Well off the pitch at Polideportivo of Astigarraga in Basque Country of northern Spain, Rio Alvarez and his father Jaime shared a long, emotional embrace.
Rio knew his father was coming to watch his Wednesday group stage match in the Donosti Cup, but seeing him, with surgical dressing on his neck, shook him.
What was to be a nine-day soccer excursion for Rio — who will be a freshman left winger at St. Ignatius in the fall — had nearly ended in tragedy five days earlier. Jaime had been gored in the neck during the running of the bulls in nearby Pamplona, and Rio had not seen his father since.
“I knew, but I was nervous,” Rio told The Examiner late last week.
Jaime was one of between 50 and 100 attendees who are injured every year during the running of the bulls, which takes place every morning during the two-week Fiesta of San Fermin, popularized in America by Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” He nearly missed being the 16th fatality.
The Alvarez family had traveled to Spain along with five SF Glens youth teams. The family had just dropped Rio off for the Glens Under-15 team’s friendly in Madrid before heading up to Basque Country, and would be passing through Pamplona.
“We decided, ‘Well, we’ve got a couple of days, might as well go see something neat,’” Jaime told The Examiner. “We just kind of got caught up in things. “
“You,” his wife Leah, said, interjecting. “You got caught up in things.”
Jaime’s mother, his wife and other family members forbade him from running. Rio, too, said, “There’s no way you’re running, Dad.” Leah told him the morning of the run — the first of the festival — that it was “really stupid.”
Jaime, a Santa Clara public defender, was going to do it anyway. He’d run 12 marathons before, and thought it would be fun. It wasn’t for Instagram or Facebook — he has neither — or for any other form of social media. It wasn’t even a bucket list item he wanted to get crossed off.
“I’d come all this way,” he said. “It wasn’t a marathon, but it was one of those races that, if you have the opportunity to do it, you’re going to do it.”
The day of the run — July 5 — Jaime got Leah and their daughter Emily situated on a rented balcony above Dead Man’s Corner, where bulls can crash into a 90-degree right-hand turn. He then went to the city hall area near the start. Shortly after eight, rockets fired, signifying the start of the running. Jaime made it to the Plaza de Toros — Pamplona’s famed bull ring — with the bulls several seconds behind. He ran in and jumped on top of the wooden fence, with enough time to turn and see the bulls enter. There were stragglers, though: Out of a group of six bulls and six steers, three trailed the pack, and Leah could see them from her balcony.
“The guy next to me said, ‘Those bulls are going to cause a problem at the end,’” Leah said. “Everybody’s going to think it’s over.”
A rocket went off to mark the end of the running, and Jaime got down from the fence. The gates closed. He felt a sharp sting. He remembers the impact.
“I never lost consciousness,” he said. “It felt like a truck.”
A bull’s horn went up through his neck, up to his cheek, fracturing his cheekbone and damaging nerves, but missing his jugular and other major blood vessels. Two minutes after the final rocket, Leah’s phone rang. It was Jaime.
“There’s been a mishap,” he said.
Had the horn gone back instead of up, he’d be dead. Instead, the worst pain was when the urgent care physician stuck his finger in the wound to probe how far the horn had gone.
“I about lost it,” Jaime said.
There’s nothing the doctors could do for Jaime’s fractured cheekbone, and it’s still unknown how long — or if — the nerve damage will heal. His right temple is still swollen. A two-hour surgery addressed the open wound.
Leah had to miss the second game of Rio’s tournament to take care of paperwork at the hospital, but Rio’s grandparents were able to attend each of his first two games. Still, Leah said, “It was hard for Rio to be apart from us.”
With his father in the hospital, Rio played in one friendly in Madrid, and two matches in the group stage of the tournament. In the first group stage match, Rio drew a foul that led to the first goal in a 3-0 win over a team from Alberta, Canada.
“I didn’t know how long they would keep him,” Rio said. “I still tried to play my hardest.”
After being released from the hospital on Tuesday, Jaime watched his son play Wednesday in the third game of the tournament. Jaime admitted he doesn’t quite have his same energy. He was ready, though, to do some walking around.
After the match, Jaime walked down from the stands and deeply embraced his son. His first words to Rio: “I love you.”
Ryan Maquiñana contributed to this report.