El Paso Strong -- How soccer and friendship helped a girls' team heal from a mass shooting

Young soccer team rebuilding after 2019 El Paso shooting (6:50)

EP Fusion, a youth soccer team in El Paso, Texas, comprised of 10-to-11-year-old girls, will forever feel the impact of the Aug. 3, 2019, shooting at a local Walmart. (6:50)

FOURTEEN DAYS AFTER the most horrifying moment of their lives, the players of El Paso Fusion stood on a professional soccer pitch. They had gathered in their uniforms -- more than a dozen girls, ages 9 to 11 -- at Southwest University Park to be honored by El Paso Locomotive before the United Soccer League team's Saturday night home game against Tacoma. Temperatures that Aug. 17 had broken 100 degrees throughout West Texas, and it was still in the high 90s as the prematch ceremonies began.

Onto the field they came, Madison McGuire and Emylee Calvillo and their teammates and parents, waving El Paso Strong banners, lining up with their backs to the flag beyond the center-field fence of this converted minor league baseball stadium, facing the crowd as a preteen singer took the mic to perform the national anthem.

Two weeks earlier, a man with a semi-automatic rifle and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition had driven an estimated 10 hours to a Walmart in El Paso, Store #2201 near the Cielo Vista Mall. There, just outside the front doors, these players and coaches of EP Fusion were selling cold drinks and chicharrones to raise money for the team's trip to an out-of-state soccer tourney. The man with the rifle was still in the parking lot when he started firing his weapon -- not indiscriminately, not at just anyone, but targeting men, women and children who, in his eyes, looked Hispanic. Like these girls and their families and their coaches.

Twenty-three people were killed in the shooter's assault. The girls now assembling on the pitch knew the dead. They knew the wounded. They had heard and seen so much -- and in the wake of the terror around them, they had shown grit and resilience as a team. The hope was that, on this night, they would find out how much their city cared about them.

The national anthem had begun. The girls placed their right hands over their hearts.

Their latest horror was just seconds away.

THE EL PASO STRONG sticker on the back of his white Passat merely hinted at the torment the events of Aug. 3 had put Benny McGuire and his family through. Still, "it's a good city, you know -- it's a growing city," he says. "With growing comes more opportunities for everybody."

Before becoming daughter Madison's soccer coach, he had been born in this same city 36 years ago, when his parents gave him the name Bernardo. It didn't take. So this youngest of five became Benny, drafted into the family construction business fresh out of high school. He'd be a field supervisor, overseeing the company's projects on the base at Fort Bliss, rubbing shoulders with the brass and warming to their tales of military life. But the indignities of work as the youngest sibling never went away. "You get pushed aside on things," he says. "They get to do things, and you ... just sit back and wait for your turn." He'd had enough. He'd left the business in the spring before the attack.

Caring for his aging parents could sound like a full-time job. They'd moved into the back bedroom of his house on Strata Rock in the far east section of El Paso, where everything was booming and new. He drove his mother to dialysis three times a week and helped both his parents with their Type 2 diabetes. "When I was young, I was a handful," Benny says. "Now my parents are old, so they're a handful. They have candy and cookies they shouldn't have in the house. So that's the fun adventure that I'm on right now."

Leadership -- that's what Benny had always enjoyed the most, and sports had given him that opportunity. At Eastwood High School, he played point guard on a "pretty good" Troopers squad: "Knowing where to go and what to do, facilitating everything -- it just worked out. I know, it sounds kind of bossy."

He'd get married, have two kids, divorce -- and always cherish those days when basketball was at the center of his life.

In spring 2017, Benny dreamed of coaching Madison in basketball. "There's nothing more than seeing your own child play a sport that you love," he says. "And then they love it, and you have that bond."

Madison had other ideas. "I wanted to try something new because my dad's like, 'You should do basketball,' and my mom's like, 'You should do cheerleading,'" she recalls with a smile. "I'm like, 'I'm going to do something that they disapprove of.'" She chose soccer.

