‘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.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MARIA SACCHETTI

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.

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