LIVERMORE, Calif. and MESA, Ariz. -- As Julio Benitez sits in a hotel conference room during Real Salt Lake's preseason preparations in February, his hand is pressed against his chest, in the shape of a claw. It's as if he's searching for a piece of his heart that is no longer there, but he knows that there is now a hole where there was once a whole. What's gone can't be replaced.
"It's always going to be like that," he said, his face creased with sorrow. "There will always be that one piece missing."
At that point, it had been little more than a year since Benitez's father, Juan, died from COVID-19. In that time, Julio has been forced to navigate an agonizing path, one full of life choices that a 15-year-old shouldn't have to make, all while coping with a staggering loss. At the time of his father's death, Benitez was a midfielder in Real Salt Lake's academy, an amateur working toward a professional contract, although nothing was guaranteed. What, then, was the best way to provide for his family? Would it -- or even could it -- include soccer? How could he perform on the field and chase his dreams while processing the weight of his grief?
Benitez's path is far from its end, but there has been growth of late. He signed a homegrown contract earlier this year, and while he recently returned to training after being sidelined by a concussion, the RSL brass is impressed by his ability to adapt to the faster, more physical demands of playing at the professional level. He has made two appearances this season with the Real Monarchs, Salt Lake's reserve side, and while Benitez still has some growing to do, a skill set that includes ability on the ball and an unquenchable will to win bodes well. And yet his mind always drifts back to his family, his mother, Dulce, along with his three brothers and four sisters.
"My family tells me not to worry about much and just play soccer. Don't worry too much about them." he said. "My mom, she's always telling me, 'We're doing fine, we're OK. Just as long as you're fine and you're doing what you love, we're fine over here as well.' So I just always keep that in mind. I do this for my family mostly. Everything I've done is for them."
All in the family
Benitez was born in Chandler, Arizona, but has spent the bulk of his childhood in nearby Mesa, living in a mobile home park called Fiesta Village. There is an aura of hard work about the household, a minivan with a dented rear door parked outside. There is a sense of family as well. Two of his younger siblings, Lucio and Victoria, are in full gallop about the place, playing with the family dogs -- Frosty, Buddy, Loco and Hazel. As I sit with Benitez's older brothers, Juan Jr. and Jesus talk about pickup games in the neighborhood streets around the home, including the time Jesus got his head split open during an impromptu stint in goal.
That passion for the game was instilled by their father, who, when he wasn't working in construction, watched his sons practice or play as much as possible.
"That was the only connection me and him really had," Julio said. "He would work all day, get off of work, eat after, and then he'd be like, 'Are you're ready to go practice?' And if I wasn't ready, then I wouldn't go. He wouldn't even take me or anything. But every day after his work, he would come back. He'd be tired, but he would still take me to practice and everything. So yeah, that's how we created that bond. It was just soccer. He would take me everywhere."
Julio's appetite for the game didn't end with organized practices and games. All he and his siblings needed was a sliver of daylight and a ball.
"When my dad would take Julio to practice, he would come back and just keep playing," Juan Jr. said of his kid brother. "He'd start playing here, just go out and play with his friends. For goals we'd use cones, backpacks, rocks."
The elder Benitez was his sons' first coach, and his desire to dole out advice didn't stop as they rose through the ranks of Phoenix-area youth soccer, a tendency that wasn't always appreciated by his boys' club coaches. Julio recalled more than once his coaches asking his dad to cease with the in-game instruction, not that it did anything to stop him.
Julio was helped by the fact that his older brothers were also immersed in the game. Competing with them allowed him to play up an age group, forcing him to get by on skill and street smarts.
"Younger brothers always have a little edge because they have big brothers and [Jesus] was very, very talented," said Jimmy Deutsch, one of Julio's first coaches at a Phoenix-area club called Barcelona Arizona. "So from the beginning, Julio was just a very good, solid player. He understood the game at a very high level."
Games were a family affair, with the Benitezes laying out the proverbial blanket on the hill to take in the day, even as Juan Sr. had his younger children tugging at his sleeve.
Often it was left to Julio to help keep an eye out for the younger members of the family. It instilled a maturity and an unselfishness in Julio that permeated everything he did. One of his club coaches, Rafa Sifuentes, recalls how if he bought Julio a Gatorade after a game, the boy would just give it to one of his siblings. Offers to buy him meals were met with the similar resistance.