Benny couldn't believe it: Soccer was the one sport he'd never, ever played. "I was like, 'Madison, it's a hundred and something degrees in El Paso in the summers.' And Madison's like, 'Well, that's what I want to do.'" So Benny went online and found Madison a team: the Mighty Eagles, playing in the Paso del Norte Soccer Organization.

It wasn't long before Benny started helping out. "I become that dad that coaches hate: the dad that starts coaching," he recalls. "I looked at Madison: 'You didn't want me to coach, but hey, here I am, helping your coach coach. You're stuck with me.'"

A year and a half later, Benny joined two other dads on the Mighty Eagles -- Luis Calvillo and Guillermo "Memo" Garcia -- to form a new team: El Paso Fusion. "We had our three girls. And then we just started recruiting other girls, and it fused together. That's how we went with the name."

Eager to be a leader once more, undeterred by the blown ACL that made running a challenge or by his inexperience with soccer, Benny took his assistant coaching responsibilities seriously. He wanted Madison to get obsessed with soccer the way he was with basketball: "I'm yelling at her, 'Let's go, let's go, let's go.' She looked at me: 'Why are you always yelling at me?' I tell her, 'I'm hard on you because I know your potential. I know what you can do.'"

That wasn't why Madison had chosen soccer -- or why she enjoyed it so much. "It turned out that I really liked it," Madison says. "I like kicking the ball around and feeling the wind in your face when you run." She and her BFFs on the team had even worked out some goal-scoring celebrations; just planning them made her giddy.

When the coaches wanted to take the team to Tucson, Arizona, for a tournament, they knew it would take some serious money -- but from where? The girls' families were already paying close to $100 each. The wife of one of the coaches mentioned that she'd raised money for a baseball team outside one of the Walmarts in town, the big one near the Cielo Vista Mall. There was a slot open for Saturday, Aug. 3. EP Fusion had its chance.

That morning, they set up at 9 o'clock. While McGuire, Calvillo and Garcia looked after the players gathered at the Walmart's two entrances, their families minded a long table with coolers and large jugs of cold drinks under a brown tent that shielded them from the Texas sun. Around 10:15 or so, Calvillo and McGuire created videos for Facebook, one in English, the other in Spanish and English, trying to lure friends and relatives to come support the team.

"Hey, good morning, everybody ... how're you doing this beautiful Saturday?" McGuire said on his video, his left earbud visible. "EP Fusion -- we're doing a fundraiser here at the Walmart ... we got these awesome little ladies right here: Girls, say hi!"

Dressed in brightly colored EP Fusion T-shirts, waving hand-lettered signs and carrying jars for cash donations, Madison and her teammates waved at the camera. By now, it was close to 10:40 a.m.

ON THAT SAME morning of Aug. 3, just hours before he would decisively intervene on behalf of the girls outside the Walmart, another soccer player in El Paso was arriving at the gym near his place. Sebastian Velasquez was still new in town. Signed by El Paso Locomotive from a Korean club in July, he was beginning his second stint in the USL, eager for a fresh start. He was 28 years old; nearly half his life had passed since the moment that changed everything for him and soccer -- and as with Madison, it had all begun with his father yelling.

It was 2007, and his family was living in Greenville, South Carolina, where they'd fled the unrest in his native Medellin, Colombia. Velasquez's mother had gotten a job there with Umbro, the soccer apparel company, and a new world had opened up. He'd dedicated his life to soccer and led his high school to a state title as a freshman. Thanks to his mother's job, he'd even gotten a photograph with the great Pele.

On this day, though, he was 16, working alongside his father to install plumbing in a local restaurant, trying and failing to operate a jackhammer, wishing he were anywhere else. "I will never forget this," Velasquez says. "I'm getting yelled at by my dad. I couldn't hold this thing still ... and this guy walks into the restaurant."

This guy was a soccer-playing friend who urged Velasquez to attend a soccer camp in town; there at the camp, improbably, was Steve Archibald, a Scottish striker who'd played for Barcelona in the '80s, won two FA Cups and -- most famously -- been the last to convert from the spot after extra time in the 1984 UEFA Cup title game. His penalty helped to win the UEFA Cup for Tottenham Hotspur, setting off delirium at White Hart Lane.

