CHARLOTT, North Carolina. We all have our own collections of sports memorabilia, whether it’s a shoe box under the bed or a custom basement display that looks like a Cooperstown cul-de-sac. Each of us has an autographed ball or box of tickets, perhaps a T-shirt or two.

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Chris Hegardt has a very good range of jerseys, like most footballers, but his selection of jerseys serves as the roadmap for the 20-year-old midfielder’s incredible career. From youth league pitches in suburban San Diego, through the ladder of football development from Los Angeles to Europe and Seattle, to the NCAA College Cup, and eventually to the royal blue #19 jersey he now wears as a rookie in MLS. . Charlotte FC.

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The shirts Hegardt wears on the pitch hide the scar on his stomach. The jerseys that hang on his walls, in his childhood bedroom at home in San Diego, and in his still sparsely decorated Charlotte bachelor apartment hide nothing. Instead, they uncover the story of a child who survived cancer and grew into a man whose football dreams are still coming true. This is especially true of a pair of uniforms given to him by the same American football legend ten years apart.

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“It’s much more satisfying when you do something knowing that you have already overcome so much,” Hegardt says now, his bearded face framed by an eternal smile. “The goal is to inspire more people to become professional footballers and be good people. And for all those people who are sick, to keep going and keep fighting.”

And now the story of the first T-shirt.

It was December 5, 2009. Chris Hegardt, a month before his eighth birthday, spent a Saturday morning doing the same thing that millions of kids his age do every weekend: he played football. But Hegardt was already performing at a level that most have never reached. Rumors swirled around football-crazed Southern California that he might be one of the best in his age group, not only in the area, but in the country.

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Then came a game that didn’t just jeopardize Chris’ football dreams. His father, Ron, was afraid that this could cost his son’s life.

“He hit the ball and some other kid hit the ball and the ball hit Chris right in the stomach, which really happens,” Ron, an asset management consultant, now recalls. “He had breathing problems and it was obvious. Then he threw up a little. We knew something was wrong.”

Ron took Chris to the 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.

– What worried me most of all, what does this bleeding mean? I mean, is he going to…” Ron pauses to hold back tears. Is he going to get to the hospital?

The operation stopped the bleeding, but also uncovered a terrible cause. Chris’ liver was covered in tumors caused by a form of liver cancer diagnosed in children only two or three times a year in the United States. The impact of the ball ruptured one of these tumors.

This was followed by more than a month of chemotherapy while the eight-year-old waited for a liver match to enter the donor organ database. The organ was finally made available, tragically, when a teenager died in a car accident.

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

In the midst of all this, Sasha Klestan visited Chris. Today, we know Klestan as a workhorse of American football, a 17-year-old professional and former regular on the US men’s team. However, in early 2010, Klestan was still on the rise, for four years he was a member of the now defunct Chivas USA franchise. Ron Hegardt and Klestan had a mutual friend, and through this friend Ron asked if Klestan could come in and see his sick son.

“I remember it fully because it was not an official visit when my club team said, ‘Oh, there was a request for your hospital to visit the hospital.’ It was my friend,” Klestan recalls, adding that former teammate Sam Reynolds asked about it. “It’s at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, and bring a T-shirt or something. This guy is a big football fan. He is in the hospital now. you came and talked to him.

“He had the best smile on his face all day and I just thought, how is that possible? He has such a positive attitude and is going through such difficult times.”

Klestan gave Chris a US jersey and they took a picture together. The pro then went back to work and Chris went back to his recovery. That summer, a weakened but undaunted Chris Hegardt returned to the playing field. After the games, he collapsed on the bed under Klestan’s T-shirt, which now hung on his wall.

“All the people were saying, ‘I can’t believe you’re letting him play!’ remembers Chris’ mother, Kim. “And I’m like, God, he’s been through a lot. He’ll be all right. Let him do it.”

The story of Hegardt’s comeback received a lot of local attention, especially when he went into remission and was once again included in the “best player of his age” conversation. The nation learned about Chris from an E:60 report titled “Saved by Football”. In this TV story, 10-year-old Chris sits on his bed and says to Tom Friend of Sportzshala The Magazine, “I’m glad they found it because I probably would have been worse off and they would have found it. later, and it would be more.”

When Hegardt watches this story now, he has the same reaction as the rest of us when we see ourselves as children in home movies. He cringes. But it also reminds him of his anxiety, even then, to shed the label “Chris the cancer baby” and pursue his dreams.

“I just kept playing football. I continued to be a child. I continued to live my life. And I just wondered where this life would take me.”

He traveled abroad, trying his hand at the European football pyramid of development. He spent time in Los Angeles on the LA Galaxy development program. He eventually moved to a couple of Washingtons, first to the Seattle Sounders academy and then to Georgetown University. With the Hoyas, he made it to the 2021 NCAA College Cup, football’s version of the Final Four. Barely a month after the heartbreaking semi-final loss, Chris joined his family on vacation in Montana, already focused on his return to school and the chance to avenge that loss.

The Hegardts were having dinner when the telephone rang. It was Chris’ agent. MLS’s newest club, Charlotte FC, purchased it from the Sounders.

“It was the moment I had been waiting for all my life, everything I had worked for,” Hegardt says of the call. “As for me, when I signed a professional contract, I looked back at my life and thought, damn it, I have to accept it and enjoy it.”

“All you want is for your children’s dreams to come true, you know?” Kim Hegardt explains. “When you go through chemotherapy and lose your hair. I remember one time we shaved his head in the backyard and he looked like… I can’t remember what football player he thought he looked like, but he doesn’t look like that football player. However, he’s like, “Oh, I look just like Messi!” And he had bald spots everywhere. It wasn’t Messi, but, you know, there are a lot of them. I’m always here and now that he’s doing great, he’s healthy, but I know how hard he worked, so it’s really an amazing feeling that he was able to succeed in what he loves.

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

It was March 4, 2022, the eve of Charlotte’s first home game at Bank of America Stadium, 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 went outside to answer the call. As Kim waited on the couch in the lobby, a man sat next to her. She recognized him immediately. Klestan, now a linebacker for the Los Angeles Galaxy, came to town to face the Charlotte.

“She just said, ‘Oh, sorry, are you Sasha?’,” Klestan recalls. “And I said, ‘Yes.'”

“I would never, if he was on the other side of the room, come up and say nothing,” she says. “But the fact that he just sat next to me, I said, “Sasha, my name is Kim Hegardt. I know you won’t remember this, but you came and visited my son, Chris Hegardt, in the hospital, probably 12 years old. back when he had cancer and had a liver transplant. I just wanted to thank you. It meant a lot to our family.”

When Ron returned to the lobby, he saw his wife talking to a football pro. The father excitedly flipped through his phone’s camera roll until he found photos of a visit to the hospital in 2010 with his son. In an instant, memories of the visit flooded over Klestan. Chris Hegardt’s gift of a hat and t-shirt meant a lot to him back then, but it went deeper. The girl he brought with him to the hospital a dozen years ago is now his wife, and since then they have become parents themselves, and they have a child very close to the age that Chris had on the day of their visit.

“She’s like, ‘Yes, now he’s playing.’ And I’m like, “Okay. Cool. What? College or academy?” Klestan recalls…