COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — Last Monday was supposed to be a quiet, relaxing off day for Colorado Rapids defender Diego Calderón. Working his way back from a long-term knee injury, his plans were simply to sleep in and lounge on the couch on a rare full day off.
Then, his phone started to ring. Again. And again.
Knowing something was wrong after his mother had left him a message to call her back, Calderón figured out why his phone had so suddenly started blowing up: His longtime friend and Ecuadorian national team colleague, striker Christian “Chucho” Benítez, had passed away shockingly while playing for Qatari club El Jaish last Monday.
Calderón and Benítez were nearly the same age (born less than six months apart), and both primarily grew up in Quito, Ecuador’s capital. They’d been friends since 1998, when they were rivals coming up the youth ranks through two of Ecuador’s top teams (Benítez for El Nacional, Calderón for ESPOLI).
“He was a brother,” Calderón told MLSsoccer.com about the loss of his friend. “The first thought was one of disbelief in that moment. The hours passed in that day, and the news became so real. The pain numbed me.”
Benítez’s career skyrocketed as he moved to Mexico and later England (where he spent two years on loan with Birmingham City), making him a fixture in the Ecuadorian national team. He would also become all too familiar to MLS clubs competing in the CONCACAF Champions League, playing a part in several of Santos Laguna's strong displays in the tournament.
Calderón, meanwhile, carved out a solid if unspectacular career playing for Ecuadorian powerhouse LDU Quito, and only started earning national-team opportunities in 2011. The two reunited while on duty with Ecuador and kept in close touch until Benítez’s death last week from cardiac arrest.
“Lots of people remember him as a great soccer player and as a great scorer,” Calderón said of Benítez. “I remember him for the type of person that he was: Humble, and one who was good to his friends.”
Calderón offered several tributes to Benítez on his Twitter account last week, describing the “great pain” his heart had suffered in light of his friend’s sudden passing. A few days removed from Benítez’s death, Calderón offered a glimpse into the type of person he remembered his childhood friend to be.
“What I remember of him was that he was a social person,” Calderón said. “Sometimes he wouldn’t talk a lot, but other times, in group settings, with the national team, with any team, he had strength and happiness. He always had music and was the first to have an idea and lead the team. He pushed people to always be happy and to keep the team from falling.
“That’s how I’ll remember him.”
Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.