Chris Hegardt is more than that viral Sacha Kljestan photo, more than a cancer survivor: He's making his dreams come true at Charlotte FC

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- We all have our sports memorabilia collections, whether it be it a shoebox under the bed or a custom-built basement display that looks like a cul-de-sac Cooperstown. We all have an autographed ball or a box of ticket stubs, perhaps a jersey or two.

Chris Hegardt has a very nice assortment of jerseys, as most soccer players do, but his stash of shirts serves as a roadmap for the improbable career of the 20-year-old midfielder. From the youth league fields of suburban San Diego, through the soccer development ladder from Los Angeles to Europe to Seattle, to the NCAA College Cup and ultimately to the royal blue No. 19 jersey he wears now, as a rookie player with expansion MLS club Charlotte FC.

The jerseys Hegardt wears on the pitch cover up the scar that slices across his abdomen. The jerseys that hang on his walls, in his childhood bedroom back home in San Diego and in his still sparsely decorated Charlotte bachelor pad, cover up nothing. Instead, they reveal the story of a kid-turned-cancer-survivor-turned-man whose soccer dreams are still coming true. That's especially true for a pair of uniforms handed to him by the same American soccer legend a dozen years apart.

"It feels so much better when you accomplish things knowing that you've overcome so much," Hegardt says now, his bearded face framed by a perpetual smile. "That's the goal, to inspire many more people to become a pro soccer player and be a good person. And for all those people that are sick to keep going and keep fighting."

Now, the story of the first jersey.

It was December 5, 2009. Chris Hegardt was one month shy of his eighth birthday and spending his Saturday morning doing exactly what millions of kids his age do every weekend: He was playing soccer. But Hegardt was already performing at a level that most never reach. There was a building buzz around Southern California that he might be one the best in his age group not just in the area, but in the nation.

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Then a play happened that didn't simply threaten Chris's soccer dreams. His father, Ron, was afraid it might cost his son's life.

"He went into the ball and some other kid kicked the ball and it hit Chris in the stomach directly, which does happen," Ron, a wealth management advisor, recalls now. "He was having trouble breathing and that was obvious. Then he was throwing up a little bit. We knew something wasn't right."

Ron took Chris to a local emergency room, where it was discovered that he was bleeding internally. Suddenly, father and son were in an ambulance, rushed to San Diego Children's Hospital for emergency surgery.

"I was most concerned about what did that bleeding mean? I mean, is he going to..." Ron pauses to choke back tears. "Is he going to make it to the hospital?"

The surgery stopped the bleeding, but also discovered the horrifying cause. Chris's liver was covered in tumors, caused by a form of liver cancer diagnosed in children only two or three times per year in the United States. The impact of the ball had ruptured one of those tumors.

More than a month of chemotherapy treatments followed as the now-eight-year-old waited for a liver match to land onto the organ donation database. An organ finally became available, tragically, when a teenager was killed in a car accident.

On February 10, 2010, Chris Hegardt received a new liver, one half of the donor liver. The other half went to another young patient. He went home 10 days later, but faced a daily regimen of pills to prevent his body from rejecting the new organ and another three months of chemotherapy.

In the middle of it all, Chris received a visit from Sacha Kljestan. These days, we know Kljestan as a workhorse of American soccer, a 17-year professional and former regular of the United States men's national team. In early 2010, though, Kljestan was still on the rise, a four-year member of now-defunct franchise Chivas USA. Ron Hegardt and Kljestan had a mutual friend, and Ron had asked through that friend if Kljestan might stop by and see his ailing son.

"I totally remember it because this wasn't an official visit that my club team had said like, 'Oh, there's a request for you in the hospital to do a hospital visit.' This was a friend of mine," Kljestan recalls, adding that it was former teammate Sam Reynolds who asked. "It's at a children's hospital in LA and bring a jersey or something. This kid's a huge soccer fan. He's been in the hospital now. He can't wait to get out to go play soccer again. And it would mean a lot if you came and talked to him.

"He had the best smile on his face all day, and I just thought, how is this possible? He's got such a positive attitude and he's going through such a difficult time."

