Remembering Giovanni Leon: ‘He touched everyone’s hearts’

Remembering Giovanni Leon: ‘He touched everyone’s hearts’

Gio Leon, seven, died Oct. 24 in an accident on Dixie Highway

By Erika Hobbs

Chicago Heights, Ill. — Anyone who knew Giovanni Leon would mention these three things: His dimpled smile that could melt iron, his lightning moves on the soccer field, his impulsive hugs for those he loved best.

Impish and fearless, Gio — as he was known — lit up any room he walked into, his family and soccer parents who knew him said.

That light, they said, would always be with them, even though Gio is not. Gio, seven, died Oct. 24 from injuries he sustained after a car hit him as he chased a ball onto Dixie Highway.

A vigil was held in Chicago Heights for Gio Leon Oct. 26. Photo courtesy Natalie Cipolla Martinez.
A vigil was held in Chicago Heights for Gio Leon Oct. 26. Photo courtesy Natalie Cipolla Martinez.

But his story, his father and friends said, is not about the death. It’s about his life and the shining example he was in it.

“Everyone had memories of him,” Gio’s father, Savino Leon of Chicago, said. “Everyone. He touched everyone’s hearts.”

Gio would have turned eight this month on the 29th, a number he loved so much he wore it on his jersey. He played for the Chicago Lions soccer club, a team his father coached. The family, who lives in Chicago, was in Chicago Heights that day to watch Gio’s brother Benjamin, 11, play for his team. Gio himself was scheduled for a match later in the day in New Lenox, said Natalie Cipolla Martinez, of Homewood, whose son, Mossimo, was Gio’s good friend.

“Gio,” she said, “was very energetic, very spunky, but no one could ever resist his smile. No matter how often he got in trouble, when he looked at you with that smile and those dimples…I used to say ‘I don’t know how his mom does it.’”

He flashed those dimples the day the Chicago Lions won the Ford Copita Alianza Tournament in October. It was the last game Gio played.

Gio Leon grins after his team, Chicago Lions, won the Ford Copita Alianza Tournament in October.
Gio Leon grins after his team, Chicago Lions, won the Ford Copita Alianza Tournament in October. Photo courtesy Natalie Cipolla Martinez.

Savino Leon, 35, agreed with Martinez. He’d been there himself —like the time Gio, when he was about three years old, took a short trip with the family in the back of their brand new Charger. Savino kept it spotless and wouldn’t let so much as a chip fall on the floor. But that day, when they got home and Savino opened the back door to unbuckle little Gio, he saw the toddler’s handiwork. The mini Michelangelo had drawn a portrait of the family in green crayon on the back door.

“I asked him: ‘Why did you draw on the door?’” Leon said. Gio looked up at him.

“I didn’t have paper,” he said.

It was so innocent, Leon said. He couldn’t even begin to get mad.

“He was always a go-getter,” Leon added. “Whatever challenge put in front of him — he  would always accomplish it.”

There was that time during a family vacation in California and Gio didn’t want to wear his swim vest in the pool anymore. Leon told him he could take it off when he learned to swim. In one day, Leon said, Gio could float, swim and dive on his own.

He was like that on the soccer field, too. At four, he played with 10-year-olds. Whether he played goalie or forward, he was a star on the field, his friends and family said.

Gio couldn’t contain that energy for just the game. When he wasn’t playing, he was always teasing a friend or goofing with kids or picking up a game. Each practice, each game, a separate chant could be heard from the sidelines, they remembered, with a laugh: “Gio. Gio. Gio!” Someone was always trying to corral him and focus him on the task at hand.

Sand couldn't stop Gio Leon and his teammates from playing soccer. Photo courtesy Natalie Cipolla Martinez.
Sand couldn’t stop Gio Leon and his teammates from playing soccer. Photo courtesy Natalie Cipolla Martinez.

But just as quickly and just as fiercely, he could demonstrate his love, Leon said. There were the impulsive hugs. A throng of girls his age he “loved.” And one night, as Gio lay in bed with his entire family, he declared he loved his little sister Emilia so much that he would always take care of her, and that if she had a boyfriend, he would kick his “a–”. Emilia was only a year old.

The Leon family, from left: Benjamin, 11; Emilia, 1; Cristina Calvillo, Gio's mother; Savino Leon, Gio's father; Gio. Photo courtesy Natalie Cipolla Martinez.
The Leon family, from left: Benjamin, 11; Emilia, 1; Cristina Calvillo, Gio’s mother; Savino Leon, Gio’s father; Gio. Photo courtesy Natalie Cipolla Martinez.

Gio’s older brother, Benjamin, has since vowed to carry on Gio’s legacy. He has promised to take care of Emilia and to tell all of the little girls Gio held a torch for how much he loved them, too.

“His strength carries me,” Leon said of Benjamin.

Leon now plans to change the name of his soccer team to Gio’s Lions. He himself returned to the field to coach this past week. That first day, everything was the same — the coaches, the players, the dull thud of soccer balls. But underneath it all was silence. No one was calling Gio’s name.

Once, when that silence was too heavy, Leon walked to a nearby park and sat at a table. The sun broke through the October clouds and shone hard on him, he said. He felt Gio’s warmth. And the emptiness inside him went away.

How to help

Natalie Cipolla Martinez founded a GoFundMe account for the Leon family to help with funeral expenses and all of the hidden costs, like time off, that comes unexpectedly when families are grieving, she said. Donations can still be made. 


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