By Lukas Cash
It was the 27th of May 2017, and the Sol were poised to take on BYU at the UNM Soccer Complex. This was my third official game as the Social Media Manager of the team, and I finally had a handle on what I was supposed to be doing on game days. As such, I asked team owner and president, Ron Patel, if I could bring my, then, 7-year-old son, Abe, out for the match. Ron kindly obliged.
After getting my computer set up, Abe and I nabbed a piece of Dion’s pizza, and sat in the stands to enjoy. As we ate, players were arriving, and all of them were kind enough to take a second to stop and say a friendly word to me and the boy. 30 minutes before the players were even warming up, my son was HYPED! To him, these weren’t college kids, keeping their skills sharp in the offseason. These were professionals, and these professionals had given him high-fives.
The game would unfortunately end with a BYU victory, but that was all very secondary to the young man seated next to me in the press box. Someone had given him a set of binoculars during the course of the match, and I watched out of the corner of my eye, as he seemed to be following one player around the pitch. I can’t remember the minute, but sometime in the middle of the match, he asked me, “Dad, who is number 25.” I smiled. “That’s Dillon Niño”
Those of you that have had the pleasure of watching Dillon know that my son wasn’t exaggerating. Dillon plays with a ferocity and a grit that boggles the mind. The only thing that I ever saw stop him was a pulled hamstring, and I have a sneaking suspicion he would have tried to play through that if the coaches and training staff had allowed it. Dillon doesn’t quit.
I was going to introduce them to each other after the match, but Abe’s nose had other ideas. Right as stoppage time ended, blood came pouring from my son’s schnoz, and we had to make a hasty exit. He was visibly disappointed. Not because he was bleeding like a geyser, and not because he’d jaded his new Sol shirt with said blood, but because he did not have the chance to tell Dillon how much he enjoyed watching him.
The team was out of town for the next few weeks, but when they returned, I made it a point to tell Dillon that he had a fan. Off the pitch, Dillon is a soft-spoken, humble young man, who is far from emotionally effusive, but he had to crack a smile as I relayed my son’s narrative of his awesomeness.
The season would soon come to an end, and Abe wasn’t able to join me for anymore of the matches, much to his and Dillon’s disappointment. The final match against FC Boulder ended bitterly, and no one would have blamed any of the players for avoiding me, but as I made my way to the parking lot, I was stopped by a shirtless young man. It was Dillon Niño. In his hand, he held a red jersey, which struck me as odd because the men had played in their yellow kits that night. He handed me the jersey, and said quietly, “I wanted your son to have this.” It wasn’t a Sol kit – it was Dillon’s practice jersey from the University of Dayton. It was a beautiful gesture, and even recounting it for this article, has me a bit verklempt.
I knew that I had one more shot to introduce a fan to his favorite player – the end of year banquet. I knew that Abe couldn’t stay for the whole banquet, but I knew that I could at least introduce them, and snap a picture. The night before the banquet, my son set about making Dillon a keepsake. Young boys rarely focus on anything for more than 5 minutes, but Abe made a detailed infographic, complete with a cartoon of Dillon and his oh-so-famous faux hawk.
We arrived at the banquet before the players, and Abe was palatably stoked. As I watched him, it dawned on me that my son had never had a “sports crush.” He’s good to watch games and matches with me, but he’d never fixated on a player before. As he paced the banquet room, waiting for Dillon to arrive, I saw in him a diehard fan. He wasn’t about to meet any ordinary player. He was about to meet his FAVORITE player.
This picture doesn’t necessarily do the meeting justice. It doesn’t capture the stunned silence that my son had when he shook Dillon’s hand. It doesn’t capture the gale-force excitement of my son when he recounted the meeting to his mom. It doesn’t capture the fact that my son protects and cherishes that Dayton jersey like it’s an original copy of the Constitution, and it doesn’t capture the fact that my son’s newest stuffed animal, a red and yellow crocheted dinosaur, is named Dillon.
When I agreed to manage the social media accounts for the team, I never imagined what an integral part of my family and life the team would become. Months after the season has ended, I voraciously follow our players and celebrate their accomplishments as if they were my own; my wife devoted one of her precious Halloween pumpkins to the Sol shield; my favorite shirt is a yellow Sol kit, with the number 25 on the back, and I make it a point to wear it at least once a week.
I have seen, firsthand, the impact this team, and these players have on our community, and individual fans. These are scary times in the Duke city, dark times one might say. But in the midst of that darkness, the Sol shines. It shines on old farts like me, and youngsters alike. My son may grow to like other sports, and other players, but the title of “Abe’s Favorite Ever” will always belong to one man. When Dillon agreed to play for the Sol, I doubt that he knew the tremendous impact his decision would have. He came to Albuquerque to play soccer; he left a hero.