Kljestan gave Chris a U.S. jersey and they took a photo together. Then, the pro went back to work and Chris went back to his recovery. That summer a weakened, but undeterred, Chris Hegardt returned to the playing field. After games he would collapse onto his bed beneath that Kljestan jersey, now framed on his wall.

"People were all, 'I can't believe you're letting him play!" remembers Chris's mother, Kim. "And I'm like, God, he's been through so much. He's going to be fine. Let him do it."

Hegardt's comeback story garnered a lot of local attention, especially as he entered remission and was reinserted into the "best player at his age" conversation. The nation learned about Chris via an E:60 feature titled "Saved By Soccer." In that television story, 10-year-old Chris sits on his bed and says to ESPN The Magazine's Tom Friend: "Like, I'm glad they found it because I would've been probably more sicker and they would've found it out later and it would've been bigger."

When Hegardt watches that story now, he has the same reaction we all do when we see ourselves as kids in home movies. He cringes. But it also reminds him of his anxiousness, even then, to shed the label of "Chris the kid with cancer" and get on with his dreams.

"I just kept playing soccer. I kept being a kid. I kept living my life. And I was just wondering where this life would take me."

He did a stint overseas, trying his hand at the European soccer developmental pyramid. He spent time in Los Angeles in the developmental program of the LA Galaxy. Ultimately, he moved to a pair of Washingtons, first with the Seattle Sounders academy and then at Georgetown University. With the Hoyas, he made it to the 2021 NCAA College Cup, soccer's version of the Final Four. Barely a month after a heartbreaking loss in the semifinals, Chris joined his family for a Montana vacation, already focused on his return to school and a chance to avenge that loss.

The Hegardts were at lunch when the phone rang. It was Chris's agent. The newest club in MLS, Charlotte FC, was acquiring him from the Sounders.

"It was a moment I'd been waiting for my whole life, everything I've worked for," Hegardt says of the call. "For me, when I signed the pro contract, I looked back at my life and I'm like, damn, I've got to take this in and enjoy it."

"All you want is for your children's dreams to come true, you know?" Kim Hegardt explains. "When you go through chemo and you lose your hair. I remember we shaved his head one day in the backyard, and he was like ... I can't remember what soccer player he thought he looked like, but he didn't look like that soccer player. Still, he was like, 'Oh, I look just like Messi!' And he had bald spots everywhere. It wasn't Messi, but, you know, it's a lot. I'm always like in the here and now in that he's doing great, he's healthy, but I know how hard he's worked, so it's a really awesome feeling that he's been able to find success with the things he loves."

And that brings us to the story of the second jersey.

It was March 4, 2022, the eve of Charlotte's inaugural home game, held in Bank of America Stadium, the home of the NFL's Carolina Panthers. Ron and Kim Hegardt had flown in from San Diego and were hanging out in the lobby of their hotel, just a few blocks from the stadium. Ron received a work-related phone call and stepped outside to take it. As Kim waited on a lobby couch, a man sat down next to her. She immediately recognized him. It was Kljestan, now a midfielder for the LA Galaxy, in town to face Charlotte FC.

"She just said, 'Oh, excuse me, are you Sacha?'" Kljestan remembers. "And I said, 'Yeah.'"

"I would have never, if he was across the room, gone over and said anything," she says. "But the fact he just sat next to me, I said, 'Sacha, my name's Kim Hegardt. I know you're not going to remember this, but you came and visited my son, Chris Hegardt, in the hospital probably 12 years ago when he'd had cancer and a liver transplant. I just wanted to thank you. That meant a lot to our family.'"

When Ron returned to the lobby, he saw his wife talking to the soccer pro. The father excitedly scrolled through the camera roll of his phone until he found the photos of the 2010 hospital visit with his son. In an instant, the memories of the visit came rushing back to Kljestan. The chat and jersey gift to Chris Hegardt had meant a lot to him then, but this was deeper. The girlfriend he'd brought with him to the hospital a dozen years earlier was now his wife and they had since become parents themselves, with a child very close to what Chris's age had been the day of their visit.

