When a player passes the ball in a game of soccer, no matter how much they focus on aiming the pass to the proper target, the ball is sometimes acted on by an unexpected object. A defender’s foot might block it, a player might stumble over their own feet, and goal posts have a funny way of popping up out of nowhere. These obstacles are unexpected.
The same can be said about life. Things happen without people having any control, leaving them forced to adapt.
James Ortega, the owner of Futboleros, a soccer entrainment company based out of Los Angeles, understands having to adapt. He moved to South Bend following the loss of his wife, Kate Elliot, who passed away five days after she gave birth to the couple’s daughter. To fulfill a dream, James is helping at Kate’s parents’ café, Sunny Italy Café, while also adjusting to life in the Midwest, where there are stronger family roots and a new set of priorities in his soccer world.
James’ company, Futboleros, meaning “soccer player” in Spanish, was started 12 years ago and features choreographed soccer and interactive shows. By the end of this year, Futboleros will have performed at more than 200 schools across the country on behalf of World’s Finest Chocolate, who funds communities at large. James will perform at an additional 100 events ranging from corporate to soccer specific events to round out the year.
“I fell in love with South Bend when I first came,” James says. “My wife took me to the lake and everything was spacious. Her life got cut short, and it’s unexpected. Somehow, I have to live with it on the daily basis.”
In the wake of tragedy, James still finds joy with Futboleros and performing with a soccer ball at his feet, something he has done since childhood.
James was born in Quito, Ecuador and from a young age, he watched his father and uncles play soccer. He was 4 years old when he first picked up a soccer ball. Growing up as the youngest of four children, James always had a teammate. When he turned 3, his family moved to Meriden, Connecticut, and at the age of 10, he says people noticed he had more talent than the other children in the neighborhood. He played every sport, nine in total, and used a range of athletic skills to compete in everything from baseball to hockey. However, soccer also just stuck.
“It’s in my blood,” he says.
James’ involvement in the soccer world spans throughout his life. While trying out for professional teams, James picked up soccer tricks from other players he roomed with.
Eventually, James decided to quit playing and turned to acting. He got involved in the commercial business, doing behind-the-scenes work for companies like Puma, Nike, Nissan and Toyota. Movies were next for James, who appeared in several, including “Soccer Moms” and “Gunfights 7: Tuff Cops.”
Despite his varied interests, soccer always played a supportive role as James had a successful coaching career for the next 20 years, finding time to host summer, winter and spring soccer camps and after school programs while maintaining a full-time job as a city contractor for Beverly Hills and Santa Monica.
In the early 2000s, James worked for Nike as a solo performer for five years. He would host and perform soccer tricks at tournaments and events. After his appearances, children would ask how to do his tricks.
With his acting experience, James decided to make a DVD in 2008 titled “The Mastery of Soccer Juggling Skills and Extreme Soccer Tricks,” which began his entrance into the soccer freestyle revolution. A company in Kansas eventually bought half the rights to the DVD.
“The freestyle revolution now has grown tremendously,” James says. “A lot of great players kind of flourished it. Now, they have world championships by Red Bull. I would probably say there are 50 guys in the United States who freestyle, but my company is one of kind and has been around for years with an umbrella of about a dozen guys across the country that I utilize to fulfill events.”
James’ company, which began as a group of four performers he gathered for the NSCAA College Showcase Series in Baltimore, has turned into Futboleros, which now has returning clients such as Nickelodeon, ESPN, McDonald’s and Coca Cola. James has performed at Soldier Field, Levi Stadium, ESPN Tailgate Super Bowl parties and the Copa America.
Although James says he could do the tricks with his eyes closed, he still experiences nerves, such as when he performed at the Arsenal versus Bayern Munich, International Champions Cup hosted at the Dignity Health Sports Park in July.
“Those are big English and U.S. favorites,” James says. “We had a four-minute show and a two-minute show. The four-minute show was actually easier. I was a little nervous. My stomach, I can still feel it when I walk up on stage. I think you break the ice after just waving and smiling at people. You got to get their acceptance. Every event is different and some are easier than others.”
James hopes to continue to grow soccer in the South Bend area by partnering with local soccer organizations that have teams and clubs. He already has hosted two 4 versus 4 sand soccer tournaments in partnership with Copa Cabana Sports at Outpost Sports’ volleyball courts in Mishawaka. Now, he hopes to add a spring sand soccer league. He also wants to show the soccer community something different — the freestyle revolution, which is more of a discipline than a sport, he says.
“It teaches kids repetition, concentration, agility, balance, strength,” James says. “It’s very intuitive.”
James is happy to be in South Bend with Kate’s family, living in the house she bought prior to meeting him and raising their children.
“For me to come back here was to be closer to her,” James says, a smile on his face and a soccer ball under his arm. χ