?”
In the aftermath of the shooting, donations and support poured in from soccer teams across the country, from Alaska to Connecticut. A New Orleans woman set up a relief fund, professional soccer players wrote checks, a Santa Barbara man offered free uniforms. El Paso clubs organized a charity tournament Sunday to help with medical bills and other expenses.
Sport can sometimes heal.
A beautiful game
On Friday, the Fusion showed up early to play under the lights. There were pale family members wearing black shirts with the name “Calvillo” on the backs. Maribel Latin, the mother of the team’s goalie, showed up in a wheelchair. Enrique Atilano leaned in on a cane. Their former coach, Ornelas, came to watch.
The girls stretched, played, ran. Their parents, wearing shirts that said Dad or Mom, shouted and cheered. They all wanted to win the game for the coaches who were still in the hospital, to show they were moving on, to demonstrate that they had bested this trauma. They lost the game, 2 to 1. Some of the girls burst into hard sobs. Parents worried they had all come back to this too soon.
McGuire, his voice cracking, told them that Calvillo and Garcia, the coaches, would be proud of them. And they had at least one more game to play.
The next morning, the team returned to the field.
Maylene Latin, the diminutive goalie, blocked shot after shot as her injured mother watched from a wheelchair. Karina Garcia, whose parents were both shot, repeatedly blasted the ball away from the goal. Emylee Calvillo, who lost her grandfather and worries about her father in the hospital, chased the ball with so much fervor that some of the parents told her to slow down.
“Kick it hard,” said Luvia Atilano, who is married to Enrique and has burns and bruises from bullets that grazed her arms and legs.
If this were a perfect story, a perfect team, a perfect world, the Fusion would have won the championship. It is not a perfect world.
At the end, the parents and the children felt a little lighter, but they were still crying, still grieving, still recovering from serious wounds.
But for a few hours, they were just soccer parents and soccer players, lost in what everyone agreed was a beautiful game on a beautiful day.
Members of the El Paso Fusion soccer team gather before a playoff game Saturday. Players voted to continue with the playoffs, though some were deeply shaken by witnessing the mass shooting at a shopping center a week earlier. Five team parents were shot.
TOP: The El Paso Fusion soccer team warms up for a game at Blackie Chesher Park in El Paso on Saturday. Some parents wondered if the girls took the field too soon after they witnessed the shooting at a local Walmart a week earlier. ABOVE: Goalie Maylene Latin, front, is followed by her mother Maribel Latin as they leave the park. Maribel Latin was one of five team parents wounded in the shooting.