The two sides of Jair Benitez
You may know him as Jair Benitez, but his friends call him Chigüi.
The two names represent the two very different sides to the 34-year-old Colombian who became the 12th player to join the FC Dallas Century Club when he made his 100th start against Vancouver Whitecaps FC last Saturday night.
On game days, you see the feisty and diminutive Jair who refuses to give an inch to the opposition, while sometimes letting his emotions get the best of him as he bombs up and down the left flank for 90 minutes. However, for the rest of the week he's "Chigüi," [pronounced Chee-Wee] one of the lead pranksters among the Hispanic contingent on FC Dallas.
"[Jair]’s a very outgoing personality and always laughing a lot," said George John. "I wish I understood most of the jokes going on, but from the gist of it, it always seems like they’re laughing with or at Jair."
So what's the origin of his goofy nickname? That depends on who you ask.
"I have no idea where it came from," said Fabian Castillo. "It’s exactly how I met him, and I honestly have no idea where it came from."
George John has a different theory on his defense partner's moniker.
"I call him that because everyone else does," said John. "I think it stems from a TV show in Colombia. It’s a great nickname and it’s stuck."
In reality, it was fellow Colombian David Ferreira, who introduced teammates to Chigüi.
"That’s how I met him in the [Colombian] national team," said Ferreira. "I’m not entirely sure how it came about. Whenever we started playing together in the national team, I started calling him that but the origin is probably a question to ask him."
For the true answer, it's best to go straight to the source. According to Benitez, the nickname stems from a shortened version of "Chigüiro," a mammal common to South America known as the Capybara in America.
"A friend of mine in my neighborhood when I was small, maybe ten years old, called me that and ever since then it’s stuck," said Benitez. "People around Colombia have always known me as that. I don't mind the name."
In his four and a half years with FC Dallas, Benitez has become a major part of the Spanish-speaking contengent of the locker room.
"With Jair, [our relationship] is really good," said Castillo. "I think he’s a person who’s always really happy and his attitude is very contagious for the team."
After practice, Chigüi is generally surrounded by laughter, whether he's the the one telling the joke or the brunt of the comedy.
"He is definitely a jokester and likes to be riling everyone up," Castillo said laughingly through a translator. "We especially have a lot of fun when he tries to speak English. He’s not the best at speaking the language and we give him a hard time about it...We think it’s funny."
The road to 100 starts has been a relatively unlikely one for the man from southwest Colombia, and while his English isn't where he'd like it to be - he swears this year is the one he finally learns it - Benitez has a house, two kids and plans to remain in Texas long after retirement.
"No, I really didn’t [think I would be in MLS for long.] I thought I’d be here for a very short period, but it’s been four years," said Benitez. "I’d like to stay here [for a few more years] and finish my career with this team."
Despite all the laughs, there is still the other side to Benitez, one that has presented problems for FCD. The Colombian was pegged around MLS as a hot head and has unfortunately lived up to that billing in some big matches. After a suspension early in 2012, things boiled over in Houston as Benitez earned the second red card of his MLS career for elbowing the Dynamo's Colin Clarke in a key Texas Derby match that FCD would go on to lose.
"All players lose their emotions at times," said John. "He’s just got that Colombian fire in him that gets him fired up and that’s part of the reason why I love the guy."
It was a fork in the road for the Colombian who was given a stern warning from head coach Schellas Hyndman to improve his emotional intelligence or find a spot on the bench. Benitez did not appear in the next three matches.
"It was definitely a turning point," Hyndman said about the red card. "I think so much heat was put on him and it was, ‘Look, I’m sure there are other teams looking for a left back.’ Because I thought we were going to win that game and then we turn around and ended up losing.
"Jair’s fantastic as far as apologizing, he understands what’s going on. But there’s only so many times you can tell a policeman you’re sorry for running the red light. Eventually he’s going to say he’s had enough."
Since the incident, Benitez is a changed man on the field. The Colombian has appeared in 23 consecutive matches for FCD, logging just one yellow card while committing only nine fouls in that stretch of games. We even saw a glimpse of Chigüi as Benitez flashed a big smile after scoring his first and only MLS goal against Colorado last season on August 11.
"I think he’s one of the better left backs in the league," said Hyndman. "He shows that in his durability. He doesn’t miss a lot of games. He shows it in his defensive play, his ability to strike good balls, make good passes and get into the attack. He does a lot of things very well."
Above all else, perhaps the biggest indicator of the on-field change in Benitez's demeanor was an incident early in the 2013 Texas Derby win over Houston. Benitez was involved in a tangle with Dynamo forward Will Bruin, a familiar adversary. On this occasion, when Bruin bumped the Colombian, he walked away rather than escalate things further.
"He’s really done a good job at keeping [his emotions] under control,” said Hyndman. "It’s a constant conversation, but I also think it's, ‘Hey, we’ve been down this road before, don’t force me to play someone else. It’s in your control.’ I think he’s had a very good start to this season."