On what would have been Christian Melendez’s 19th birthday, the Mineola community came together Thursday afternoon to honor the life of the popular high school student-athlete.
Nassau County police said he was pronounced dead on Christmas Eve from injuries suffered in a Dec. 21 automobile crash in Williston Park.
Students, teachers and community members filled the bleachers and lined the fences at Mineola High School to watch current and former members of the soccer team face off in an exhibition to honor Melendez, who was a four-year starter.
“It’s a lot of love, not just from the teammates, but from the classmates and from everybody,” said Melendez’s father, Jose. “I live in Farmingdale and my son lived [with his mother, Karen Miranda] in Mineola. I used to see Mineola as a regular town, the town where my son lived. But now, when I come to Mineola, I feel like it’s my home . . . This is by far the biggest birthday celebration for him and I’m very honored what they’re doing for us.”
He added, “Soccer was the world for him. There were two things that he wanted to do in life, to become a professional soccer player and work with computers.”
The game pitted this past fall’s squad, of which Melendez was a co-captain, against alumni, with whom Melendez had played. The student team won, 1-0.
The final score certainly was fitting. Melendez wore No. 10 in his final two seasons and took tremendous pride in that he wore the same number as soccer legend Pelé.
“It was my first time playing on this field without him in an actual competitive match,” friend and co-captain Manny Mirao said. “We won, 1-0, and you could feel that he was there. We won the game because of him. There were a lot of chances where you would feel like the other team was going to score, but it almost felt as if Christian was right there defending them with us.”
Both teams played with 10 men on each side, a change from the usual 11, as a tribute to Melendez.
“This meant everything to me,” said Luis Tinoco, who graduated from Mineola in 2017. “We were all tremendously close to Christian. We played soccer every day with him and that bond is like no other . . . This is a complete honor to be playing on the field one last time.”
Tinoco said he’s been playing soccer with Melendez his “whole life.’’
“He was the nicest kid you’ll ever meet,” Tinoco said. “He would never talk back to you, never yell at you and would also reason with you. Even if he thought you were wrong, he’d never disagree with you. He’d work with you . . . He would be kind without expecting anything in return, and that takes a big person.”
Players and some spectators wore black shirts that had Melendez’s name and No. 10 on the back. All 300 of the shirts that were made were sold, with 200 more on order, said Paul Pereira, who coached Melendez in his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons.
The money will go to the family and to a scholarship fund that is in the early stages of being set up, Pereira said.
“This is a small, wonderful community with a big heart,” Pereira said. “I don’t think there was a more fitting way to remember Christian. This is what he would have loved. He spent all four years at Mineola on that field and that was a great way to honor him.”