Visitors who saw Sergio Gonzalez fighting for his life for almost a week in that room at MUSC's hospital knew the 15-year-old was more than a typically active teen. He was a soccer star new to football but already “the best kicker I’ve ever had,” said head coach Chad Grier of Mount Pleasant’s Oceanside Collegiate Academy.
The worried boy attached to a ventilator after collapsing at home in January of 2018 had always been such a busy-body. Carmen Camarillo and Juan Gonzalez recalled that their only child once was running down a street in Mexico during a visit to his parents’ hometown of Tehuixtla when a stranger opined.
“You’re going to be famous,” the old man said, “thanks to your legs.” Sergio had just turned 4.
How could this happen?
The answer, heart trouble, made no sense.
His was the heart of a lion.
“Mature. Responsible. Kind,” said Andre Berenzon, Sergio’s soccer coach for several years in youth leagues and at Oceanside. “If a player wasn’t trying hard, Sergio would say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to show up.’ But do it in the most positive way.”
He was such sweetheart.
“Nicest kid I ever met,” said Oceanside senior Michael McCoy, a football teammate. “I was home-schooled. I didn’t know anyone at Oceanside. He was the first person to talk to me and we became immediate friends.”
Sergio collected used soccer gear on the finely trimmed fields of Mount Pleasant for shipment to schools in Mexico. He got so much stuff; no one could reject his infectious smile.
He died on Jan. 10, 2018, three weeks short of his 16th birthday.
But not before a pair of remarkable things happened:
Sergio had these deathbed dreams. The second day in the hospital, he told his parents he dreamed of a major charity foundation set up to help sports-minded kids in both Mexico and Mount Pleasant.
The third day, he pulled his mother aside.
“I had another dream,” Sergio told 43-year-old Carmen Camarillo. “Mom, I’m going to have a brother.”
‘I’m going to the NFL’
Customers at Carmen y Juan this weekday night almost fill all nine tables and three booths inside the cozy Mexican restaurant near the entrance to Mount Pleasant’s Park West subdivision. Ceramic reptiles, a few sombreros and a pair of California license plates adorn the blue walls.
The menu includes dishes honed from family tradition and long hours. Carmen grew up cooking in Tehuixtla, a rural town of less than 6,000 people in the central state of Morelos, 85 miles south of Mexico City. Tiny, tough Tehuixtla has survived plagues, revolution, famine. It is deeply rooted in ranching and farming.
Carmen Camarillo got her recipe for mole — a sauce including chocolate and spices — from her grandmother, who passed it down to her mother; Carmen Mendez lives in Mount Pleasant and helps her daughter cook.
The beans and corn have been carefully customized over generations of food service.
Carmen arrived in the kitchen early this morning, as she has each day since the place opened in 2013. She began preparing staples.
They include pozole, a Mexican soup made with hominy and pork.
A sister once asked a teenage Carmen to name her specialty dish. Carmen mentioned tortillas and compared her favorite slow-cook pork barbacoa concepts. She was going on about the art of vegetable chopping when the sister interrupted.
“Oh, Carmen,” she said. “You just like everything.”
Sergio used to pitch in, too. He took great pride in preparing huevos rancheros and thought he could match his mom’s tortilla touch. “Sergio’s Burrito” was created one afternoon in the summer of 2017 after a weight room workout at which he was trying to bulk up for football.
“I need something with extra protein,” Sergio told his dad. “I want meat, tomato, cheese, potato and avocado. And then wrap that all in bacon. What do you think of that?”
Juan Gonzalez as restaurant general manager, host and chief financial officer avoids the kitchen. But he has an educated palate.
“I think it sounds good,” he said.
Eventually, Sergio was going to shepherd family tradition as lead chef.
But only after his first career.
“Mom,” Sergio announced one day after school not long before he died, “you don’t have to save money for my college.”
“I’m going to get a football scholarship.”
Sergio continued while his mom kept making tortillas.
“And then, mom,” he said, “you won’t have to worry about money anymore.”
“Because I’m going to the NFL,” Sergio said in his matter-of-fact tone. “I’m going to be famous. And then I’m going to help a lot of kids.”
Funny how football came about. Juan Gonzalez wanted Sergio to be a baseball player. He took his son to Los Angeles Dodgers games — and regaled him with tales of former Dodgers pitching star and Mexican icon Fernando Valenzuela — while he and Carmen were running a restaurant in Santa Ana, just South of Los Angeles.
Sergio adopted soccer as his favorite sport soon after the family moved to Mount Pleasant.
He led a Mount Pleasant Recreation Department team coached by his father and uncle to a championship.
Sergio hated football.
“He thought football players got too much attention at school,” Juan said.
Then one day, Patrick Cooney, an Oceanside math teacher and assistant football coach, asked Sergio how far he could kick a soccer ball.
“Probably about 70 yards,” Sergio said.
Word was passed to Grier, a veteran head coach whose son, Will Grier, is in the NFL as a Carolina Panthers quarterback.
Sergio came bounding into the restaurant with the news.
“Mom,” he said. “They asked me to play football.”