Just as improbable in Velasquez's mind was that Archibald was impressed with the 16-year-old's prowess on the pitch. "He was like, 'Where do you see yourself playing?... I think you have the potential to play professional.'"

There'd be a tryout and an invitation for Velasquez to travel to Barcelona, an agency contract signed there. Back home in the States, Velasquez would lead his club team to an under-18 national championship and win the tourney's Golden Boot. That contract might have bollixed his Division I soccer hopes, but two sparkling years earning second-team All-America honors at Spartanburg Methodist College in South Carolina led to Velasquez being chosen in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft by Real Salt Lake, as his family looked on: "We just started crying, jumping all over the house."

Yet what he would remember most vividly was that day when he was 16: the day at the restaurant that led to him meeting Archibald, the dream that had begun to come true. "Oh, there's no words to describe it," he says, "to have a player of that magnitude tell me that he believes I have the potential to do it. It gives you a sense of motivation. You just want to go for it and try your best to make it."

Less than two years later, on Dec. 7, 2013, Velasquez was in Kansas City, Kansas, freezing on the bench as Real Salt Lake played in 22-degree weather for the MLS Cup. He came on as a sub in the 87th minute, not long after Sporting KC had tied the score, and played through extra time. There were no goals. The match would be settled by penalty kicks.

At first, he thought he'd never be called on, as Sporting KC took an early lead. But things quickly evened up, and when Graham Zusi missed his kick for Sporting KC, it went to sudden death.

"Then their guy misses ... and it is me for the game winner. If I make this PK, Real Salt Lake wins their second championship in history." Just like Steve Archibald.

As Velasquez stood before the ball awaiting the referee's whistle, he knew: This was where he wanted to be. "Confident as can be -- I've always been -- I walk up. I don't look at the keeper, I don't look at the crowd. I don't think of what's going on. I just think about how cold it is and I need to figure out how to get this ball in the back of the net.

"Next thing you know, I shoot. I look up ... Keeper blocks it."

No goal. Two rounds of kicks later, Sporting Kansas City was the MLS champion.

"I cried," he says.

"It was absolutely terrible. I hated soccer. How can this sport turn my life from being amazing -- because we were in the MLS Cup final, I'm getting calls from everybody -- to, as soon as I missed that PK, it just all turned around?"

It turned bad in a hurry. Excessive use of alcohol had been an issue for Velasquez in the past; now, it overwhelmed him: "I went into a drinking depression, man." He remembers vomiting while an electric fan blew air in his face, his mother cradling his head in her lap. "I can't do anything for you," she told him. "If you don't get past this, you're either going to be dead or in jail."

In Velasquez's words, "so many things happened" after that. The last of those things was rehab. "I was very confident when things were going well," he says. "When things got bad, my true character was out -- I was an addict to alcohol."

That morning of Aug. 3, it puzzled him that he couldn't get into his gym at first. "They did an extra security check. They're like, 'Things are a little dangerous.' I was like, 'What do you mean?'"

BENNY MCGUIRE HAD put his phone away for the moment. It was about 10:40 a.m.; he'd been standing under the brown tent where the agua fresca was, talking to Luis Calvillo as he saw Calvillo's father pull up in his SUV and honk the horn. He figured the two of them might want to speak privately; Garcia was there as well. McGuire was walking away, toward the Walmart Home & Living entrance, when a strange noise caught his attention.

"A firecracker," he says. "That was my first thought."

He turned around and saw what looked like a cloud of smoke under the tent. He stopped, looked back at his daughter and her friends. There was another sound, short and sharp. Now he knew -- it wasn't a firecracker. It was gunfire.

"I turned around, I told the girls, 'Run.' I told Madison, 'Run, take off. I'll catch you, just run.' They all took off running inside. Instantly three, four, five rounds went off. That's when I turned and took off after Madison and the girls, running inside Walmart."

"We just all ran in the store," Madison recalls. "I heard screams and a bunch of panicked voices. [The shooter] was in the front and that's where all the shots were coming from, and we needed to get to safety."

Benny caught up to Madison a few yards inside the door, grabbed his daughter's hand and realized that the shooter or shooters were now inside the store as well. He and the girls could hear the echoing roar of the gunshots, the screams, the objects falling over. Benny ran on his repaired ACL, the girls and himself in panic mode, trying to think along with whoever was trying to kill people in the store.

"My first instinct was to get off the main aisle, so we cut through a linen aisle." He and the girls dashed past an elderly man with a shopping cart, tried to dodge the throngs of people racing toward the front doors. They took another aisle -- and headed for the back.

"What's going to happen?" wailed one of Madison's terrified friends. Madison tried to comfort her as they kept going toward the store's exit: "We went to where the restrooms are. And then there's a little door ..."

With each audible burst of gunfire, the shrieks kicked up once more -- even as Benny and the girls peeled out the back of the Walmart. They kept running, over a barrier, up an incline and into the parking lot of a Cinemark 14-screen multiplex. An aunt of one of the girls was with them; Benny told her, "Stay here. I'm going to run to get my car. I'm going to get us out of this thing."

"When my dad left, I was like, 'What if something happens to him?'" Madison recalls. "And that's where I got really scared."

Sprinting around the outside of the Walmart, Benny called his ex-wife to tell her that Madison was safe. By the time he reached the parking lot, he was on the phone with his girlfriend -- and that's when he saw a woman lying on the ground: "I kneel down to check her pulse and ... you can see the devastation this shooter did. She's gone. And I tell my girlfriend, 'Oh my god.'"

As his girlfriend implored Benny to leave, he saw fellow coach Memo Garcia sprawled on the sidewalk near the brown tent, bleeding and semiconscious. "He tells me, 'I'm hit, I'm hit, I'm hit -- in my back, in my leg, somewhere.' I see him putting pressure on his hip. I was like, 'Keep the pressure, keep the pressure.'"

He looked to his left -- and there was coach Luis Calvillo, also wounded, struggling to get to his feet. As Benny began to scream for help, a cop in SWAT gear ran up. "You've got to get out of here," he told Benny.

"I can't leave him," Benny recalls. "He's like, 'Get out of here now. This guy is still on the premises, and we can't find him.' So I look at Memo, and I'm like, 'They're going to take care of you, dude. I got to go.' And I run back to my car."

Benny made it to the multiplex parking lot, piled the girls into his car and headed toward the entrance/exit to the Walmart. But it had been blocked by police, and now -- stuck in traffic, the shooter still on the loose -- Benny felt helpless.

"We were sitting ducks," he says. "How am I going to protect my daughter? What am I going to do?"

"He's like, 'Girls, put your heads down,'" Madison says. "'We need to find a way out of here.'"

Benny found another, unguarded exit and drove his car to his girlfriend's just a couple of minutes away. He notified his ex-wife; other parents came by to sweep up their daughters. After everyone had left and it was just Benny and his daughter, the facade crumbled away. "I grabbed Madison, and I just hugged her. And I told her, for the first time in my life, I was scared. Scared of the fact that as a father I might've failed in protecting my daughter. And that's the first time that I've truly, truly, truly felt fear."

FROM THE MOMENT he'd arrived in town, what Sebastian Velasquez had liked most about El Paso was "the amount of Hispanics everywhere," he says. "You go to grocery stores, you go to Italian restaurants -- everyone's Hispanic."

Just hours after the attack on Walmart, not long after the shooter's arrest a quarter-mile from the site, news emerged that the assault was rooted in hatred toward Hispanics. That hatred was on Velasquez's mind as he watched the reports with his girlfriend. "I've had to go through racism myself; I grew up in South Carolina," he says. "I go to another city where there's no racism, we're tons of Hispanics here, but still someone racist is capable of coming with a lethal weapon and shooting at a certain group of people."

Then, one headline caught his eye: Soccer team raising funds. Two coaches have been shot. "And I said, 'Wow, that's home. I've done those things. I've raised money at different places where I've had to sell waters.'" He felt the need to do something -- but what?

