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OTL: Above and Beyond

OPIAPO, Chile -- On the eve of the biggest soccer game in the history of this remote desert town, the team knelt in prayer. The Regional Atacama players were one win from a championship and a promotion to the first division of Chilean soccer. The blue-collar mining community felt reborn. So, together in their locker room, they asked the local patron saint for help: Please let us do this, for the people, for each other. They promised to visit the saint's roadside shrine after the game to give thanks. A few miles outside of Copiapo, built into a steep wall of rock, the place was an outdoor chapel where candles burned in wrought iron grates.

When the game ended, when Atacama had won, the players didn't even take off their uniforms. They ran from the stadium, up to Route 5, headed to the shrine. The whole team, Franklin and Diego, Mario and Ramon, all of them. They were young and strong. Their lungs filled with summer air, and a hundred or so fans gathered behind them, caught up in the joy. Everyone ran, shouting out praise, for five miles. The throng followed Atacama's powerful midfielder, the fastest player, the man who had scored the first goal in the team's history. Everyone ran behind Franklin Lobos. When the cheering stops

Almost 29 years later, on Aug. 5, Lobos cranked his pickup truck to drive down into the San Jose mine. When he looked in the mirror, he didn't see the powerful young man those people followed. He saw a thick waist and a shiny bald head. But he remembered those days. Just the week before, he had played with some of his teammates in an old-timers game. So revered was that 1981 squad that it, and not the current professionals, was invited to play the first game when the city opened a new stadium. Lobos, 53, loved hitting the field with his friends, even though his family couldn't understand why he spent so much time with these middle-aged men, reliving the past. "Soccer players have their time," his mother-in-law would say. The San Jose copper and gold mine had a reputation, even in a town of leathery miners. The locals called it the Kamikaze Mine. A miner had died several years ago, and earlier this year one lost his leg. Lobos got 30 percent more money, about $1,500 a month, for working there instead of a different mine. He knew it was dangerous, but he had bills. Soccer players didn't get rich in his time. All his former teammates had real jobs, too.

He drove deeper into the mine, a co-worker riding shotgun, passing another truck of friends, who soon came to the surface. Outside, his friends felt the mountain rumble. Later, they'd tell everyone that the cave in surely had killed Lobos.

Down below, a slab of rock collapsed just behind Lobos. The daily routine turned into an action movie. Debris fell all around, a boiling cloud of earth turning everything dark. Lobos drove deeper into the mine. The tunnel dominoed behind him, huge sheets of thick earth landing near the back of the truck. The rocks buried a backhoe and a water tower. The whole mountain was coming down around them, but Lobos managed to make his way to the rescue chamber, where he found 31 fellow miners. They were trapped. Everything was black. Hours passed. In the dark, they could only hear each other, and the voices sounded scared. The oldest miner was 62; he would lead them in prayer. The youngest was only 19; his family told reporters he was afraid of the dark.

Finally, the debris cloud cleared and everyone squinted into the dust. This was what they saw: 33 men in a tiny emergency refuge, 500 square feet, with limited water and just two days' worth of emergency rations. They were deep below the surface -- almost two Empire State Buildings deep -- and the rescuers didn't know where to look. What happened next galvanized a country. The foreman, Luis Urzua, took charge. He'd been a soccer coach, and his workers respected him. First, he had to make the food last as long as possible. Every 48 hours, he figured, each miner could have two teaspoons of tuna, a sip of milk and half a biscuit. The men drained water-cooled machinery to stay hydrated. Urzua spent his time mapping out the tunnels around them, creating a drawing of their strange underground world, so they could spread out. He used the headlights of trucks to simulate day and night to keep the men sane. A day passed. A week passed. Lobos heard the drills, grinding into rock, shaking the fragile mountain, blindly searching for 33 men in the dark. When the noise sounded close, his spirits rose. He felt alive. But each time, the drill pulled away, the noise fading to silence. Those hours felt like death to the miners. The food ran low. The men all lost weight, about 20 pounds apiece. One man wrote a poem: "Many days have passed without knowing. Here at the bottom, my tears begin to flow."

Day 16 arrived, blurring toward 17. The drill hummed close … achingly close … only to pull back again. The sound disappeared. Sores and rashes marked their bodies. The food ran out. Hope ran out. Lobos finally understood he was never going to leave this hole. He'd wait for a while longer, then he'd write a letter saying goodbye. He sat in the cramped room and waited to die.

