by Lisa Sillaway

Wings fans remember. 

They remember Chico Borja, "The American Dream," who always entered the arena with a prayer. A quick kneel in the goal, a whispered prayer on the turf as he crossed himself and ran to his team mates amid the roars from the home crowd. Last year at his induction to the new Wichita Wings' Hall of Fame, slowed by the cancer he had fought for years, he again bowed in the goal of Hartman Arena to give a brief thanks before joining his Wichita soccer family on the field.

Wings' fans remember. And today they are the ones giving thanks for the life of Chico Borja.

The Orange Army has been joined by the soccer community across the country as they remember the fiery passion, mad ball skills, faith and kindness of Hernan "Chico" Borja. Former Wings' midfielder Borja died Monday in Florida after an extended battle with cancer. He was 61.

Borja is being honored online and in the media by friends, fans and soccer organizations. He played for many teams during his career but in many ways, his heart was always in Wichita. Before his death he expressed love for his former city and former team.

"It's home," he said simply last year during the Hall of Fame festivities luncheon. "Wichita ... it's just home."

Wichita felt the same way about Borja and made the Ecuadorian-born player a hometown hero. The fan favorite had the Orange Army flooding Wichita social media with tributes once the news of his passing began to spread. Stories of favorite goals and games, some laughs about how much time he spent in the "sin bin" from the penalties his hot temper would inevitably earn him (Borja racked up 221 career penalty minutes, the second-most in team history), but many also remembered his kindness and the joy he brought to Wichita, especially to kids and young players.

"Chico was a friend and mentor of mine," said retired pro soccer player and North High standout, Rick Monroe, who was a childhood fan. "He was special. I was the first Wichita product to turn pro and he helped with that. He taught me how to be a great and grateful pro. Every day is a blessing playing a game I loved."

Borja was fortunate enough to play the game he loved in Wichita and around the country. He was especially proud of his time representing the United States as member of the U.S. National Team. Before joining the Wings in 1986, Borja was called up for the U.S. Olympic soccer team which competed during the 1984 Summer Olympics. Borja played all three games as the U.S. ran to a 1-1-1 record in group play, failing to qualify for the second round. Borja was also on the U.S. team at the 1987 Pan

American Games. The midfielder earned 11 caps and scored three goals for the national team between 1982-1988 and later helped the United States finish second at the 1992 FIFA Futsal World Championship. As a player for the New York Cosmos, young Borja was a club legend - helping the organization to back-to-back Soccer Bowl appearances in 1981 and 1982.

He was equally good indoors, as Wings' fans know. In fact, last summer he was selected to become part of the next class of the Indoor Soccer Hall of Fame. Celebrations of this award were postponed due to the pandemic.

"We have kept the results (of the vote) a secret to date," organizers said in a statement. "(We) knew Chico was sick, but thought we had more time."

Borja didn't have to wait for his induction into the Wings Hall of Fame. Despite his illness, he made an emotional trek back to his "hometown" in 2020 to celebrate and be celebrated with his former team mates. While in Wichita, he was also introduced to the mascot of the new iteration of the Wichita Wings, which had been named "Chico" in his honor. Borja chuckled when talking about his namesake and good naturedly hugged the bright orange bird for a requested picture during the weekend.

But, Monroe says that's not unusual, Borja could even laugh about his struggles.

"He experienced ankle troubles and he always joked, 'can I trade ankles with you, bro?’" said Monroe.

His sense of humor sometimes got him into trouble. Shari Stephens Burkhardt, who worked for the Wings and served as staff artist for the Missle in the 1980s and early 1990s, shared a favorite memory of Borja.

"Every time I saw Chico he would say, 'Hi beautiful. I thought he was just being sweet, but over time I started to notice how many women he said that to and I finally realized it was a trick he used when he couldn't remember a woman's name," she said, laughing. "I decided to call him on it the next time. The day came eventually and he said, 'Hi, beautiful' in passing and I stopped him. I said, 'Hey Chico, we've known each other a few years, right?' He agreed. I just smiled and asked, 'So, what's my name?' I just stood there grinning as he looked a bit stricken and realized I had caught on to his 'trick.' A rather mischievous smile started to spread over his face as he shrugged."

The next time, Borja made sure he remembered her name with his trademark ornery grin.

New "voice of the Wings," Jared Cerullo remembers spending time with his childhood hero during the Hall of Fame Weekend. Over a beer, Borja shared with him about his journey with cancer and it's "good and bad days," and told him a story about his arrival in Wichita in the 1980s.

"He told me he would never forget the day he and his wife arrived in Wichita," said Cerullo. "After throwing down their suitcases and luggage, Chico walked to the back of the room and spread open the curtains only to see a wide open pasture, full of cows mooing, literally a few yards away from the back window. Chico turned to his wife and said 'Honey, I'm not so sure if we made the right decision in coming here.' Thank goodness Roy Turner arrived shortly after to take him to practice!"

Wichita quickly grew on Borja and his family and he became an icon in the city. He was featured heavily in news reports, took part in fundraisers and Wing outreach programs (who remembers the volleyball matches where the Wings took on area teams and could only play with their feet?), spent countless hours working with kids and teens at camps and one-on-one - and on April 26, 1991, became a bit of a real-life hero when a giant tornado left a gash through Andover, Kansas.

Borja, playing golf with a friend near the path of the tornado, helped survivors and even rescued a pet dog within minutes of the disaster. Interviewed by the press at the time, the midfielder was obviously emotional, discussing the devastating scene and how he was able to give survivors little things, a jacket and his hat, along with his support. "What can you do?" Borja asked at the time.

Borja retired from the MISL and the Wings ranked eighth on the career points list (612 points) and fourth on the career assists list (338 assists). Throughout his indoor career, he was a constant scoring threat and as known for his enthusiastic and flamboyant celebrations after putting the ball in the net, as he was for his ball-handling skills. He was named the MISL Pass Master (season assist leader) for the 1988–1989 season. He scored a total of 174 goals for the Wings before his 1992 retirement.

After retirement, he continued to work with youth soccer players, as an educator and coach - and spent some time on-air, this time covering soccer games as a broadcaster.

And he kept in touch with his fomer team mates. Kim Roentved, who played with Borja during the Wings' heyday, is still trying to digest the loss of his friend.

"There are so many things to say about him," said Roentved. "Besides being a great soccer player - the number one player from the fan standpoint - he brought excitement to Wichita and a great talent, too. The stats speak for themselves. But, he was a great person off the field. A great guy, great friend, great husband and great dad. He is going to be missed dearly."

Roentved and Borja kept in touch and he said he was grateful they were able to get together one last time during last year's Hall of Fame weekend.

"I'm so glad he made it in for the movie and we all got to see him and play golf with him again. It was fantastic. We have so many memories on the field, but really what comes to mind is Chico as a husband and father. He was really Dr, Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," said Roentved, laughing. "He was one on field and one off."

Roentved recalled one of the last conversations he had with Borja. The two were discussing their MISL All-Star appearances at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, in 1983 and 1988. Borja reminded him that they were the first two Wings players to score in All-Star Games there.

Borja said to him: "We were really good, Kim." And Borja's fans around the country are echoing that sentiment as they remember the feisty and talented midfielder and man - Chico Borja was indeed, really good, in every sense of the word.

He will be missed.