Mark Story

After a trying life, a Kentucky football folk hero is returning to UK

How is Sawyer Smith preparing for UK’s game with Florida?

Kentucky football quarterback Sawyer Smith talks to the media after practice on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019, about preparation for Saturday’s game against No. 9-ranked Florida. Smith will be making his first start as a Wildcat.
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Kentucky football quarterback Sawyer Smith talks to the media after practice on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019, about preparation for Saturday’s game against No. 9-ranked Florida. Smith will be making his first start as a Wildcat.

On Nov. 17, 1979, Juan Portela engineered one of the most improbable moments in University of Kentucky football history.

Portela was recruited to UK as a walk-on. He was listed as a wide receiver when the 1979 Kentucky football season began. Yet Portela came off the bench to replace injured Wildcats starting quarterback Terry Henry at Florida and directed Kentucky to a 31-3 pasting of the Gators.

That afternoon, Portela hit star Kentucky wide receiver Felix Wilson with touchdown passes of 62 and 43 yards. He finished the game 5-of-6 passing for 141 yards. For the Cuban-born Portela, a product of Florida’s Coral Gables High School, directing a beat down of the home-state Gators was beyond sweet.

Juan Portela at HS reunion.jpg
Juan Portela, who quarterbacked Kentucky to a 31-3 pasting of Florida in Gainesville in 1979, wore a Wildcats jersey bearing the No. 16 he wore at UK to the 40th reunion of his Coral Gables (Fla.) High School graduating class. Photo submitted by Juan Portela

“He got a chance to play and he went in there and beat Florida,” then-UK Coach Fran Curci says. “Being from Miami, what a great thrill for him.”

Says Wilson: “Juan ... wanted to beat Florida bad because they didn’t recruit him coming out of (high) school.”

In real time, Kentucky’s 1979 victory over Florida did not seem earth-shattering. It was UK’s third win over UF in four seasons. The 1979 Gators finished 0-10-1, while Kentucky would finish 5-6.

Yet in UK football lore, the magnitude of Portela’s Florida showing grew and grew as the decades passed. Before UK’s 27-16 victory at The Swamp last year, Kentucky had only beaten Florida once since 1979 — a 10-3 win in Lexington in 1986 — and had not won again in Gainesville.

As that UK football futility against Florida built, it raised the curiosity factor about Portela.

“But he just went to Miami and disappeared,” Curci says. “For years, I didn’t know where he was, what he had been doing.”

‘A pretty trying life’

Curci was not the only person who wondered what had happened to Juan Portela.

As a sportswriter, I like stories that tie the past to the present. During the latter part of what became a 31-game UK losing streak vs. UF, any year Kentucky was scheduled to play Florida in Gainesville I would try to track down the last Wildcats QB to win there.

I literally called every “Juan Portela” in Florida whose phone number was listed.

I never found the right Juan.

Last year, after Terry Wilson finally quarterbacked UK to another win at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, one of my first post-game thoughts was “well, I don’t have to look for Juan Portela anymore.”

Imagine my surprise when “the right Juan Portela” recently friended me on Facebook.

Where has Juan Portela been all these years?

“I’ve had a pretty trying life,” Portela said last week. “I have had a substance-abuse problem, alcohol, drugs. Substance abuse has cost me a lot. But everything is going really well, I’m in a good place, now. So I got back on Facebook to get reconnected.”

As Portela tells it, his post-football life has alternated between periods of sobriety when he has enjoyed personal and career success and difficult times when his addictions have taken him to some dark places.

“My life, it’s been back and forth like a ping pong ball, man,” he says.

francurci
Former Kentucky coach Fran Curci, left, lost track of ex-UK quarterback Juan Portela (not pictured) after his playing days. “He just went to Miami and disappeared,” Curci says. “For years, I didn’t know where he was, what he had been doing.” David Perry

Portela was in Atlanta in 1990 “when I hit my rock bottom — July 14, 1990,” he says.

A friend from high school guided Portela into a recovery program and helped him start his life over in Texas. Portela got married, had two children, was working for the Michelin Tire corporation.

“I stayed sober for seven years,” he says. “Life was good, it was good.”

In 1997, Portela got a phone call that his older brother, Jorge Portela, the former standout Auburn place-kicker, was near death from cancer. Juan returned to Miami.

After his brother’s funeral, “they actually took me to the airport. But, for some reason, I didn’t get on the plane,” Portela says. “I hadn’t finished grieving. I said I was going to the hotel and stay for one more day.

“What I did, I ordered a beer out of that hotel room, and that was my downfall. Within 72 hours, I had gone back out looking to buy drugs and I ended up in the Dade County jail.”

Those events in Florida sabotaged the life Portela had built in Texas. “I lost my marriage, I lost my kids, I lost my job, I lost everything,” he says. “And that still didn’t stop me.”

In 2003 in New York, Portela said he was arrested in a sting operation. “I was getting somebody else cocaine so I could use, too,” he says. “I had to do prison time for about a year.”

After his Mom, Isabella Portela, died on Nov. 2, 2017, Portela says he became homeless.

Yet it was through a Miami homeless shelter that Portela says he again entered a recovery program.

“I’ve been clean and sober since Jan. 21, 2018,” Portela says. “I am working for the city of Miami in public works. I went to a homeless shelter for six months; now I live in a beautiful condo in downtown Miami. Life is going good. But, I know it is one day at a time: ‘I will not drink today.’”

Reconnecting with UK football

Now that he feels good about his life, Portela has reached out to others from his UK football past.

“I got reconnected with all my family in Kentucky,” Portela says. “A lot of them stayed with me through these struggles. I’ve been reaching out on Facebook.”

Since that day 40 years ago when they burned Florida twice with long touchdown passes, Felix Wilson says he knows Portela “has been through a couple of things. We are all glad to see he has bounced back.”

Felix Wilson in 2007.JPG
Former Kentucky wide receiver Felix Wilson, front, says Juan Portela’s former UK teammates are happy that the ex-Wildcats quarterback now seems to be in a good place following battles with substance abuse. “He has been through a couple of things,” Wilson says. “We are all glad to see he has bounced back.”

After a mutual friend reconnected them in the past year, Curci says he and Portela “have been pretty much staying in touch.”

Says Portela: “It’s been such a blessing to hear (Curci’s) voice.”

On Friday, Portela and his nephew, Antonio, plan to fly north from Miami to attend Saturday night’s football game between Kentucky and No. 9 Florida at Kroger Field.

This weekend, Portela says, will be the first time he has stepped foot in the venue formerly known as Commonwealth Stadium since his playing days there ended in 1980 (he used his final season of eligibility at Western Carolina).

“I’m coming back now because I believe it is the right time,” Juan Portela said. “I’ve had a difficult life, but I’m coming back to UK with my head held high. I’m very grateful, very thankful. Even being here is a complete miracle.”

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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