Losing a hero? The day after the mine collapse, word spread through Copiapo: Lobos, the Magic Mortar, was one of the 33. The sports television and radio shows remembered his career.

Talk soon turned to 1980.

Copiapo existed on the edge of civilization. It was in the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. But in the late '70s, a surge in the local mining and agricultural industries set off a boom. The local university, now one of the best in Chile, was created in '81. Cranes dominated the skyline. In fact, they created the skyline; before, there were no tall buildings. And in April 1980, Atacama played its first game. The stadium was packed. Lobos scored the first goal and was a local hero. Everyone on the street knew his name, and when he and his teammates made it to the first division the next season, in the team's second year of existence, their place was secure. Like members of the 2004 Boston Red Sox or the 2009 New Orleans Saints, these guys would never pay for drinks. They aren't famous, per se. It's better than fame. They are beloved.

The promise of those years didn't last. The mining business faded, and the team eventually went broke and folded, replaced by a new club. Some of the players moved away. Some stayed in town and worked normal jobs. Lobos drove a cab, then took the job down in the mine. Life underground left little time for anything else. "Something happened when he began to work as a miner," says Ana Diaz-Torrejon, his mother-in-law. "He stopped practicing sports." Still, every so often, the team would get together and play. The games sold out and the crowds sang the old songs and everyone remembered a different time. Even young people who had never seen them play called out their names. "All this is in the heart of the people," says Ruben Sanchez, a member of the team. "The people remember all this until today." Now, the fans tried to process the news. Former players, even those who had lost touch, began calling each other. In Santiago, Atacama star Mario Caneo's phone rang. It was the team's old equipment manager, Leonel Olmos. "Franklin had an accident in the mine," Olmos said.

Caneo began to cry. In his apartment in New York City, the team's tough defender, Ramon Climent, was watching the Chilean cable channel when the list of victims scrolled across the screen. The name of his old friend sent chills up his arms.

They all waited on news: the teammates and the city that loved them. In New York, on the 16th day, while Lobos lost hope deep below the surface, Climent almost got into a fight at a party with someone who told him, "Franklin is dead." The next day, Climent was sitting in front of his television when it happened. He heard the entire story: The drill had found the safety chamber, and the miners attached a note in shaky, red handwriting: We are fine, in the shelter, all 33.

Franklin Lobos was alive.

Life 2,300 feet down People flooded the plazas all around the nation. Family members and friends tried to process the news. Down in the mine, the men felt born again. Communication was established, and the president of Chile, Sebastian Pinera, came on the line. He asked Urzua what the 33 needed. "Mr. President," he said. "Don't abandon us." "You won't be left alone," Pinera told him. "Nor have you been alone a single moment." The rescue began. Chilean submarine officers helped devise a plan. South Africa, the U.S. and Canada sent their best mining brains. NASA sent scientists to advise on keeping people alive in outer space because that's essentially what the mine was like. Everything was new. Nothing was simple. Imagine: You are trapped in a subway tunnel with all the exits blocked and rescuing you means drilling a man-sized hole through almost 10 Superdomes. The crew members made it up as they went along, in the best sort of way, like something from "Apollo 13." In the first days, two narrow boreholes, nicknamed umbilical cords, were drilled to provide supplies. Each was a bit wider than an iPhone is long. One was for water, oxygen and communications. The other was for sending packages up and down. Salvation arrived via 8-foot cylinders nicknamed palomas: doves. One of the first things to go down into the mine was a video camera. The miners made a short film and sent it back up: an introduction to their world. It was like "Lord of the Flies." They had built a society, with officials and rules, with someone in charge of food and another man in charge of their spiritual life. In a lot of ways, they had created a team.

Everything was carefully organized. A table for cards. A shelf for first aid supplies. One man hung a topless pin-up girl on the wall. The miners figured out how to use the labyrinth of tunnels to which they had access. One tunnel was the latrine. One was for exercise. One was for smokers; two men finally badgered officials into sending cigarettes instead of nicotine gum. The miners put the smoking area in the hottest part of the mine and a long distance away: a walk of about five football fields. The telephone sat in a corner, so the men wouldn't see each other's tears. Letters moved in both directions every day. The messages were lifelines. Carolina Lobos, Franklin's 25-year-old daughter, felt as if she was finally getting to know her father. One miner and his wife decided they should have a wedding in a church; they'd been married at the courthouse 25 years before. "Buy the dress," he told her. Another woman wrote that she would accept a marriage proposal that she had declined not long before. One man learned his wife had given birth to a baby girl. They named her Hope.

