‘Should’ve done more’: Could a former soccer star have been saved? Family grieves, community wonders

Edward "Lalo" Murillo-Jimenez's soccer career took him to San Jose State.
Edward “Lalo” Murillo-Jimenez had a storied soccer career that took him from the competitive junior ranks and Watsonville High to San Jose State.

Edward “Lalo” Murillo-Jimenez dreamed the kind of dream many soccer-loving kids growing up in Watsonville do. But when the dream fizzled at San Jose State, Murillo-Jimenez went into a life spiral he could never quite shake. Last week he was found dead below the cliffs at New Brighton State Beach at age 32.

When a few of Edward Murillo-Jimenez’s closest childhood friends found him wandering near Ramsay Park earlier this year with just a few belongings and a gone look in his eyes, they knew he had hit a new low.

“He didn’t look good, he was hungry, he was homeless,” said lifelong friend Miguel Silva, choking up as he recalled the sight.

“It wasn’t even Lalo anymore,” said another good friend, Hugo Flores.

There had been moments of hope the past decade since Murillo-Jimenez’s dreams of soccer stardom had fizzled. There were periods of steady work — mostly picking berries in the Pajaro Valley fields.

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And there had been times where he’d even rejoined his group of soccer buddies and flashed the skills that had caught the eye of Division I and Olympic Development Program soccer coaches back when he was helping Watsonville High to a No. 1 national ranking and a section title in 2005.

But those moments were always fleeting. Family, friends and former coaches paint a picture of a super-confident, soccer-obsessed boy who got his chance to set out for the big city to chase his dream, somehow fell destructively into addiction and never could quite regather himself.

Friends and family were part of a memorial game for Edward Murillo-Jimenez on Sunday.
(Roger Aguirre Smith / For Lookout Santa Cruz)

They wonder what more they could’ve done for him. They wonder what more the system could have done beyond ushering him in and out of county jail on drug and petty theft charges. They wonder how he met his ultimate fate last Thursday morning.

That’s when the family got the call that a body had been found on the rocks below the sheer cliffs above New Brighton State Beach. It was their beloved Lalo, as he had always been known. He was dead at age 32.

In reality, the Lalo that they knew, that the Watsonville soccer community had held upon a pedestal, had been gone for more than a decade. The shell of a man who walked everywhere in recent years because he had no car, who would show up and sleep on the couch of his family home off Green Valley Road in between jail stints, who acted erratically, was what was left of Lalo.

Issac Murillo-Jimenez playing for his fallen brother on Sunday.
(Roger Aguirre Smith / For Lookout Santa Cruz)

“He was such a superstar that it was a hard fall,” said his youngest brother, Issac, adding that once the drugs took hold of Lalo, “he wanted that more than he wanted himself.”

Some, such as his college roommate Roberto Castaneda, can’t help but feel some regret and wonder whether the community can use this moment as an awakening.

“There are a lot of us who could’ve and should’ve done more,” he said. “Lalo is gone, but you can always learn something from somebody.”

* * *

It’s not unusual for families in the Pajaro Valley to build their life rhythms around soccer, but only the lucky ones end up accomplishing as much through it and pushing toward the American dream as the Murillo-Jimenez family has.

Edward was the oldest of four children. And with the early tutelage of his dad, Gerardo, he developed a soccer foundation that would gain the attention of top youth development programs and college coaches.

His speed, confidence, field vision and tenacity propelled him through the youth ranks, and his natural smarts and diligence in the classroom helped him earn a scholarship to Division I San Jose State right out of Watsonville High.

“He was a very crafty player, the kind who would say, ‘Coach, I know we need a goal, I’m gonna go get us one.’ And then he did,” said longtime Watsonville High coach Roland Hedgpeth.

Castaneda, who was his club and Watsonville High teammate and eventual San Jose State roommate, remembers him during that time as the ultimate example of perseverance: “He was like Floyd Mayweather, man — hard work and dedication. And full of confidence. He was at such a high level, it pushed me and everyone else to get to that level.”

Lalo’s sister, Veronica, also played at Watsonville and, after a stint at Cabrillo College, accepted a DI scholarship to UC Davis. Younger brother David made his mark as a goalkeeper at Pajaro Valley High.