On social media, Velasquez spotted a GoFundMe for EP Fusion set up by Gooner Gals, a group of women Arsenal supporters led by Tiffany Campo in New Orleans. "Having lived through Katrina," Campo says, "the one thing that people could do to help us was just to act. Don't ask us what we need. If you're able to help, do it." The Gooner Gals' initial fundraising goal was a modest one: raise the money for the tournament fees and equipment that the team had been trying to amass that Saturday at Walmart. Maybe a few hundred dollars or so.

Galvanized by the GoFundMe, Velasquez reached out to Campo. "He is almost ... obsessively kind," Campo recalls. "He really, really wanted to help."

When Velasquez retweeted her appeal, it exploded across the soccer landscape, with support from Mia Hamm, Landon Donovan and the MLS' Houston Dynamo. "I'm getting calls from everywhere," he recalls. "People I've never met before... tons of 'How can we help?'" Jozy Altidore donated $5,000; the USWNT's Jessica McDonald donated cleats and equipment. "All these people are sports icons in America," Velasquez says, "and they all wanted to be a part of it." In 14 days, the fund grew to well over $30,000: "A whole soccer community, people from all over wanted to help these little girls from El Paso."

McGuire would tell the team all the USL midfielder had been doing for them, and when he shared the news of McDonald's gift, he made sure that Campo was on the phone so she could hear the girls screaming with joy.

Yet as he met with their parents, McGuire knew the team had other needs too. "At first it was a lot of hugs and cries and concerns," he recalls. "And that led into, 'I think right now all the girls need to be around each other.'" He set up a team pizza dinner, then called Velasquez.

That night, the girls gathered in a closed-off area -- "probably about 10 tables of all the girls just enjoying themselves." When Jessica Garcia, wife of Coach Memo, arrived, the players lined up to embrace her. Then McGuire took a call and hurried outside, where Velasquez and two of his teammates were waiting.

"I've met a lot of famous people -- people that have won World Cups," Velasquez says. "I've never felt nervous around them. I was nervous to meet these girls." Twelve years ago, a soccer player had walked into a restaurant and transformed Velasquez's life. Now, as he entered the restaurant with McGuire, it was his turn. "These girls go bananas," McGuire recalls. "It felt like I walked in with One Direction or something."

Velasquez took a moment to introduce himself to each of the players. "They just come hugging, smiling, laughing," he says. "For about an hour, the world stopped, time stopped. We're having pizza and just talking soccer. It felt like I was making a difference in someone's life."

"Literally, everyone started fangirling," Madison says. She got Velasquez to sign her shirt.

"I remember somebody put a camera on them," Velasquez recalls, "and they're screaming Olé! at a pizza place. They're screaming, Olé, olé, olé like it was like a stadium."

AND THE ROCKETS' red glare ...

A few days later, on that Saturday evening in El Paso, the players of EP Fusion were reunited with Velasquez. They'd sat on the bench as his El Paso Locomotive team warmed up before standing together, wearing their sky-blue or red and yellow uniforms, on the field at Southwest University Park during a pregame ceremony in their honor, facing the fans as the national anthem continued to play.

The bombs bursting in air ...

A firecracker, perhaps -- that was their first thought.

It was the fireworks, erupting behind the girls with a BOOM at the end of each line in "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Yet the hands over the girls' hearts started to grab their shirts, hard, some of their faces dissolving into incipient anguish. There was a visible stir of unease as they cast anxious looks around. Troubled, triggered, they held it together. But the anthem wasn't over yet.

O'er the land of the free ...

At the crescendo, more fireworks. But to the players of EP Fusion, that is not what it sounded like. It was the sound of their reality. The sound that they'd lived through. The sound that had stayed with them. It sounded like gunfire.

On the field, there was horror: the girls wailing and terrified in a whirlwind of confusion and tears, clinging to one another, looking for cover.

"I was like, 'Oh my God, [is it] happening again?'" Madison recalls. "We all just fell apart."

Benny could feel Madison spinning into him on his right as one of her friends sobbed into his left shoulder. "All I could do was embrace them," he says. "I wished my arms were 9 feet long." Then Velasquez, his teammates and their opponents, Tacoma Defiance, formed a circle -- a tight huddle with the girls at its center -- trying with their bodies to ward off fear, to bring a sense of security.