"Julio would be like, 'No Coach, you don't have to do that,'" Sifuentes recalled. "I'd be like, 'I don't have to do it. I want to do it.' But that's the type of person he is. He would give you the shirt off his back, not only for his brothers and sisters but his teammates."
Benitez's unselfishness is reflected in the way he performs on the field. As a holding midfielder, he tracks the ball across the field, getting in tackles or connecting passes to kick-start attacks. And even though he looks undersized for the role -- his height is listed at a generous 5-foot-8 -- he did whatever the situation demanded, an awareness that started at home.
"I've asked him if he changed diapers and he'd say, 'Of course, I have to change diapers.' So I think just being a part of a family where he's putting in the work, he's helping, he's being one of the adults to help his family out," said Mike Kraus, the director of RSL's Arizona academy. "Then when you get on a field and it's soccer and doing something you love, then it's like, 'Oh, this is easy to give for this and to help others and cover guys. And if they need a little bit of help, OK, I'll cover for them. I'll do their role for them.' Whatever he's got to give, I mean, every single game that he plays, his tank is empty at the end of the game."
Kraus was among the coaches who opened doors for Benitez, getting him into RSL's Arizona academy and later pushing him onto the team's full academy in Herriman, Utah. Once there, Benitez continued to impress and his leadership was such that he was named captain of the U.S. under-15 national team. His ability to influence the game from the center of midfield also caught the eye.
"I remember seeing him as just a bulldozer out there, dictating the game from the middle of the field," RSL academy director Tony Beltran said. "I remember immediately being intrigued by the way in which he stood out on the field.
"There's just such life in him. It's why others are drawn to him. It's why he's a natural leader in our residency. It's why kids his age, and frankly, kids older than him, look up to him."
At the current stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as the U.S. death toll surpasses 1 million, there is a cultural numbness to the damage. Yet the reality is that families have been devastated, both economically and emotionally. According to The Washington Post, the number of relatives impacted by the death of a loved one due to COVID-19 is 9 million. The disparities in health care access were laid bare, as were the ways that COVID-19 struck minority communities harder.
In late 2020, the pandemic had been around eight months, and there was still plenty that was unknown about the disease. And there was worse to come. When the surge hit in November and December of that year, it overwhelmed the U.S. health care system.
"Our resources were so limited," said Dr. Shaila Karan, a Phoenix-area internist who has treated COVID patients at the Mayo Clinic and HonorHealth but was not involved in the care for Juan Sr. "I remember wearing one mask for seven days, eight days and then getting another mask because our supplies were very short at the time. We were in uncharted waters for sure. We didn't know what this disease was all about. We didn't know how to treat it accurately because every patient behaved so differently, and in such an unpredictable manner."
She also witnessed the toll it took on the children of those who perished, and the responsibilities they had to take on. In one instance, she observed how a teenager filled the role of translator for the rest of his family.
"I couldn't imagine how a kid was given the responsibility to certainly be the face of their family when they're 15 and 16," she said. "So those were very hard and very challenging times. I can't tell you how many teenagers have suffered with mental trauma."
It was in late 2020 that this tidal wave of disease and grief enveloped the Benitez family. With the pandemic raging, RSL's academy shut down that November, and Julio was sent home to Mesa. Shortly after he arrived, his father fell ill. Benitez recalled seeing his father lying on the couch in the family's living room, his eyes red. He was coughing and sweating. He resisted going to the hospital until Dulce said she couldn't see him like this. At that point, the magnitude of what was happening hit home for Julio.
"I was just like, 'S---. What now?' The only support was my dad," he said. "So I'm like, 'I have to start working or else what's going to happen? Who is going to support the family?' The only person that was financially helping us was my dad. I couldn't really do much about it, other than go find work."
And so Julio set about a punishing schedule. He would start as early as 5 a.m. to do landscaping work, construction or cabinet making -- "fast jobs," as he called them -- for which he could get paid at day's end. Then he would head to training with one of the RSL Arizona teams in the evening, when he was better able to stay in soccer shape.
Even as his father's condition rose and fell, he didn't share his situation with anyone. If the eyes are the window to most people's soul, in Julio's case it was his voice. He was often the most vocal player on the field, but not anymore.