"She's like, 'Yeah, so now he's playing.' And I was like, 'Okay. Cool. What? In college or the academy?'" Kljestan remembers about the chance meeting with Kim Hegardt. "She's said, 'Oh no, he's on Charlotte.' And I was like, 'Does Charlotte have an academy already?' And she was like, 'No, he's signed to the first team.' And then I was like, 'Oh my gosh!' I couldn't wait to call my wife. I had [Kim] text me the photos from that day because she still had them on her phone, and then I sent them to my wife right away."

That night, Ron and Kim had dinner with Chris. They told him about running into Kljestan and that he had asked to post their photos from 2010 on his social media feeds.

At first, Chris said no. "He doesn't want to be defined by this, you know?" explains his father. "My older son and his fiancée talked to him and said that this was the week after Ukraine was invaded and not a lot of great stuff was going on in the world, and they just said, 'Chris, this is a good story. You should let him post it.'"

His reluctance was deep rooted, dating all the way back to those first days of returning to the pitch after the story of his diagnosis and recovery had become a national story. Athletes want to be recognized as athletes first, measured by their abilities first and everything else second.

"It's difficult because it's a balance between the two," he confesses, even now. "Like, Chris Hegardt has such a great story, but he's also a very good soccer player."

"I understand his dilemma and that he wants to be recognized only for what he's done on the field," Kljestan says. "But on the flip side, I would encourage him to embrace it because he's an inspiration to kids, and he's an inspiration to people that are going through difficult things."

In fact, that very week of Charlotte FC's first home game he had met with a local Charlotte child, Liam Flynn, a 10-year-old soccer-loving cancer survivor. It felt familiar to Chris. It also felt good to see the smile on Flynn's face. So, that night at dinner, Chris told his father to text Kljestan and said it was okay to post the photos from 2010. By the following morning, the tweet had gone viral.

That night, Charlotte and the Galaxy played in front of an MLS-record crowd of 75,000 fans. Many of those fans had seen Kljestan's post and anxiously waited to see if the two might end up on the field together. The veteran checked in for the visiting team in the 53rd minute. In the 87th minute, the rookie finally joined him to a thunderous reaction from the home crowd.

Recalls Kljestan: "I peeked over and saw him subbing into the game, I gave myself a little silent fist pump. I was like, 'Yes!'"

The game ended moments later, a 1-0 win for the Galaxy, but the 75,000 stood pat waiting to see what happened next. A jersey exchange. The first time Chris Hegardt received a Sacha Kljestan jersey, he was an 8-year-old boy battling cancer. Now he received a second, but as a healthy, 20-year-old professional soccer player, standing at midfield and handing Kljestan a jersey of his own.

Kljestan apologized, worried his post had overshadowed Chris's MLS debut. Hegardt told him not to worry. Kljestan said of the soccer life: "Keep working, there's a lot of ups and downs," and added, "If you ever need anything, let me know."

In the five months since, Hegardt has battled through injuries to return to the Charlotte FC lineup. He has also learned to better embrace his role as an inspiration. Even if he had wanted to avoid his backstory for the sake of focusing on soccer, the always-growing number of people who have heard his story wouldn't have allowed that to happen. Whenever Charlotte asks for volunteers to take up community projects, especially those involving children entrenched in health struggles, the club says that Chris is the first player to raise his hand.

"When your child or anyone goes through a cancer battle or any type of health scare, it's like, 'Why me? Why my son?'" explains his mother. "I think Christopher is finally embracing the why. Like, 'Why did I go through this?' I always feel like he needs to give back because he's been lucky. I think he's starting to wear that badge of honor a little bit."

If he ever loses sight of that mission, he only needs to look at a pair of Sacha Kljestan jerseys, hanging on a pair of walls 2,400 miles and 12 years apart.

"I'll remember that moment forever because I'll look at my wall in 35 years and say, 'I remember when I swapped jerseys with Sacha Kljestan,'" Hegardt says. "That's why when people are watching this, I hope in 15 years, my career will take me many places. But yeah, this is just the start of it. And like I said, I'm not content, I just want to keep working and keep going to the next level. And I'm just excited to see where it goes, because I believe if you work hard and you give everything you have every day, the world will take care of you. God will take care of you. So, I'm just excited and blessed to keep going."