Jim Reineking of USA Today, gives readers an explanation of the video below showing professional soccer players Kljestan and Hegardt exchanging jerseys, “In 2010, Galaxy player Sacha Kljestan — then a member of Chivas USA — visited a cancer patient at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and gave that young soccer fan a jersey. Now, 12 years later, that young fan is 20 years old and is a professional soccer player himself. Chris Hegardt is a rookie midfielder for the [Major League Soccer] expansion club Charlotte FC.”

“❤️ @LAGalaxy’s Sacha Kljestan and @CharlotteFC’s Chris Hegardt exchange jerseys after the game ✨”  Fox News Soccer on Twitter.

Charlotte FC’s Ryan Bailey says of Hegardt overcoming incredible obstacles, “An elite athlete must show strength, tenacity, and determination to reach their goals. Few, however, have conquered the kind of adversity that midfielder Chris Hegardt faced in childhood.”

“Sometimes, we take for granted things we love to do.”
— Chris Hegardt, Charlotte FC midfielder

The only hope for Chris Hegardt to survive to his ninth birthday was chemotherapy and a liver transplant.  Back then, it was hard to imagine that one day he would become an elite athlete.

It was if Chris was on a path to experience incredible success since birth.  He grew up in Southern California.  As a young boy, he was an avid soccer fan.  His parents, soccer enthusiasts Ron and Kim Hegardt, taught him the basics in green spaces in the peaceful Los Angeles suburb of Fallbrook.  When he became old enough, they placed him in a local soccer program.  His parents said he started dominating pee wee games in preschool. So, when he was six, they placed him in a league with 8-year olds.

By age seven, experts insisted Chris Hegardt was the best 7-year-old soccer player in the United States.  A California talent scout, Brandon Jantz, predicted Chris was on course to be a World Cup player.  He was drawing crowds by age seven.

ESPN reporter Tom Friend wrote, “Talent scouts used to marvel at his ability to think and play like an 18 year old. It’s not that he was overpowering, because when he was 7 and 8, a strong gust might have tipped him over. He couldn’t have weighed more than 60 pounds. But roll him a soccer ball, and he’d roll it back with pinpoint accuracy. Lob him a ball, and he’d head it wherever you’d ask. He could think three passes ahead. Scoring a goal was gratifying, but, to him, getting an assist was the mother lode.”

With his mom, Kim, pre-chemotherapy. Courtesy of Hegardt Family via ESPN

Unbeknown to Hegardt and his parents, Chris had cancer.  They found out by chance when during a soccer game, in a particular play, Chris approached a loose ball, only to have it booted directly toward him. They said the ball slammed, at close range, into his stomach area. He collapsed.  A doctor attending the game examined Chris and advised his parents to take him to ER for an X-ray and CT scan.  The tests revealed nothing definitive.

While Chris remained uncomfortable, he wanted to return to the tournament.  It was a third test, an ultrasound, which revealed a mass encompassing a third of Chris’s liver.  The impact of the ball had ruptured the tumor that was later found to be malignant.  Doctors suspected he had hepatocellular carcinoma; a cancer more commonly found in adults.  Only about 10 children a year are diagnosed with this form of cancer.  Initially, his prognosis was poor.

When Chris was given the news about his medical condition, his father said Chris was matter of fact, he never wept. His father quoted Chris, “The doctors told me, like, there’s something on your stomach that ruptured.  My dad told me what it meant, so I was, like, ‘Ugh.”

Chris cancer was treated with chemotherapy.  By age eight, the biggest challenge he faced was his parents and medical team finding a donor for a liver transplant.  His father, Ron, volunteered to be a living donor.  At age 40, this was a risky procedure for Ron – virtually splitting his liver in half – but he was adamant, he would do whatever was necessary to save his son’s life.  The transplant was scheduled to occur on Feb. 25, 2010. 

However, at approximately 2:30 am on the 25th, his parents received a call.  There had been a fatal motorcycle accident.  A 17-year-old had perished, and his parents were donating his organs.  There was one patient, a very sick little boy, who was ahead of Chris on the list.  The transplant team decided to split the donor’s liver so that each boy could be transplanted and healed.

The Fallbrook Fury — the team Chris played for when he was injured by the ball. They all shaved their heads in support of him. Courtesy of Hegardt Family via ESPN

At age eight, after a lengthy recovery, Chris returned to the game of soccer as a much weaker player on a new team.  Initially, he struggled during practice, and his teammates didn’t understand why he was allowed to play.  His coaches only expected for him to be a middle-of-the-road player.  Then, during one game, Chris stunned everyone.

In his article, ESPN reporter Tom Friend wrote this exciting synopsis of a play during Chris first game after recovery, “The ball was floating harmlessly toward the goal area when a bald blur came from nowhere to head it into the net.  Chris was literally parallel to the ground when he made contact with the ball. It was tantalizing. After that, his coach had no more explaining to do. The boy had won over his new teammates, his teammates’ parents, the referees, the ballboys, and their opponents.”  The kid was back.

Chris Hegardt today via Ryan Bailey.

It has been an amazing journey and testimony of triumph over adversity for Hegardt.  He beat cancer.  He recovered from a liver transplant.  He achieved elite athlete status.  So, when Kljestan tweeted last Friday, “I gave him a jersey once, hopefully he will give me his tomorrow!”  Soccer fans and transplant advocates rejoiced when the two professionals were captured on video exchanging jerseys.

Reporter Tom Friend once said, “He was a boy with an indomitable spirit who refused to give up his soccer dream.”

We can only imagine what’s next for Chris.  We can rest assured, though, he will remain an inspiration to anyone facing what appears to be insurmountable odds.

Anyone can register to become an organ donor at RegisterMe.org.  Living donors and organ recipients can contact National Foundation for Transplants when they need help raising funds for out-of-pocket transplant-related expenses.  We’ exist to help transplant patients through their most difficult times get to their most wonderful times.  You can support their transplant journey with a financial gift.