"I could see, he lost the [passion], he lost that on the field," said Sifuentes, who is now with FC Arizona. "But you're talking about a 15-year-old kid at the time."
Sifuentes knew of Benitez's workload, and would often talk about what the teenager did during the day. At last, Benitez confided to Sifuentes that his father was ill, and the toll that was taking. The Benitezes could only communicate with Juan Sr. via FaceTime.
That toll would only increase. Juan Sr. died on New Year's Eve, just 51 years old.
"He was our soul," Juan Jr. said. "We always relied on him. He was our role model."
It was at this point that Julio, in his mind, was faced with a stark choice, one that was less an ultimatum and done more out of sheer desperation.
"I just told them, 'If I don't get paid when I go to Utah, I'm not going. I'm staying here in Arizona and working,'" he said. "I don't want to say there was any pressure. It was what needed to be done."
Word had already filtered up through the RSL hierarchy of the difficulties that Benitez faced. Kraus and Sifuentes encouraged Benitez to think long term and know there was another way to help his family. RSL came through, and they arranged for him to sign a contract with the Real Monarchs. He signed the deal March 17, 2021. (Benitez has since signed a full homegrown deal with RSL's first team.) Beltran stressed that the signing wasn't done out of charity, and that Benitez had long been targeted as a future pro.
"As soon as we had the context, it was a very obvious and easy internal conversation," Beltran said. "Julio was already an elite player within our system, and one that we were tracking for a professional contract. He had earned everything that was in front of him, everything that was coming to him, but the circumstances being what they were, it expedited that process a little bit on our end."
That would mean leaving the family and heading back to Utah, but he did so with their blessing.
"I just told him that it was his dream to keep playing, and just keep going and my dad will be with him no matter what," Juan Jr. said.
With the pandemic still in force, a contract was mailed to Benitez for him and his mother to sign in the obscurity of Fiesta Village. When asked about how she felt for her son to sign such a deal, Dulce wiped away a tear, and just said, "Orgullosa." Proud.
There was happiness in accomplishing such a lofty goal, coupled with sadness that his father wasn't there to see that dream fulfilled. Sifuentes recalled how he watched Benitez try to play in an academy game six weeks after Juan Sr. died, but it came too soon. The memories were too fresh, the burden too heavy. He saw a distraught Benitez trudge off the field at halftime.
"I said, 'What's wrong?' The look on his face," Sifuentes said. "He said, 'I can't play, I can't stop thinking about everything.' I said, 'If you can't play, you can't play.'"
By spring, Benitez was back in Utah, and gradually found himself on firmer footing, but it seemed that with each milestone there was an opportunity to reopen an old wound. Such was the case with his professional debut on June 23, 2021, in a USL Championship game against the Tacoma Defiance.
"The first few games were challenging," Julio said. "Sometimes, I'm like, 'Damn, I still can't believe it.'"
The way forward
That emotional component, even when he's on the field, has been the toughest to deal with. Benitez spoke of needing to get his confidence back, but he's also talking about rediscovering the joy associated with playing.
Benitez's voice brightens at the pointers RSL manager Pablo Mastroeni -- himself a holding midfielder in his playing days -- has doled out, especially as it relates to being on the move when he makes his first touch with the ball. "Otherwise you'll get crushed," Benitez said.
There are also signs of healing back home. Benitez noted how his mother is starting to smile more and get out more often. He also feels he's ready to have more conversations with his younger siblings, the youngest of whom is just 5 years old, to explain to them what happened. He knows he can't keep it bottled up inside forever.
"They're so small, they don't know what was going on," he said. "So I really want to tell them and converse with them. Tell them how life really works. This really happened."
Kraus went and saw RSL play in Tucson during preseason, and afterward there was Benitez, signing autographs and smiling among friends and family. Some of the delight the young midfielder took from the game was beginning to creep back.
"That was a very cool sight," Kraus said.
Benitez is now ready to push on. He knows that the best way to honor his father's memory is to keep grinding. Now that he's back in training, his career can begin to advance again, although he'll likely remain with the Monarchs for the rest of the season. After that, the push for minutes with Real Salt Lake will intensify. There is also an awareness that he can help his family the most by helping himself.
"I really don't want to see them struggle as much, so it really pushes me," Benitez said of his family. "This is what has to be done, and we try to get it done the best way possible."