A tattoo on John Vaccaro’s back depicts a crucifix with the wings of an angel and reads, “A Man Of A Lifetime Victor Arbelaez 1953-2007 My Hero.”
As Vaccaro and three former Bishop Gorman High School soccer teammates embark on their college careers this fall, they’ll carry with them the teachings of a coach who changed their lives on and off the field.
“He was a second father to me,” Vaccaro said of Arbelaez. “He treated me like his son. He knew soccer better than anyone I know. He just had that passion to teach us.”
Vaccaro, Cody Barnett, Nick Eary and JoJo Vitale were practicing at Kellogg-Zaher Soccer Complex on Oct. 11, 2007, when they watched Arbelaez collapse after suffering an arterial burst and go into cardiac arrest.
Arbelaez died 25 minutes later at Summerlin Hospital. He was 54.
“He passed away right in front of the team,” said Nick Arbelaez, who replaced his father as head coach. “It was definitely a struggle for these guys.
“Either you come together as a team or you disband. There really isn’t an in-between.”
The Gaels went on to win their second straight Class 4A state championship in their late coach’s memory.
So it made sense in May when the same four Gorman players dedicated their signing ceremony to Victor Arbelaez as well.
Midfielder Barnett and goalkeeper Vitale signed with the University of San Francisco, where Victor Arbelaez played on the 1975 national champion team and won another title as an assistant coach in 1976.
Vaccaro is headed to Mesa State, a Division II program in Grand Junction, Colo., and Eary to Division III University of Redlands (Calif.). Both are midfielders.
“I was thinking maybe I wouldn’t play soccer in college, but everything Victor’s done for me, he’s the main reason I’m going to college for soccer,” Vaccaro said. “That’s what Victor would want us to do.”
Victor Arbelaez compiled a 371-31-8 record and won 11 state titles in his 22 years at Gorman.
But it wasn’t just an on-field prowess that players remember him by.
“Victor was our mentor, a father figure to all four of us,” Barnett said. “He cared more about how our lives were going than soccer for us.”
Vaccaro and his father returned the favor, often visiting Victor Arbelaez and watching soccer on TV with him while he battled throat cancer that was discovered in 2002.
“He would give me these talks and speeches that were so inspirational,” Vaccaro said. “Speeches on life. He just really cared.”
Nick Arbelaez took over the program on an interim basis in 2006 as his father recovered from surgery to treat cancer. Victor Arbelaez returned to the sideline in 2007 to assist his son.
He brought with him lessons of a playing career that spanned nine years in the professional ranks, including two with the now-defunct Las Vegas Quicksilvers of the North American Soccer League.
“Even stepping on that field he passed away on in town, we relive what a great career my dad had,” said Nick Arbelaez, who resigned after last season to focus on club coaching and pursue a postgraduate degree at UNLV.
The school honored Victor Arbelaez in January by naming its new soccer field Victor Park, which will be christened by the Bishop Gorman Summer Soccer Camps beginning July 13.
It’s fitting that a youth soccer venue will carry the name of a “role model to any kid in Vegas that wants to play soccer,” Eary said.
“He had such passion for the game and life in general,” Eary said. “He was an inspiration to do your best.”