The mourners huddled in a concrete reception hall Wednesday afternoon, ignoring the snack table and whispering mostly in Spanish about the hard-working mattress company employee whose dream of becoming a famous soccer referee was cut short.
A public memorial for Ricardo Portillo, a volunteer soccer ref who died after being punched in the head by a player, drew a crowd of white-shirted mourners to downtown Salt Lake City. Portillo's family had originally scheduled private services at a Catholic church but decided to hold a public memorial at the Rail Event Center, 235 N. 500 West. The family asked attendees to wear a white shirt in honor of the 46-year-old Salt Lake City man.
Some of those who arrived early at the service, including family spokesman Tony Yapias, wore white T-shirts with orange jerseys printed on them. In the center, the jersey displayed a soccer ball and the words "in loving memory Ricky."
Outside the venue, a white hearse sat in the parking lot while small groups of mourners walked through flurries of pink blossoms blowing in the wind. Inside, upbeat regional Mexican music played in 3/4 time, in keeping with a cultural tradition to also celebrate the life of the deceased while memorializing them, Yapias said.
Portillo was injured on April 27 during a match involving La Liga Continental de Futbol squad at Eisenhower Junior High School in Taylorsville. According to a police report, Portillo had just given the squad's 17-year-old goalie a yellow card for shoving another player when the teen landed a punch.
"He was laying on the ground, on his left side in a fetal position," Salt Lake City Police Officer Jason Huggard wrote in his report. "Ricardo was complaining of pain in his face, back and [of] being nauseated. ... He had spit up a small amount of blood in his saliva."
Portillo was eventually taken to Intermountain Medical Center, where his brain began to swell and he lapsed into a coma. His family took him off life support on May 4.
Bunk Fox, who was Portillo's boss at Diamond Mattress Inc., where Portillo assembled mattresses, said the news of his death was "devastating."
"We didn't hire an individual who had better character than that man," Fox said outside the memorial service.
Over the course of 16 years at the mattress company Portillo stayed busy, Fox said, but was always willing to help when asked. Fox described Portillo as a "dedicated American citizen" and father, who planned to take his 16-year-old daughter to Disneyland the week he was killed.
Co-worker Marco Martinez who first heard of Portillo years ago when they both lived in Guadalajara, Mexico described him as a good friend and good father who was always happy. Martinez also said Portillo enjoyed dancing.
Phil Manzanares also worked with Portillo, and said he had a strong sense of humor that made him fun to work with. He talked frequently about soccer, Manzanares said, and loved being a referee. "That was like his second job," he said, adding that Portillo never received compensation for his work as a referee.
Andres Dominguez didn't know Portillo, but like several other people came to pay his respects because of the good he believed Portillo did for the community as a volunteer referee, including teaching kids sportsmanship.
In remarks to news media before the memorial, Yapias said Portillo's daughter, Johana Portillo-Lopez, had no comment on a charge of homicide by assault filed Wednesday against the 17-year-old teen accused of causing Portillo's death. Yapias said he and Portillo-Lopez look forward to letting "the justice system take its course."
Portillo-Lopez originally planned to give a statement Wednesday but ultimately asked Yapias to speak on her behalf because she "just wanted to be with her dad." Outside the reception hall Yapias said the family was appreciative of the support they had received.
"It's a somber day," he added. "Hopefully this will be something we all learn from."
A wood casket, flanked by flowers and an enlarged photo of Portillo with his arms raised in an apparent gesture of triumph, was the centerpiece of the memorial.
Yapias said Portillo, who has been divorced for eight years, has three daughters and three grandchildren. He has lived in the U.S. for 17 years but will be buried in his hometown of Guadalajara.
According to Yapias, Portillo once told a friend he hoped one day to become a famous referee. Ironically, Yapias said, Portillo achieved that goal in death.
Twitter: @jimmycdii Teen faces homicide charges
A 17-year-old boy accused of fatally punching a soccer referee was charged Wednesday in juvenile court with committing a homicide. > A4