The men asked for tapes of Maradona and Pele. They asked for music. They asked for steaks and beer, but instead, they got elastic workout straps and strict exercise instructions: If they were overweight, they wouldn't fit into the rescue hole. The doctor on site had worked for a big Chilean soccer team; he helped the miners build aerobic stamina. He also got one of them, a trained paramedic, to send urine and blood samples up the pipe; the doctor sent vaccines back down -- the time underground was erasing the men's immunity to common germs.

Each dove took 30 minutes to make the round trip. The men got a small television projector and antidepressants, dice and love songs. They got three meals a day and two snacks. They got media training to be prepared for the circus that awaited them outside; Lobos tried to tell them that fame did not come for free. They got tiny Bibles. They got jerseys from famous soccer players. Carolina told her dad that she wanted to send him a soccer ball but it wouldn't fit through the hole. The game was never far from Lobos' mind. He wrote a letter to the new Copiapo team, the one that replaced Atacama, which was playing a game to avoid relegation. Be as persistent as the miners, he said. Mostly, the 33 miners stuck to the routine. Three eight-hour shifts, each group clearing the rock falling from the hole being drilled to rescue them. If they couldn't move the debris, they would be stuck in the mine. Every hour counted; in a briefing with the nation's health minister, Urzua said: "Keep it short. We have lots of work to do." A month went by like this, then two. October arrived. Nobody had ever been buried underground as long. They felt happy because the end seemed in sight. They felt nervous about the specially constructed rescue pod, built by the Chilean navy. "Every day, I am more impatient," Carolina Lobos says. "My father, too. We are anxious."

The men counted the days. They wrote letters. They read letters. The nation followed every development; in the middle of the ordeal, when the Chilean national soccer team played a match, the miners got to see the game, and through the magic of cameras and cables, the people of Chile got to watch them watch. The network broadcast cut to a live shot from the mine. The shot panned over to Lobos, who smiled a bit. A rough beard covered his face. He looked tired but safe. He fanned himself. "Franklin Lobos is one of us," the announcer said. "To Franklin Lobos, a special hello."

A bond that never breaks

In New York, with the rescue effort under way, Ramon Climent knew what he needed to do. So many things had happened to him since the Atacama days, and even though he was three decades and 5,000 miles removed, he'd never really left that remote desert town, or that group of men. Athletes might grow old and apart, but they never stop being teammates. He bought a ticket and flew to Copiapo, ending up in the square that once filled with fans after their games. This was where they had gone to celebrate after leaving the shrine so many years ago. Everything seemed vaguely the same, but the feeling he remembered, the hope of a city riding a boom, was gone. He got out his cell phone and dialed an old friend: Mario Caneo.

"I'm in downtown Copiapo," he said.

ABC News coverage

Follow the rescue efforts on ABC News, which reports that the trapped miners could be free within days. Story

Caneo got on a bus in Santiago. Twelve hours later, he joined Climent. They called Diego Solis, who flew in from Buenos Aires, Argentina. The men, once stars on Atacama, hadn't been together in a quarter of a century. That didn't matter. "It could be 1,000 years," Caneo says, "and I would have recognized them." The time fell away. Solis laughed and stuck his finger in Ramon's ear. Climent made fun of Solis' lily-white skin. "The next Michael Jackson," he cracked. The three walked around town. At a local café on the plaza, a crowd gathered. People stared and pointed. Their heroes had returned. Cameras flashed. Hands reached out. First there was joy, but then a sad feeling slowly came over everyone. The people of Copiapo realized why these three men were back in town. They had come because an old friend was in trouble.

"We are not friends just of games," Caneo says. "We are friends of the heart."

