JOHN VIRGEN: ONE MAN, MANY ROLES
Little, if any, of what takes place on the field at Sacramento Gold FC games has nothing to do with the club’s assistant manager, John Virgen, who goes well beyond any limitations his official title may imply.
“I’d be hard-pressed to write a job description for John that would be less than a couple pages,” Sacramento Gold FC owner John Nunan insists.
Home game tasks represent light duty. At home, all Virgen has to do is make sure the locker rooms—including the officials’—are cleaned and prepared with every amenity they need; put every piece of every uniform at each of the Gold players’ lockers; check and see if the balls (for both the game and warm-ups) need air and fill them if needed; place the benches, water coolers, training and referee’s tables where they need to be; make any necessary changes to the field, goals, and other equipment; aid the players and coaches in warm-ups wherever needed; help the match-day staff with setting up; clean up the bench areas after the game; collect the now dirty, sweaty, smelly uniforms from the players and wash them thoroughly; and clean up the locker rooms once everyone has departed. Additional unforeseeable tasks will invariably arise as well, week to week. Of course, those also become Virgen’s responsibility.
“I just make sure, at the end of the day, that everything is taken care of,” Virgen details, “the officials, the field setup, the players and their gear. I’m just mainly there to make sure they have an opportunity to play the game.”
When the Gold hits the road, the number of tasks on Virgen’s list seems to grow exponentially. It’s Virgen who helps pick up the rental vans, collect food, water, and other supplies for the journey; drives (and sometimes picks up) the players, coaches, and staff across Northern California and back; drops everyone off; and refuels the vans and returns them to the rental company. For travel that includes flying, he also drives team members and front office staff making the trip to and from the airport and coordinates with hotel staff, all while lugging around the massive bag of uniforms.
“He does so many things under the radar, so many thankless tasks,” Nunan proclaims. “He’s so consistent. All of those things that you forget about that you need to run a team.”
That dedication, coordination, and appreciation for the little things is honed by how Virgen makes a living. Virgen works as a driver for Aramark, a company that provides food service, facilities, and (fittingly enough) uniforms to clients in various fields. His job often has him on the road as early as 4 a.m., when most of us are fast asleep. That early start to his days doesn’t stop him from helping out at Gold training sessions, which are always held at night.
While others would demand their days off from a job like that to be full of nothing but leisure, the work Virgen does for the Gold is a labor of love, performed by a man who appreciates what the club does for him just as much as the club appreciates him in return.
“John wears multiple hats for the team,” Gold head coach Ruben Mora, Jr. states. “All of the things he does are invaluable.”
Virgen has added even more hats to his collection this season. During matches, Virgen provides updates on goals and key plays, aiding Sacramento Gold FC’s Communications Team so they can dish out real-time results on social media and compile game recaps each week. He also takes and sends in photos of the Gold’s Starting XI for road games. All of these duties add up to nonstop work for Virgen, but he kindly and selflessly takes them all on.
“I don’t look at what I do. I look at the opportunity to create, not just for me, but for all of us,” stresses Virgen.
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Virgen joined the Gold in 2011 and immediately became joined at the hip with the club’s general manager, Ruben Mora, Sr. It’s Mora, Sr. and Virgen who pick up the vans on road match days and make sure the cars are stocked with water and bananas and Subway sandwiches for the players, plus whoever’s riding along that day. The two are a team within a team, Virgen always driving with Mora, Sr. as the co-pilot, guiding him along. It’s an apt metaphor for their relationship on and off the field.
“When I first came in, [Mora] Sr. was doing a lot. So I just tried to be there to support him,” Virgen maintains. “He’s taught me so much about everything, about being on the field with the officials and the team. I’ve learned so much, and he’s become like a brother to me.”
“We have an excellent relationship,” Mora, Sr., certifies. “We’ve bonded over the years on the drives, the long road trips. We’re roommates on the road.”