But the youngest brother, Issac, 10 years behind Edward, had idolized his big brother during his heyday at Watsonville, when he was scoring 24 goals as a senior and getting wooed by recruiters. Issac was only 5 at the time, but it pushed him to strive for his own level of greatness, trying to live up to the family legacy.

Edward, top right, holding Issac and smiling along with Veronica and David.

By the time Issac took on his own starring role at Watsonville High, his big brother was a shell of his former self. But it gave Issac hope that his brother seeing him follow in his footsteps might finally help shake Lalo out of his funk. Instead, it just seemed to add to his bitterness.

“He’d get excited for a couple days and then it would be, ‘I remember when I scored three goals against Bellarmine and I took them out,’” he said. “I thought maybe him seeing me doing what he did would help inspire him, help get him out.”

After graduating from Watsonville, Issac chose to play at Hartnell College and get to work on his post-soccer path. Teresa Jimenez and Gerardo Murillo, who had worked the fields after immigrating from Mexico, had both advanced their careers — Teresa by earning an associate degree from Cabrillo College and finding work as a tech engineer in electronics; Gerardo paved a career in the mushroom industry.

Veronica, who quit soccer after a year at Davis in order to make it through school with a political science degree, will take the LSAT this fall and begin applying to law schools. She was the closest sibling to Lalo and had hopes of breaking through his self-imposed barrier.

She had been there and faced similar struggles, trying to find her soccer bearings on a bigger stage, trying to balance newfound freedom with academic demands. It wasn’t easy.

“I told him I knew what he had gone through,” she said, “being the soccer star and having all that pressure, and trying to balance that with school. It’s hard to do both.”

Gerardo Murillo and Teresa Jimenez.
(Roger Aguirre Smith / For Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lalo had wanted to go play professional soccer in Mexico rather than go to San Jose State, but his parents insisted he get his education.

After things went awry at San Jose State, Veronica thinks he felt as though he had missed his window of opportunity, like he’d chosen what others wanted for him rather than choosing for himself.

“It was like his dream, his vision, was gone,” she said.

* * *

Roberto “Beto” Castaneda wishes he could go back to that day in the dorms at San Jose State. He had come back late at night and seen Lalo sitting on the couch playing video games by himself. When he awoke the next morning, there was a wide-eyed Lalo, same place on the couch, controller still in hands.

“They were bleeding,” he said. “I don’t know what he was on. We were like, ‘Ah, he’s just going through a phase.’ … I should’ve said something.”

David Silva.
(Roger Aguirre Smith / For Lookout Santa Cruz)

Beto, who has forged a successful business career since his San Jose State days, isn’t sure what drove his friend down that destructive pathway. He only knows he wishes he’d intervened somewhere along the way.

“I could’ve said, ‘Hey, Lalo, I’ve got this opportunity for you and I need you to do this for me.’ But I didn’t,” he said. “I’m choosing to use this as a lesson. If you ever see someone in that situation, do more. Take them to rehab. Then, if they leave, take them back. Keep taking them back until they feel like, ‘Hey, somebody cares about me.’ A lot of us just didn’t do enough to try to help him.”

Beto said it took removing himself from Watsonville to change his own mindset, that there were options beyond manual labor and the fields all around. “There’s no mentorship. We’re literally just teaching these guys to survive,” he said.

Teresa Jimenez watches her sons David and Issac play Sunday at Pinto Lake Park.
(Roger Aguirre Smith / For Lookout Santa Cruz)

“If we had someone to come in and say, ‘Hey, you, you, you and you, you have what it takes to get to the next level. And here’s what you’re gonna do to get there.’ Nobody does that for the community.”

Someday soon, when time allows, Castaneda might do it himself by forming a sports agency that helps young athletes learn and be prepared for the rigors of a college or pro career. He’s had conversations with another former player he knows who felt as though he underachieved because of the fuzzy path before him.

Once they get to college, it’s often too late. Numerous Watsonville players went on to earn DI scholarships during an era of national repute for the program. But none of them went on to play professionally.