The three men, in their 50s now, drove out to the mine last week. They passed the familiar roadside shrine where they had run 29 years ago; a homemade flag flapped above it asking not for a soccer victory but for the safe return of the miners. The terrain close to San Jose is often described as a moonscape. It's become a bit of a cliché, but it's true. Put it this way. If you were a location scout for a George Lucas film about the end of the world, you'd be getting a nice Christmas bonus. The place is barren, and the harsh desert alongside the gravel road to the mine made the men nervous. It was Caneo's turn to get chills. They imagined Lobos' last trip to this remote, lonely mine. They looked at the tall drills and tried to picture him buried down below. Anger spread throughout the car: How could a man who had brought so much joy to a city end up working in such a hell? When they arrived at the dusty camp, the men milled around, waiting. They'd been told there might be a chance to speak with Franklin by phone. Olmos, the old equipment manager, met them there, across from the CNN truck, and he played the Atacama fight song on his phone. All three players met Carolina; they stood in a tight circle and listened to her explain the situation. She sounded so grown up. The last time they'd seen her, she'd been a baby. Now she was a woman. They asked questions, and she did her best to answer. She saw the concern on their faces, and, for the first time, she understood why they mattered so much to her father.

She understood they were brothers. Campamento Esperanza Climent stood on the dusty path and looked at the chaos around him. Straight ahead, teams drilled all day and all night, with three options reaching for the miners. Dozens of tents were pitched around the area, with smoldering campfires. Painted messages of hope covered rocks. Banners hung everywhere. Hundreds of Chilean flags flapped in the breeze. A crowd of priests performed Mass. Clowns tied balloon animals for children. People gripped letters that had arrived from the doves. "This is crazy," Climent said. Welcome to Camp Hope.

When the mine collapsed, the strange little tent city grew up around the rescue operation. The families moved out here into the desert, dealing with blistering days and frigid nights. It was a circus. Some folks wept openly. Others fought. One miner suffered the great misfortune of his wife and mistress arriving simultaneously. Carolina Lobos lived in a tent, chain-smoking cigarettes, getting up to three packs a day before Lobos was found alive. "I have to stop smoking when my father gets out of the mine," she says. "I promised him and God." The television trucks followed, and they have moved in, too. The networks and big cable operations, from around the world, have built wooden platforms for live shots, setting up satellites and booking every hotel room and Winnebago for miles. There are almost more reporters than family members, an impressive teacher-to-student ratio. As weeks passed, some people began commuting from Copiapo. Carolina did that, too, though she feels closer to her father at the mine than at home. Every night, she slept with the adidas T-shirt they took out of his locker at the top of the mine. She slept with regret, too. Before, she took family for granted. She cared for her father but never really took the time to show him. The accident made her realize what she had missed. With her father in a strange purgatory, not really dead or alive, she imagined what life would be like after he came back to the surface. She made plans. "To give him all the love that I never gave him," she says. "Help him. Take care of him. Protect him." This past week, moving between her tent at Camp Hope and her breezy front porch in Copiapo, Carolina counted the days until her father returned. The end seemed near. She thought about all the little miracles of the past two months, about the middle-aged men who showed her what being a teammate truly meant. "They are the most beautiful memories he has," she says. "He told me they were very important to him. These guys who helped him to be the soccer player and the man he is."

Brothers forever The men who played for Atacama have waited in hospital rooms and stood at the front of churches, traveled for weddings and for christenings. Many of them are godparents. They've always been there for each other, and now, three of them stood at the top of a collapsed mine, staring at a white office phone. Lobos picked up his receiver a half-mile away, below their feet. He expected his daughter on the other end. "We have a surprise," Carolina says. "Say hello to old miners from Atacama." The old players crowded around the phone, leaning down to the speaker. They all started talking. Franklin heard voices from his past. He couldn't see their faces, but he knew them all. Mario! Diego! Ramon!

They tried to keep it light, telling stories about a girl they all used to know, making fun of the billboards around Chile decorated with the miners' photos. Everyone took a turn, giving him encouragement, hoping to transport him, even if just for a few minutes, outside of the mine. Soon, their time came to an end. The laughter stopped. The conversation turned serious. In a few minutes, all the former players would go back to their car and ride away in silence, thinking about their brother stuck down in the earth. But at the phone, they first had to say goodbye. "I'll come back when you get out to get a beer," Climent says. "Goodbye, friend," Olmos says. "I'm gonna stay here forever with you," Caneo says. "We are all with you, my friend." Lobos began to sob. He had so many things to say. He could have told them about the beauty of his memories. He could have told them that the bonds they formed when everything seemed possible had survived the withering of time. Athletes might grow old and apart, but they never stop being teammates. "I am crying," he said. "I never expected you to come here." Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com. All interviews were interpreted by ESPN Deportes producer Cristian Silva.

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