Both know each other’s responsibilities as well as their own. Mora, Sr., who never misses games, says that if he ever finds himself unable to be on the sidelines for one night, Virgen can step into his role for him.
“If you asked Ruben Mora, Sr., how he would do if John weren’t there, he’d shake his head and say, ‘I’d be lost,'” Nunan claims.
“I don’t know what I’d do without him,” Mora, Sr., recognizes.
Virgen is also spiritually connected to the man he says gave him a chance to do what he loves, and became part of the Gold to repay him.
“The original reason why I started is because someone gave me the opportunity,” Virgen reveals. “Now, I want to give opportunities to others.”
That someone was Richard Novoa, founder of Sacramento Gold FC. Years before cementing himself as one of the city’s premier sports figures and promoters, Novoa started the Broderick Aztecs youth soccer teams as a way to help grow the area’s talent, well before the sport itself finally claimed the popularity it now has in the United States. It was the era of dirt fields and cut-off jean shorts and cardboard shinguards and players who loved what, back then, was perceived as a fringe sport. Such opportunities to play their favorite game were rare. One of those players who, thanks to Novoa, got that opportunity was John Virgen.
When Novoa passed away mere months after the Gold won the 2010 NPSL National Championship, Virgen was moved to join the club to not only continue Novoa’s legacy, but to also pay it forward, so today’s youngsters can, too, play their passion.
“That’s how it starts, opportunities,” Virgen asserts. “I volunteer because I want these kids to have the same opportunities that I’ve received.”
Throughout the years, the players who’ve put on the Gold uniform have taken advantage of those opportunities put forth thanks to Virgen. More than that, Virgen has grown to be someone who they rely on for much more important problems than just equipment.
“If a player ever has a personal issue, they know they can go to John,” Mora, Sr., divulges. “He’s good at talking to them. The players really respect him.”
“They see him as part of the staff, someone they need,” attests Mora, Jr. “It goes beyond the job title.”
The players agree.
“We need someone like that. It makes all the difference in the world,” Gold goalkeeper and team captain John Connolly confirms. “It’s another aspect of support from within the club. He brings a smile to all of the guys’ faces. It’s nice to have a guy like that behind you.”
“He’s the glue that holds the whole team together,” Nunan certifies. “If you ask anyone on the team, including Ruben Mora, who’s the most important guy on the team, they’ll all say ‘John Virgen.’ It’s the universal truth.”
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Virgen enjoys the season as it unfolds, fascinated how the team changes and grows as the schedule progresses. The ups and downs across a sports season help a team learn more about not only the game, but life itself.
“That’s the good thing about soccer. If you surround yourself with good people, you learn to win, you learn to lose, you learn how to deal with things as a team, as a family. That’s why I love the game, because it’s not just a game,” Virgen clarifies. “It’s the battles you go through every day, and you come out stronger if you’ve got good people around you.”
Family is a large part of how Sacramento Gold FC operates. As general manager, Ruben Mora, Sr. makes as many key decisions off the field as his son, Ruben Mora, Jr., does on the field as head coach. The roster currently boasts two pairs of brothers, Nico and Sammy Gonzalez and Manolo and Rene Piña, and has seen plenty of other relatives share the field in the past. Richard Novoa’s brother, Wayne, was with him at the Gold’s foundation and has continued his legacy with his tremendous efforts as the club’s Community Relations manager. Sisters, brothers, cousins, parents, grandparents, and children have all helped in a number of ways over the years.
Virgen brings his own family blend to the club. His wife, Beth, and at least one of their six children are always in the stands during games, both at home and on the road. His youngest daughter, Jenna (who recently won the U-15 Girls Bronze Cup at State Cup with her Sacramento North squad), has become his own assistant on match days, sticking to her father’s side and helping him prepare the field before kickoff.
“The good thing is, my family supports me in what I do, in all areas,” Virgen appreciates. “The memories I get to share, I know my family’s there enjoying it, too.”
