Luis Vilca plays every game with a bullet lodged two inches from his spine


On the Falls Church soccer field, diving is a sin. The act of feigning injury to draw a foul — or, worse, to catch a breather — is not tolerated at Paul Weber Stadium, not after what happened last summer. Even if someone truly endures a blow, teammates always bring each other to their feet with variations of the same phrase.

“Hey, Raymond got shot,” they implore. “Get up.”

Raymond is one of many nicknames for Luis Ronaldo Vilca, who also goes by “Shooter,” and not because he likes to shoot (he doesn’t). While on vacation to visit family in Lima, Peru last July, Vilca survived a gunshot wound to the stomach, not to mention the ensuing 16-hour wait in the hospital before undergoing surgery. The senior has since overcome incidental nerve damage in his leg and earned his way back into the Falls Church starting lineup, reprising his role as the tenacious defensive midfielder on a talented Jaguars squad bent on forging another playoff run next month.

“The team didn’t just gain another player,” Falls Church assistant coach Cristian Alvarado said. “They gained a brother back.”

Falls Church Coach Joel Harrop remembers when Vilca exited last year’s Virginia 5A state final with cramping. Now he has no idea what it would take to keep his scrappiest player off the field.

Vilca endured a vicious cleat to the head against T.C. Williams earlier this month. He returned to action immediately after completing concussion protocol on the bench. Three days later, against conference rival Marshall, a wayward knee crashed into Vilca’s right thigh and sent him crumpling to the turf late in the second half. He removed the ice pack and checked back in for overtime, after which the Jaguars emerged with a 4-2 victory.

“He knows the difference between being hurt and being injured,” said Falls Church fullback Paul Green.

Caught in the crossfire

A man parked his car too close to the sidewalk. That’s what nearly caused Vilca’s death last summer.

Vilca was in Lima to pay his uncle Victor a surprise visit on his 50th birthday. The 17-year-old was also there, at least in part, to forget about his team’s disheartening defeat in that state championship game two weeks earlier.

On July 4, the day before his scheduled return flight to the U.S., Vilca arrived at his grandmother’s house in Chorrillos, a bustling district on the southern edge of town, just off the Pacific Ocean. With his uncle a few feet behind him, Vilca grabbed several grocery bags and a box of matches, glanced right to check for traffic and began crossing a busy two-way road.

A single gunshot rang out at 11:12 a.m., about 20 feet from Vilca’s position in the middle of the road. Two men had been arguing about a shoddy parking job. The guy inside the small gray car fired his handgun, missing his target and striking Vilca instead. Then he sped away.

Groceries spilled into the street. A woman screamed. Scooters whizzed past. A witness chased after the shooter, in vain. And Vilca lay in the middle of Emilio Sandoval Street, staring up at the gray sky and wondering if he’d see his parents again.

“I was telling my uncle, ‘Please, I don’t want to die right here,’” he recalled.

Vilca was there for 20 minutes before paramedics arrived. A burning sensation filled his stomach, like a line of fire surging toward his spine. At one point a crying woman held his hand and lifted his sweatshirt. There was no blood, just a black hole carved by a bullet that would never come out.

‘Am I going to die or what?’

Vilca’s strength receded with each passing hour. Maybe this was it. Maybe his final moments would be here, in this half-empty waiting room with seaweed-green walls and searing overhead lights.

Flanked by his uncle, aunt and grandmother, Vilca hunched over in a wheelchair and began to panic. Where were the doctors? Where was the urgency?

Eventually nurses wheeled him down the hall to administer CT scans. Then they injected pain medication and sent him back to the waiting room.

“I asked the doctor, ‘Am I going to die or what?’” Vilca said. “He said, ‘If you were going to die, you’d probably be dead by now.”

So he waited some more.

Vilca awoke at 8 a.m., four hours after doctors strapped his arms to a metal bed, placed an oxygen mask over his face and prepared for surgery. They took him to a room on the fourth floor, where he saw nurses hauling someone out in a black body bag. Vilca was stationed next to the door, one spot away from the dead man’s bed.

Vilca’s father, Jaime, had just arrived to the hospital after flying in from Virginia. His mother, Elvira, arrived that evening, her vacation in Florida cut short. Nurses hassled Elvira about her visitor’s pass — visiting hours there are more restricted than the typical American hospital — but she refused to budge, sleeping at Vilca’s bedside for 12 straight nights.

“I stayed right there,” said Elvira, who grew up in Lima. “Nobody could take me out.”

Doctors explained to Vilca why they had removed 25 centimeters of his small intestine. They explained how inflammation had caused nerve damage in his left leg. They said it would take years for those nerves to fully regenerate, that rebuilding strength in that leg would be an arduous process. They said that if the bullet had landed an inch further right, he’d be peeing into a plastic bag the rest of his life. An inch higher and he’d be dead.

They said the bullet was resting two inches from his spine, that trying to remove it would risk paralyzing him for life.

“They said after the years go on, it’s going to form like a little bubble in your body,” Vilca said. “It’s going to become part of you.”

A fresh perspective

It took a couple of weeks for Vilca to start walking without the help of his grandma Nuni’s wooden cane. Back home in Annandale, there were nights when he didn’t have the strength to get to bed. Instead he writhed on the floor next to his pet husky, Sanni, while the scorching pain in his leg prevented sleep.

Progress came in September. Vilca spent hours in the weight room, in rehab and in the kitchen, building his body back up from 120 to 146 pounds. He snuck out of the house during evenings to kick his soccer ball at nearby Pine Ridge Park. By late October he was conditioning with the team, and by March he was setting the tone in training.

“Varsity and JV are all practicing together and they’re all watching [Vilca] working his ass off,” Harrop said. “The energy he has bleeds to them.”

Rising crime rates were a central issue in last June’s presidential election in Peru. The national murder rate there rose steadily in recent years, from 5.4 per 100,000 in 2011 to 7.2 in 2015, though the rate in Lima was 5.0 that year. The 2015 murder rate in the U.S. was 4.9.

None of that worries Vilca. He knows his shooter wasn’t after him. He’s determined to keep going back the same way he keeps getting back up.

“I thought about it on the plane and everything,” Vilca said. “I promised myself I wouldn’t stop. I would keep going for the team to motivate other players to keep going, so that they could see that if I could do it, then they could do it too.”

A brief pause. A glance downward.

“Because I have a bullet inside,” he said.

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