Bringing the Fire
By Matthew Hart
Sometime in the first half of a typical Amherst College men’s soccer game, head coach Justin Serpone will pace purposefully toward his bench and call the name of Milton Rico ’15.
Taut with energy, the sophomore will launch into a vigorous warm-up routine of calisthenics and stretching. Soon he’ll report to midfield and wait for a stoppage, still bouncing. When the horn sounds, he’ll sprint breakneck onto the pitch.
Time to bring the fire.
If this all sounds cliché, you don’t know Rico. Bringing the fire, after all, is something that only he and his family can truly understand.
It was a late summer night in 2010 and Rico was heading into his senior year at the Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia. He had stepped out of the house for a moment before bed, and when he came back, his mom smelled something. Rico knew he had left a candle lit in the bedroom that he shared with his younger brother, and that the cat had been in the room. He rushed upstairs and into a nightmare.
“By the time we checked, my room was just covered by fire,” Rico recalled. “We have a little cat and I guess he got curious.”
By the end of the night, the room was decimated but the building survived. Showing heroic calm, Rico’s brother had grabbed the cat and shut the door before leaving the bedroom, preventing the fire from spreading to the rest of the house. Still, much of the first floor was drowned by firefighters’ extinguishing efforts and Rico’s father had to be treated at a hospital for burns.
Once it was all over, Rico walked back upstairs to a charred room. Curtains had turned to ash, soccer trophies had melted into distorted figurines. Remarkably, one thing had escaped largely untouched.
“Next to the curtain was a Bible,” Rico remembered. “Apart from a little bit burned on the outside, it was completely intact, which for our family was too much. I usually try to keep it to myself, but when I opened it, it really spoke to me.”
Two years later, Rico is a key player on the nation’s second-best Division III soccer team and a thriving member of the Amherst community. Whether playing drums in his jazz combo or telling you about his family band, Herostreet, it’s near impossible to find him without a smile on his face. He traces much of his outlook back to the fire and the moments following it.
“Part of why I’m at Amherst and not somewhere else is that wisdom,” he said, recalling that the blaze occurred during a period in which he was actively examining his own faith. “There’s that chapter that says all things come and go but what stays are the important things.”
Family is atop that list for Rico. With his mother, father, two brothers and sister, he emigrated from their native Colombia in 2001. While they have always stayed close – through music especially – the fire began a new chapter in the family’s story.
“When we came back we realized, ‘this is a gift,’” Rico said. “It’s a gift in disguise, but it’s a gift about just really understanding. I wouldn’t want anybody to go through it, but if they can learn that lesson about having faith and realizing what’s important, that will take you a long way.”
“It was a bad fire,” he continued. “We had to live in temporary housing for three months, but there are people that have gone through worse.”
Serpone sees this humility as a trait that makes Rico an invaluable member of the Lord Jeffs.
“The thing about Milton that’s really different and special,” said the Jeffs’ head coach, “is that he’s a really grateful person. He’s constantly reminding teammates to appreciate their experiences. He’s never negative.”
Meanwhile, on the field, Rico is counted on as an instant energy source off the bench. Appearing in all 20 of Amherst’s games as a first-year, the midfielder has taken on a more exciting role as a sophomore, scoring twice and helping the Jeffs to a No. 2 national ranking and the top spot in the NESCAC standings.
“He’s fantastic, works his tail off,” said Serpone. “He’s a great person, a hard worker, very creative and technical. He’s become much better defensively over his two years here. I really think the world of him.”
Last year, Rico passed Serpone’s litmus test, learning to play defense at the collegiate level. Now, he’s slowly revealing his offensive flair. After a lone tally in 2011, Rico scored his first goal of 2012 on Oct. 9, a SportsCenter-worthy blast into the upper left corner during Amherst’s 6-0 win over Trinity.
He struck again on Oct. 14 against Bowdoin, heading in a corner that proved to be the game-winning goal in the Jeffs 1-0 defeat of the Polar Bears.
Now, with Amherst heading into the NESCAC playoffs, Rico’s name will be called in increasingly important situations. But as expected, he’s not looking ahead, uttering a coach’s favorite words, “we can’t look past our next game.”
No matter how the Jeffs’ season ends, however, Rico knows that soccer is only a small – but important – part of the equation.
“Soccer has always been an outlet for what goes on in life,” he said. “I’m still challenged and feel like I’m growing in my soccer game, but my academics come first.”
Still, the sport has remained a constant, from his family’s transition to a new life in Philadelphia, to the weeks and months following the fire, to his busy schedule at Amherst. Teammate Julien Aoyama ’14 has also been a constant since the pair began playing together for the Lower Merion Velez club team at age 10.
“He had just moved from Colombia,” Aoyama recalled. “He’d come over to my house for tournaments and play Nintendo 64. And this was when he didn’t even speak English and I didn’t speak Spanish so we’d just sit there awkwardly looking at the TV and laughing.”
Despite attending different high schools, the two remained club teammates until Aoyama left for Amherst. It was right around the same time that Rico’s house burned.
“I reached out to him immediately to make sure everything was OK,” Aoyama said. “Once I found out he was interested in Amherst I told him it would be awesome to have him here.”
Indeed, it wasn’t until after the fire that Amherst became a real priority for Rico.
“I was more sure of my decision of putting soccer second,” he said, “as opposed to having gone to a D-I school.”
Professional play had even been a possibility. Through the Sueño MLS program, Rico was selected during his senior year as one of five players to participate in an extended tryout with the Philadelphia Union. By that point, however, the fire had helped him clarify his goals.
“I was happy, obviously, to be seen by coaches,” he said. “But I knew my priorities. I really took that experience differently than I would have had I not realized how important learning was to me.”
At Amherst, the sophomore has found a love for literature and is considering either an English or Spanish major – or both. On the side, he keeps his drumming fresh, playing with one of the College’s student jazz combos, the Junior Mints.
In fact, music may well eclipse soccer once Rico leaves Amherst. That’s because of Herostreet, the Latin rock band he shares with his siblings, which released its first full album after working with a Latin Grammy-winning producer over the summer (learn more at herostreet.net).
“It’s always been a part of us,” said Rico, whose parents had sung professionally in Colombia. “I’d like to keep the band alive and hopefully I can earn myself a job there.”
Even if it doesn’t support a career, the band will continue to keep him close to his siblings, especially with his older brother and sister now living in California.
“I think it’s been a vehicle for sticking together,” Rico said. “It’s something that’s going to be there forever.”
While he continues his academic and athletic pursuits at Amherst, family will never be far from his thoughts, with the latest triumph coming when he and his siblings taught their grandparents in Colombia how to use Skype.
“We try to make sure that no day or week goes by without reaching out to those that we love,” he added. “It may not have to do with the fire, but with the whole perspective that it started for us.”
Perspective: it’s what grew from the flames of a horrific August evening in 2010 and it’s what Rico carries with him to the field, to the classroom, to the drum set every day.
So when the horn sounds and No. 10 bolts onto the pitch, know that the fire he brings is about so much more than soccer.