For Virgen, family goes beyond simple blood relations.
“It trickles down from John, that family feeling,” Mora, Jr. related. “From the coaches to the staff to the players, John treats everyone as if they were family.”
The family bond has become even more real last month, when Mora, Jr., and his fiancée, Sarah, welcomed their new baby girl into the world. One of the many people who congratulated the couple was Virgen, who is proudly the baby girl’s grandfather and Sarah’s father.
“To me, Ruben [Mora, Jr.]’s always been an amazing person, and he and my daughter are going to spend the rest of their lives together. It’s a blessing,” Virgen exclaimed.
Another blessing came in the form of a seminal moment during the 2013 season. The Gold had qualified for that year’s U.S. Open Cup, the oldest and most prestigious soccer tournament in the country. Sacramento’s first round opponent was the U-23 reserve team for Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers. The match would be played at JELD-WEN Field (now Providence Park), considered by many to be the cathedral of American soccer. Though the Gold would come up short against the Timbers’ U-23 squad, Virgen, who had seen the sport grow from its hard-knock U.S. roots to its rightful place as a revered sport across the county, was still a winner.
“I walked out onto that field at JELD-WEN, and it was just an amazing feeling,” Virgen reverently remembers. “I believe it came full circle with Richard right then. We used to play on these dirt lots back in the day. To be able to walk into that stadium was just amazing.”
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As memorable as the 2013 season was, it was almost the last Virgen would have spent with the club. During the season, Virgen and his family received word that Beth’s mother’s health had begun to diminish due to Alzheimer’s disease. After a long discussion, John, Beth, and their two youngest children would move to New York to be with and take care of her. It was a tough decision, one that ate at Virgen as the Gold’s season came to an end.
“I remember my last game in Sonoma, when I knew I was leaving in a couple months,” Virgen recollects. “It was terrible to know that I was going to walk away from this, because of sacrifices I was making for family.”
The Virgen family would make the move to the Big Apple. However, as that New York winter wore on, thoughts began to creep back to their former California home, and to their beloved Gold.
“I missed the Gold,” admits Virgen. “It’s a big part of my life. It really is.”
The Gold missed Virgen, too.
“We realized how much we missed John, and how integral of a part of our team he is,” Nunan discloses.
As time passed, the Virgens began to reconsider their choice, largely because of their youngest children, one barely in high school and one nearing that point. Another tough decision had to be made.
“I was in contact with [Mora] Senior all the time. He kind of walked me through,” Virgen details. “He said John [Nunan] would work with me. He said, ‘Just come back and we can figure things out and make sure you get settled in again.'”
In the end, the Virgens would return to Sacramento. The final call was as much practical as it was emotional. Though Virgen wanted to be at his mother-in-law’s side during the ongoing ordeal (she is still dealing with Alzheimer’s and the complications it entails), he says they did what was best for their children, getting them back to their home for critical parts of their lives.
“At the end of the day, it was tough on both ends,” Virgen confesses. “But everyone understood.”
Though he had been out of the state for months, Virgen, as fate would have it, wound up not missing any games for the Gold. When the 2014 season did start, Sacramento played with renewed vigor, powered by both Virgen’s return and a desire for revenge against their arch rivals. The Sonoma County Sol had defeated the Gold in heartbreaking fashion in the previous year’s NPSL West Region title game, what was almost Virgen’s last match with the club. However, Sacramento came on top in 2014, capping a first place finish in the Golden Gate Conference by beating the Sol in the rematch and claiming the West Region crown.
One year removed from one of the saddest endings in club history, and after months of emotional trials and tribulations, it was finally all smiles for Virgen (and the Gold) once again.
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When asked to recall a favorite memory they have with Virgen, Gold players and staff give answers as numerous and diverse as the duties and roles Virgen has with the club. Those answers a few you-had-to-be-there stories on road trips, involving post-game celebrations and jokes told while waiting for flights and somewhat poorly-timed trips to doughnut shops. One story in particular exemplifies the admirable qualities Virgen brings to the team.