Carmen was horrified.
All that contact?
“Mom,” Sergio said. “A kicker. They want me to be a kicker.”
Soon, Sergio got that special football attention at school. It allowed him to grow an already large circle of friends, many of whom knew about his desire to get sports equipment to Mexico. He already had neighborhood friends, soccer friends, restaurant customer friends.
Many came to the hospital.
Not long after visiting his teammate, McCoy was in his Sullivan’s Island bedroom checking social media accounts on Jan. 10 when the “RIP Sergio” posts started flooding in. His mother hurried up the stairs.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I have some bad news.”
Before the last few words came out, McCoy was out the door. He spent the next two hours walking on the beach.
Grier was in denial, too.
“To see Sergio lying there in a hospital bed,” Grier said, eyes glistening. “It was just … I’m sorry. Just too hard to talk about. Still.”
A GoFundMe account set up when Sergio was in the hospital raised over $41,000 from more than 500 donors in just five days.
Carmen and Juan knew they were on to something big when hundreds of people showed up for a memorial service at MUSC Health Stadium on Daniel Island. They turned a hospital account into the Sergio 19 Foundation (named for Sergio’s football and soccer jersey number).
Cash kept pouring in, along with used soccer equipment. This fall, the foundation sponsors four teams in the Mount Pleasant Recreation Department’s U10-U18 recreation soccer league.
More testament to the foundation is found just inside the front door at Carmen y Juan. Sergio 19 ball caps and T-shirts — red, white or blue — are on display. They get gobbled up as fast as chicken enchiladas, shrimp tacos or anything else on the menu.
And that’s only one of the dreams that came true.
‘God has the last word’
Carmen walks briskly out the Carmen y Juan kitchen door carrying a baby on a perfect autumn morning.
The child, like mom, is wearing white Sergio 19 gear.
“Ahh,” a visitor says. “Boy or girl?”
Juan Gonzalez, taking it in, hesitates for effect.
His timing is as impeccable as that of any Hollywood actor.
“Meet our little Sergio,” he says.
The dual force of parent smiles is a gust of warmth.
Carmen, 44, gave birth to little Sergio on June 1, 2019, approximately 15 years after doctors told her of complications stemming from fallopian tube problems and the removal of an ovary.
“They said, ‘You will never have babies again,’” she says.
Carmen lifts little Sergio up for a closer look.
“But God has the last word,” she says. “You see?”
Carmen pulls out her cellphone. She locates a two-panel shot of the two Sergios, both at 3 months old.
Mirror images, no doubt.
“Everything,” says Juan, 47. “They’re the same.”
Berenzon says little Sergio is “a gift these amazing parents deserve.”
Grier thinks it’s a movie script.
Juan gets a kick out of the fact little Sergio was born in ’19.
He points out that the exact birth time was 06:49, numbers that add up to 19.
Little Sergio is spoon-fed Sergio 19 lore. He lives in a Mount Pleasant home at which his late brother’s room is maintained as if he never left: soccer trophies, mementos, a California state flag, a stuffed Winnie The Pooh and everything a student needs for the next school day.
The little guy will soon learn about how the Oceanside soccer team last May dedicated its 2019 Class AA state championship to a beloved former teammate. Just after the Landsharks completed a 2-0 victory over Southside Christian in the title match, senior Philip Siegwald dashed to the sideline to get Sergio’s jersey.
He ran back onto the field holding No. 19 over his head.
“He’s not here on the field, but he’s here with us,” Siegwald said of Sergio. “He would be very proud of this.”
The Oceanside players made sure Carmen and Juan got one of the Landsharks’ state championship rings with the special inscription on the side: “Do it for Sergio.”
Little Sergio will hear the football tales, too.
At 5-feet-11, 180 pounds and with a projectable frame, Grier thinks Sergio, who was driving kickoffs into the end zone as a sophomore, would have grown into a 6-2 major college prospect by this fall, which would have been his senior year.
“What a tough kid,” Grier said. “He wasn’t satisfied with just kicking. He practiced as a linebacker. He just loved to compete.”
The Oceanside football team still honors Sergio. The No. 19 jersey is retired. Pregame warmups always start at the 19-yard line.
Juan Gonzalez is well aware of all that, and will spread the word.
“This guy,” the proud father says, nodding at the little baby, “he’s going to have a lot of work to do. Because he’s eventually going to be in charge of continuing Sergio 19.”
There is a theme song here. But it’s not one of those sports rock tunes or hip-hop anthems kids like to blast while getting up for a big game.
Nor is it the traditional Mexican folk music Carmen and Juan prefer.
Of all things, a Frank Sinatra classic.
Paul Anka wrote the American version of “My Way” in 1967. Elvis Presley was among those who gave it a try. But Sergio adored the Old Blue Eyes version.
“I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more much more than this
I did it my way”
Over and over he would play it.
“Mom,” Sergio would say. “Don’t you find a peace in this song?”
With or without the music, Carmen Camarillo and Juan Gonzalez are finding peace in a Sergio legacy sure to impact others for generations. Sergio will see to that.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff