Soccer gives Pico-Union teen a purpose and a dream

Jerry Rivas talks about how the 'beautiful game' of soccer changed his life and set him on a path away from street gangs and anger.

Jerry Rivas' first soccer field was unglamorous. Like many other kids in his Pico-Union neighborhood, he grew up kicking a ball around the local park, dodging trees scattered in the grassy haven lodged at the intersection of three streets.

The peace of the park does not extend far beyond its borders. At 15, when he lived behind a big, leafy tree a few steps from the park, he was standing in front of his home when someone in a car started shooting. He ran up the steps to his building, and when he turned around, he saw the lifeless body of his friend — a fellow goalkeeper on his soccer team — lying on the ground.




Soccer player:

An article in the July 14 LATExtra about 17-year-old Pico-Union resident Jerry Rivas and the Aztecas Futbol Club Los Angeles suggested he joined a gang after he was recruited by the soccer team. Rivas had joined a gang before joining the soccer team but has since given up those activities.


Jerry, now 17, has since moved two buildings down. He shares a single-room apartment with his mother; he sleeps on one couch, she on another. A collection of his soccer trophies is displayed on a small wooden table in a corner. The game has enabled Jerry to change his life.

"Soccer escapes you from reality; it escapes you from problems," Jerry said.

Although the neighborhood park is still the home field of many young soccer players, Jerry is no longer one of them. In 2012, after years of playing school and club soccer, he joined a prestigious local team.

At 15, Jerry was invited by the coach of Aztecas Futbol Club Los Angeles, which had already won three championships in the Youth Empowered through Scholastic Sports and Services league, to join the team as a goalkeeper.

"After that day, I ended up feeling lightheaded," Jerry said. "I really wanted that opportunity. I heard they had won three trophies and I wanted the fourth one."

At the time, Jerry was tagging and soon afterward joined a gang. He gave up those activities about a year ago, he said.

Soccer played a large role in his decision to walk away, he said. When he was invited to go tagging in the middle of the night, he would remember a game he had the next day. If he saw someone permanently injured by a bullet, he vowed not to let it happen to him because it would prevent him from playing soccer — "something that I'm pretty good at."

Most importantly, Aztecas reached into an empty area of his life — the place he wanted his father to fill.

Jaime Hernandez Marroquin, the coach of Aztecas, reached out to Jerry both on and off the field. Hernandez coached the team to another league championship and Jerry to the title of goalkeeper of the year, but he also took Jerry out to eat, invited him to his own family gatherings and picked him up for practice.


Hernandez told Jerry he had "the potential of making it big," that he had the "intelligence of a soccer player" and the "strength of good sportsmanship."

"I guess that's what I was wanting to hear from somebody — to tell me throughout my life," Jerry said. "And I guess those are a father's words, you know? So I heard it from him."

Hernandez said all his players — there are about 80 — are special to him, but he gives extra time to those he thinks need it.

"I had a kind of hard life too," he said. "I see there's a lot of negligence towards these kids."

Jerry's parents split up when he was 18 months old, and he didn't see his father again until he was a young teenager, he said. Growing up, he felt fatherless.

He picked up soccer only after his mother showed him old photographs of his father, who played professionally in El Salvador. And when Jerry went to buy a customized jersey, the shopkeeper recognized his last name.

He has forgiven his father for leaving and now tries to spend time with him.

"I'm happy I have a dad, because a lot of people don't even see their dads any part of their life," Jerry said.

Over the last month, Rivas watched every game of the World Cup, regardless of which teams were playing. But he has a favorite team — Argentina — and a favorite player.

He proudly wore his Lionel Messi jersey to his Aztecas soccer practice Thursday evening, the day after he watched his team win again and advance to the finals. And one day, if all his hard work comes to fruition, he hopes to be on the television screen too.