The scene: Tukwila, Washington. The Gold had just wrapped up back-to-back games in the Pacific Northwest, rebounding from a tough loss in Portland the night before with a thrilling win over FC Tacoma 253 (now OSA FC). Basking in the afterglow of a much-needed victory, Gold players, coaches, and staff were enjoying some pizza and drinks in the restaurant at Starfire Sports Complex while watching the U.S. Women’s National Team face their Mexican counterparts. The entire squad was finally relaxing… well, not everyone.
“I see something’s agitating John,” Nunan remembers “I ask and he says, ‘I’ve got to get these uniforms washed. We can’t get them on a plane like this. They’re wet and they smell. We can’t do it.'”
With everyone else content to rest easy for a while, Virgen was still on the task at hand. In fact, the post-game party was actually deterring him from getting his job done. Something had to give. So, while the rest of the team filled up and cheered Ari Calderon’s goal, Virgen slipped away to take care of business.
“John packed [the uniforms] up, threw them in the van, and found a laundromat somewhere,” continues Nunan. “I don’t know if he had a roll of quarters or not. But somehow, he got those things done, and got them back.”
But the job wasn’t done, yet. The Gold still had to catch the flight home to Sacramento. Everyone piled into the vans and sped off to the airport. After refueling the cars and returning them to the rental company, there was still the small matter of getting to the gate at the Sea-Tac Airport, a voyage which made the trip to Mordor look like a walk to the mailbox. It took until stoppage time, but everyone managed to make it to their seats. It wouldn’t have happened without Virgen.
“I remember everyone was running, trying to get on board,” Nunan recalls. “But, John was as cool as can be, getting everyone there on time. We would have missed that flight if it wasn’t for John Virgen.”
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In nearly seven seasons with Sacramento Gold FC, Virgen has certainly collected more than a fair share of memories to choose from. His travels with the team have taken him across the West Coast, and even as far as Chattanooga, Tennessee, where nearly 9,000 voices roared against him and his team in the 2014 NPSL National Semifinal. There have been plenty of highs and lows, both on the field and off it. However, for the ever optimistic Virgen, every experience is valuable, an opportunity to grow and learn something new. It’s part of what makes this seemingly unbelievable statement 100% true: “I haven’t had any bad memories. I know there’s disappointing losses or whatever. But at the end of the day we support each other, so it’s okay,” explains Virgen. “I’ve never, ever had a bad memory.”
It’s a remarkable declaration, one that implies an understanding beyond wins and losses (and draws). It’s a devotion to doing whatever it takes to make the club better and give the players the best chance to perform. The fruits of labor can be seen in former players such as Miguel Aguilar, Dominik Jakubek, and Max Alvarez, who have risen up the professional ranks after taking advantage of the opportunity given to them by the Gold, and helped by dedicated staff like Virgen.
“That’s what I signed up for. That’s what I volunteered for. That’s what I took on the responsibility for,” Virgen declares. “I didn’t come in to win anybody over. I came in to give many opportunities, but in the meantime I’ve also received many opportunities. That’s just how it’s worked.”
His work is universally enjoyed by everyone who wears the Sacramento Gold FC crest.
“To me, he’s as much a part of the team as any of the guys playing on the field,” Connolly discloses. “He’s always there. He brings good morale. He’s fun to joke around with.”
“He’s fun to be around all of the time,” professes Mora, Sr. “Win or lose, he makes the best of it.”
“One of the great pleasures of being with the Gold is being around John,” Nunan affirms.
For Virgen, the pleasure is all his.
“I’ve met so many good people. It’s amazing how the journey keeps going on,” Virgen remarks. “I wouldn’t change it. I love it.”
It’s labor performed by a man who loves what he does and who he does it for: a club that loves him right back.