It was an example of what gun culture has done to America's young people, in El Paso and across the nation, at schools and stores and movie theaters, at workplaces and houses of worship, where after the madness, survivors tried to reconstruct what had happened.

Just this once, everyone could see it.

"WHEN I PLAY soccer," Emylee Calvillo was saying on the sideline, "I can release my emotions, depending on how I feel, on the ball. And of course it's about fun. I love being with my friends. They're probably the closest friends I have."

They were sitting with her -- Madison McGuire and Nianney Nunes -- on the late afternoon of Sept. 21, moments before they'd all begin to stretch in preparation for EP Fusion's game at Blackie Chesher Park, east of downtown El Paso near U.S. 10. For Emylee, a forward, scoring a goal made her "feel like a celebrity."

"Yeah," Madison chimed in, "we'll get crazy. We feel like we're playing professional soccer."

They illustrated their victory dance. "It's like a chicken," Emylee said, "so you [put] your hands out" -- she demonstrated -- "then you wiggle your legs."

They knew that two of their three coaches were in the hospital with wounds they'd suffered in the attack. "Today, I know, it does count as a game, but we have to play for our coaches," Nianney said. "We have to play the way we would normally play."

Coach Guillermo "Memo" Garcia remained in the hospital for months, undergoing dozens of operations before succumbing to his wounds in late April. Shot five times in the back and the left leg, coach Luis Calvillo spent six days in a coma. His father, Jorge, had been killed in the attack. Coach Luis underwent hours of painful physical therapy in an effort to walk again. The GoFundMe money went toward their medical bills. The alleged shooter faces 90 federal counts of firearms violations and hate crimes; on the state level, the capital murder charges filed make him eligible for the death penalty. On July 23, he entered a not guilty plea to new charges brought in the wake of Memo Garcia's death.

As he fought to recover, Coach Luis watched EP Fusion's games on his laptop and critiqued their performance. Nearly two months after the shooting, he was released from the hospital and returned to this field. He received a hero's welcome.

"When I release my anger or emotions on the ball," Nianney said as game time drew nearer, "it's basically telling me this is a safe spot I'm comfortable with."

Then Madison let out a shout. "It's Sebastian!" The El Paso Locomotive midfielder had just arrived at the field, where he had come to watch the team play. The girls were euphoric. "He's really nice, and he helps support us," Madison said. "Right after this whole thing happened, he was just like, 'OK, we're here, I know what you're going through.'"

Emylee agreed: "It's really awesome to know that a soccer player is coming out for your small team in El Paso."

"It's a small world after all," Madison added.

"It's a small world, like Madison said," Emylee agreed. They were all laughing now.

"It's exciting to watch them play -- for the first time for me, actually," Velasquez said. "It shows how strong they are, the maturity that they have."

As the sun began to set, the girls of El Paso Fusion ran hard and played the best they knew how, McGuire imploring them from the sideline. By the middle of the second half, they'd had few scoring opportunities, and the voices from the sideline grew more insistent. But the 1-0 loss didn't seem to deter the girls.

McGuire gathered his things and hugged his daughter. He had always believed he had talent for leadership; that day at the Walmart, risking his life to rush Madison and her friends to safety, he had proved it -- then proved it again by leading his team through the weeks afterward. "It's like, 'Oh my god, he's finally the Batman that he wanted to be,'" Madison said.

Velasquez, who once felt he'd located his "true character" at the bottom of a bottle, showed these girls and the world who he really was -- lifting up their hearts just as Steve Archibald had once transformed his life.

Through him and Tiffany Campo, the soccer community -- players, teams, supporters -- stood firm against hatred, and for EP Fusion. "My only hope was to show those young girls that there are good people in the world and that we look out for each other," Campo wrote on Twitter. "They know that now. You did that."

By now it was dark. Outside the field, the girls of El Paso Fusion lined up at an ice cream truck and placed their orders. To the right stood a smiling Velasquez. He was paying for all of them. "They're the strongest people right now walking on this earth," he said. "I will always have them in my heart."

Additional reporting by Josh Vorensky and Daniela Marulanda