Wildcatz
Roberto Castaneda, Josue Silva, Edward Murillo-Jimenez, Osvaldo Acala and Hugo Flores, friends and Watsonville High Class of 2006.

“Not one. If we had mentorship, half of our team would be pros right now. They’d have professional careers and be elevating the game we have here in Watsonville,” Castaneda said. “Once you get to college, they don’t care about the player. They’ll say they do. But they’re just in survival mode themselves, the coaches. It’s a business.”

* * *

Watsonville isn’t taking Lalo’s loss lightly. Soccer program fundraisers and a GoFundMe set up by the family are helping raise money for the funeral, and the community outpouring has been constant.

“The soccer community is just devastated,” said longtime Watsonville coach and mentor Gina Castaneda, who has worked with at-risk youth via the Aztecas Youth Soccer Academy and works in the probation and juvenile justice system.

Castaneda has seen the grips of addiction up close, devastating families of all socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. “It sees no colors,” she said. She coaches girls teams in Watsonville and makes sure to work as much on the mental training as the physical.

Gerardo, Teresa, Issac, Veronica and David.
(Roger Aguirre Smith / For Lookout Santa Cruz)

“We say it out loud. ‘I can do this, I can make it, I’m smart,’ whatever. I tell them afterwards, they’re gonna encounter things in life, and it’s that mental strength that will get them through.”

She said she hopes more coaches — particularly those who coach boys — would do that with their players. Preparing them for life after soccer should be part of the regimen.

“Because, y’know, Lalo had a dream, he played at a very high level, and then whatever happened in college, it didn’t work out ... what’s his identity after that?” she said. “He was always this great soccer player. Who does he become after that? And how do you recover from that?”

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The support system, especially for male athletes, has much room for improvement, she said. Perhaps there is a big teachable moment at hand.

“People are just like, ‘Suck it up, don’t cry, move forward, you’ve got this.’ And the truth is they don’t.”

* * *

Issac and David Silva, along with Lalo’s childhood friends Miguel Silva and Hugo Flores, played what amounted to a memorial game for their lost friend on Sunday at Pinto Lake Park.

It was the kind of high-level adult-league game that Edward Murillo-Jimenez hadn’t been a part of for years.

“I was still always hopeful that he’d just show up some Sunday and say, ‘Hey, where’s my uniform?’” Flores said with a somber laugh.

Pregame hugs for Issac Murillo-Jimenez at Pinto Lake Park on Sunday.
(Roger Aguirre Smith / For Lookout Santa Cruz)

Then Flores recounted his favorite Lalo soccer memories.

The time he got a doctor’s note just in time to play in the big playoff game against Bellarmine despite his broken hand.

The amazing first collegiate goal he scored at San Jose State, a surprise midfield laser that caught the opposing keeper napping.

“He just blasted it. Everyone was going crazy. He looked over to the stands and pointed to us,” he said.

Then Flores, who an hour earlier had scored one of his team’s most memorable goals of the day with a crafty little flick of the foot, before pointing to the sky in solemn celebration, summed up what he will remember most about his friend.

“Soccer was pretty much everything to him.”

A table at the Murillo-Jimenez home showcases all of Lalo's soccer achievements.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Services for Edward “Lalo” Murillo-Jimenez will be held the week of July 12. The rosary will be held July 14 at 5 p.m. at Ave Maria Memorial Chapel in Watsonville. The funeral will be the following day, at 11 a.m. at Holy Eucharist Catholic Community Church in Corralitos.

FINDING HELP

Need assistance with addiction resources?

After struggling to get the help she needed for her son, Teresa Jimenez said she hopes to establish a foundation dedicated in his honor to help other families in Santa Cruz County get the help they need.

For those in need for themselves or a loved one, here is a starting point for addiction and behavioral health resources:

* Encompass Community Services (North County: 427-5290; South County: 722-5914)

* Janus of Santa Cruz (866-526-8772)

* Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency (831-454-4050)

* The Camp Recovery Center (855-993-0687)

* Bodhi Addiction Treatment And Wellness (831-515-1657)

* Sober Living Recovery Center (831-856-5465)

* Fleahab (831-427-9950)