How soccer helped USMNT’s Paul Arriola grieve tragic losses

How soccer helped USMNT’s Paul Arriola grieve tragic losses originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Paul Arriola is fresh off arguably the best club season of his professional career.

In his debut regular season with Major League Soccer’s FC Dallas, the winger/midfielder tallied a career-best 10 goals, along with five assists, while making a career-high 32 appearances. He ranked second on FC Dallas in goals and tied for second in assists, playing a key role in the team securing the Western Conference’s No. 3 seed in the 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs and reaching the conference semifinals.

The MLS playoffs likely won’t mark the end of competitive soccer for Arriola in 2022, either. The 27-year-old is in line for his World Cup debut as the United States men’s national team makes its return to the tournament in Qatar.

From a big club season to a World Cup appearance, this is going to end up being quite the year for Arriola. But, as detailed on NBC LX’s “My New Favorite Futbolista” podcast, it comes not long after an extended period of his life filled with loss and grief.

‘When is something going to hit me?’

Grief was mostly foreign to Paul Arriola.

Growing up in Chula Vista, Calif., he would even wonder things like “When would I go through a really difficult time?” and “When is something going to hit me?’”

It first happened when his parents went through a divorce. Then, in 2018, tragedy struck as Arriola’s father died from a heart attack. He was 48 years old.

“We were minutes away from falling asleep and his phone just lit up. I instantly knew something bad happened, but I wasn't sure exactly what the phone call was gonna be about,” said Akela Banuelos, who is Arriola’s fiance. “To see Paul so broken was like the worst thing I can ever, ever see.”

‘Soccer was my safe space’

Following his father’s death, Arriola turned to the sport he loved as an escape.

Playing for D.C. United at the time, he missed two games before returning to the team’s lineup.

“Soccer was my safe space, the field was my safe space,” Arriola said. “Being able just to not always think about losing my father. It was just a space where I was able just to focus on playing, focus on the ball, focus on tactics, all these things that involve playing at an elite level. So it really, really helped me.”

Banuelos described an emotional scene from Arriola’s first game back after his father’s passing.

“I was like, ‘I’m not prepared for this. I don’t think you’re prepared for this. I’m not sure how you’re gonna take this. I don’t want you to get injured.’ And he went onto that field and did amazing,” Banuelos said.

"Right after the game, he looked for me in the crowd and I ran down the stairs as fast as I could and I'm crying because I'm like this is amazing for him but also like I don't know how he's going to react right now. And he just came running over to me and he just started balling his eyes out.”

The next MLS season, Arriola paid tribute to his father during a match. In celebration of his game-deciding goal against Sporting Kansas City, Arriola took off one of his cleats, held it to his ear as if it were a phone and pointed to the sky. 

“I was talking to my father,” he explained.

‘When is it going to stop?’

Arriola would suddenly find himself unable to escape grief.

In the same year as his father’s death, Arriola’s grandfather was diagnosed with Stage 4 prostate cancer. He passed away in 2019. 

Unlike with his father, Arriola was able to share one final moment with his grandfather, who helped foster Arriola's athletic abilities.

“I'm extremely grateful to be able to have had a final conversation with him just because I had lost my father prior to that and it was such a tragic moment that I didn't know it was coming,” Arriola said. “That was a moment that you kind of just wish that you had to speak to that person one more time and let them know how much you care for them and love them.”

Another of Arriola’s loved ones was also affected by the disease in 2019, as Banuelos’ mother was diagnosed with Stage Four lung cancer.

And adding injury to insult, Arriola suffered a torn ACL in February 2020.

“It was almost like the world was just crumbling on him,” Banuelos said.

“2017 up until 2020, years back to back to back, I faced a lot of hardship and I kept wondering, ‘When is it going to stop and can I keep going?’ Arriola said. “And kind of the only thing that really pushed me was just playing, being a professional athlete and being able to forget about everything that you're going through on the field.”

‘F*** cancer’

Banuelos’ mother earned the nickname “road dog” as she frequently traveled with Banuelos and Arriola to matches on the road. But as her cancer progressed earlier this year, Arriola wasn’t sure how many more of his games she’d be able to see.

“We were going to go play in L.A. against the Galaxy. I didn't know if my mother-in-law was going to be able to go to the game. But I obviously knew that she would be watching the game for sure,” Arriola said. “I just thought if this is the last time she ever gets to see me play, I want to send a message.”

“So we were in hopes that my mom would go to this game because she started declining a little bit this year and I told her, ‘Mom, you have so much strength, like let’s go. We’ll help you, my family is there, we’re all gonna go. Whether that’s your last game or not, you’re gonna go,’” Banuelos said.

Banuelos’ mother did make it to the FC Dallas-LA Galaxy game on May 14, and she was able to witness a truly special moment.

In the 20th minute of the match, Arriola beat the Galaxy goalkeeper with a strong left-footed shot into the right corner of the net. After scoring the goal, he strolled to the end-line and lifted up his jersey, showing off a shirt to the crowd that had the message “F*** cancer” on it.

“First of all, I'm excited that he scores because now my whole family and friends and his friends get to see that,” Banuelos said. “But then he lifts up his shirt and I’m like ‘What does that say?’ And I look closer and I see it, and everybody near us just looked at my mom and we all kind of just started crying because it was just such a sweet gesture.

“I didn't even know he was going to do that. I was in shock.”

Arriola’s gesture was very well-received, as he quickly found out the message touched more people than just those close to him.

“I got so much support from that and that just felt so good being able to show my support to other people, people that I don't necessarily know, but remind them that they’re not alone,” Arriola said. “I had so many messages on social media just about, ‘I've lost a family member to cancer.’ ‘I've overcome cancer.’ ‘I'm battling cancer.’ All these different things.”

Arriola has continued to wear the shirt underneath his jersey in every game since.

At FC Dallas’ playoff game versus Minnesota on Oct. 17, a fan brought a sign that said they would be starting chemotherapy soon and asked Arriola if they could have his "F*** cancer" shirt. To no surprise, Arriola obliged.

‘Play in their memory’

Arriola was never really one to express his emotions. But after going through a dark period, he’s found how helpful it can be to talk openly about his story – both for himself and for others.

“It's extremely important to be able to share your story,” Arriola said. “I'm definitely not one to express too much. ... Oftentimes, I'll hold back my emotion. I try and stay as levelheaded as possible throughout what I'm feeling. But I think as of late, I've gained this strength to be able to share kind of my story and be OK with people understanding what I've gone through because I know that it helps other people just as much as it helps me.”

Arriola will be playing on the grandest stage of his professional career during the World Cup. And when he takes the field in Qatar, it will be in part due to the help and support he received from his father and grandfather.

“My grandfather is the reason why I am where I am today," Arriola said. "My father was such a huge supporter of me, loved all sports, loved, love soccer. He was my first coach and he was always there for me and, like I said, super proud, always supportive. And so, it'll mean a lot for me to be able to be at the World Cup and just kind of play in their memory.”