CHRIS HEGARDT…AND SACHA KLJESTAN

Chris Hegardt’s story is not unlike that of any cancer survivor’s tale of unspeakable woe…

With no way out.

‘Cancer survivors’ is largely oxymoronic.

As of January 2022, it was estimated that there were 18.1 million cancer survivors in the United States.

This figure represents approximately 5.4 % of the population.

Thankfully, by 2032, the number of cancer survivors is projected to increase by 24.4%, to 22.5 million.

Still, I’m afraid that cancer is cancer until a cure is discovered.

In December 2009, Hegardt was hospitalized after a youth soccer match and diagnosed with cancer following the discovery of a ruptured tumor in his liver.

He was a month shy of eight years old.

He underwent six rounds of chemotherapy and received a liver transplant.

In 2011 he was healthy enough to return to his youth club, the San Diego Surf, where Hegardt and his teammates won a national championship.

He went on to play two years of soccer at Georgetown (2020–2021), scoring 3 goals in 31 matches.

The Hoyas and Hegardt won the Big East tournament, advancing to the 2021 College Cup semifinals, soccer’s Final Four.

This could have been enough–plenty actually–but there’s more.

Before that, during his hospitalization years earlier, Hegardt received a visit and a jersey from then-Chivas USA player 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).

It seems that Ron Hegardt, Chris’ dad, and Kljestan had a mutual friend.

Ron reached out and asked the friend if Kljestan might be willing to visit his son.

Recalled Kljestan,

“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.”

It was former teammate Sam Reynolds who asked.

He gave Kljestan the backstory.

“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.”

This was the first jersey presentation.

There would be another.

An exchange.

A swap.

Fast forward to March 4, 2022.

Chris Hegardt now plays for Charlotte FC (MSL).

It was the eve of Charlotte’s inaugural home game to be held in Bank of America Stadium, where the NFL’s Carolina Panthers play.

Hegardt’s parents had flown in from San Diego and were sitting in their hotel lobby, just a few blocks from the stadium.

A man sat down near his mother.

She immediately recognized him.

It was Kljestan.

He was in town as a member–and midfielder–of the LA Galaxy, Charlotte’s next-day opponent.

One thing led to another and the two engaged in a conversation.

“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.”

The chat and jersey gift to Chris Hegardt had meant quite a bit to Kljestan then, but this was deeper.

Much deeper.

The girlfriend he’d brought to the hospital that day, a dozen years earlier, was now his wife.

And they were parents of a child very close to Chris’ age back then.

This was big…to Kljestan and to Chris.

Hegardt wanted to be recognized for his on-field accomplishments, not remembered as the soccer player who overcame cancer.

Then he realized how he could be an inspiration to so many others.

In fact, the week of Charlotte’s first home game he visited Liam Flynn, a 10-year-old local boy, a soccer-loving cancer survivor.

He saw the smile on Flynn’s face; it was his smile, seemingly a lifetime ago.

That night at dinner, Chris told his dad that he’d reconsidered, and that it was okay for Kljestan to post the hospital 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 throng of 75,000.

The veteran Kljestan checked in for the visitors in the 53rd minute.

The 20-year-old rookie Hegardt joined him on the pitch in minute 87.

The home crowd erupted in a thunderous ovation.

Recalled 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 Galaxy win.

The 75,000 stood, waiting for an epilogue.

They were rewarded in spades.

The first time Chris Hegardt received a Sacha Kljestan jersey he was an eight-year-old boy battling cancer.

Now, he received a second, but as a healthy 20-year-old professional soccer player.

They stood at midfield, and he handed Kljestan a jersey of his own.

In the many months since, Hegardt has worked through injury to return to the Charlotte FC lineup.

And he has learned so much.

Like better embracing his role as an inspiration, which isn’t easy for him.

Now, whenever Charlotte asks for volunteers to participate in community projects–particularly those which involve children beleaguered by health struggles–he’s first in line.

His mother explains that “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.”

And if he ever loses sight of that mission, all he has to do is look at a pair of framed Sacha Kljestan jerseys hanging on walls 2,400 miles and 12 years apart.

It is highly unlikely that Chris Hegardt will lose sight.

“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.”

Amen to that.

[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in October 2022.]

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