Chris Hegardt's effort to play on
The Make-A-Wish Foundation got Lionel Messi in the flesh. They got him to come out of his Barcelona cocoon in November and kick a soccer ball with 12 children, many of whom had been near death. Messi was led out to a tree-lined field, where each kid would get to dribble alongside him and perhaps share a precious word or two.
One of them didn't speak any Spanish. He was a 10-year-old American boy who, surprisingly, was the smoothest player of all the children. The ball was an extension of his toe, and although this wasn't the time or place for showmanship, the boy juggled the ball a few times on his instep, demonstrating he was more than just an ailing fan. It wasn't that long of a display, just a split second or two, but Messi took notice. He asked what could possibly be wrong with this boy, because, to the naked eye, Chris Hegardt looked well enough to score on a scissor kick.
The short answer was cancer. But if someone had been there to translate, and if Messi had had an hour to sit and listen, the real story would've blown him away. The story about the soccer ball with eyes.
It seems preposterous to make pronouncements about second-graders. But at one time, experts insisted that Chris Hegardt was the best 7-year-old soccer player in the U.S.
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.
He seemed to have the game figured out by the ripe old age of 4. His parents, soccer enthusiasts Ron and Kim Hegardt, taught him the basics on patches of grass in Fallbrook, Calif. His older brother, Jared, would end up playing for Santa Clara University, and his two sisters, Mattie and Audrey, were accomplished players, as well. But Chris was far more obsessed with the sport than they were. He started dominating pee wee games in preschool. So, when he was 6, his parents put him in a league with 8 year olds. He would sleep in his full uniform the night before games, right down to his shin guards. He'd sit in the car tapping his fingers an hour before it was time to leave. He would save his allowance to buy cleats. Before long, he had five pair in every color of the rainbow. He knew the name and number of almost every international player. He would play FIFA video games for hours on end. His favorite website was goal.com. He would dribble a ball around the house and then kick it off the walls. He put so many marks on the drywall that Kim pointed him outside. So he ended up ruining the bushes.
Coaches would watch him play and swear he was European. Few Americans that age had such finesse. He would see on TV how the Italian players were brilliant at taking dives to draw penalty kicks. So he began to practice diving on the couch. He figured there'd be a time where his team might need him to flop for a penalty kick. He was always thinking years ahead.
A California talent scout, Brandon Jantz, predicted Chris was on course to be a World Cup player. "Probably at 6 years old is when I try to identify that a player is special," Jantz says. "Is he fast? Is he technical with the ball? Can he bend the ball with the outside of his foot? Can he chip it over the top of a player? Can he put a certain weight on the ball to get it to that player? Does he understand the game? Watch it on TV? Chris was like a man in a little kid's body. So the definite identification of a young player starts at 6 or 7, although, obviously, you don't know what you have until they reach puberty."
Unfortunately, the question soon became: Would Chris even make it to puberty?
By the time the boy was 7, in June of 2009, he was beginning to draw crowds. And on a day Chris wore his favorite green cleats to a field in Oceanside, Calif., a mercurial coach fell in love with him.
The coach was Danny Salas, who, at the time, was running two local college programs and three youth club teams. To say Salas always had an eye out for talent was an understatement, but, this time, the mere sight of young Chris had him in a cold sweat. Chris's team, the Fallbrook Fury, was playing against an Oceanside team that Salas' son played for. The entire first half, Chris kept feeding his teammates with swerving, accurate passes, but none of the boys were scoring. The halftime score was 2-0, Oceanside. Salas was tempted to go to his son's coach and say, "You better mark 'Green Shoes.' He's gonna kill us in the second half." But Salas could only stand there staring at Chris He didn't know his name yet. He decided he would simply call the kid "Green Shoes." And that he was going to coach him someday.
It turns out Chris did control the second half. Sensing his team needed him to be more selfish, he scored three goals to earn the 3-2 victory. Afterward, Salas tiptoed toward the kid and shouted, "Hey Green Shoes! Nice game. I want to talk to you." The boy was with Ron and Kim, and Salas told them that it was a pleasure to watch their son and that he didn't want to sound like some crazy dad, but that their son's passion and skill at that age was unparalleled. They said thank you and left. But the rest of that day and night, Salas kept re-playing the game in his head. "I would put Christopher Hegardt against anyone from the east coast to the west coast," Salas told his own father that night. "I'd fly him anywhere in the world for a tryout and be confident this is the best 7, 8 year old in the country. If he went to Spain for a tryout, he'd never come back. They'd sign him on the spot."
He decided it was his mission to get Chris on his elite club team in San Diego, called the Surf. "Being around that kid for just an hour wasn't enough," Salas says. "He's every coach's dream." Salas asked around for the Hegardts' phone number and heard that they had just moved from Fallbrook to San Diego. Salas didn't want to come off as a nut, recruiting a second-grader, but he knew Chris's older brother, Jared, played for the U.S. National team. So he decided he would recruit Jared to get to Chris. He called Ron and asked about Jared. Ron told him Jared was already on a club team. "But I do have another son, a 7-year-old who's pretty special," Ron said. A grinning Salas admitted to being the man who had approached them in Oceanside and asked Ron to bring Chris to the field. Ron said maybe he would down the road. When Ron hung up, he told Kim, "This guy just used Jared to get a 7-year-old. Pretty funny." But that was the extent of it.
A few months later, in late December of 2009, Salas received a phone call from a friend in Fallbrook. The friend said, "You pray, right, coach?"
"What is this about?" Salas asked.
"It's little Chris," the friend said. "It's not good."
The best way to explain what had happened is that a soccer ball, of all things, had been an angel on Chris's shoulder.
On Saturday, Dec. 5, 2009, he had been playing a routine tournament game for the Fallbrook Fury, chasing after every ball, weaving in and out of every defender. On one particular play, he approached a loose ball, only to have it booted directly toward him. The ball slammed, at close range, into his stomach area. He collapsed.
No one had ever seen him stay down for so long. Chris was the type of competitor who always bounced up from trips, takedowns and slides. At first, everyone just assumed he had had the air knocked out of him. His father, Ron -- who was there alone while Kim was at one of the other kids' games -- was certain it was nothing.
After about 60 seconds, Chris climbed to his feet, clutching his stomach. He felt he could still play. There were only 10 minutes remaining, and he trudged through the rest of the contest, periodically stroking his mid-section, running much more gingerly than normal. Afterward, while the rest of his team gathered to shake hands with the opponents, he lethargically walked toward the bench area. He began to vomit and ended up sitting passively in Ron's lap. He was having difficulty breathing. A teammate's father, Dave Bridgeman, was a doctor and briefly examined his abdomen area. Nothing seemed outwardly wrong, although Chris seemed pale, short of breath and in moderate pain. When the symptoms didn't subside, Bridgeman suggested they go to the ER for tests.
The initial X-ray and CT scan showed nothing definitive, and, although Chris remained uncomfortable, he wanted to return to the tournament, where the Fury was playing its second game of the day. They were almost out of the hospital door, when an ER doctor waved Ron back into his office.
A third test -- an ultrasound -- had discovered a mass encompassing a third of Chris's liver. And the reason the 7 year old was breathing erratically was because the impact of the soccer ball had ruptured the tumor. He was now bleeding internally and needed emergency surgery to stop it.
Ron told Chris that he was going to get to take his first ambulance ride, 20 minutes to Rady Children's Hospital-San Diego. "I'm in that ambulance looking down at my 7-year-old boy, who's got a smile on his face," Ron says. "He was a little nervous, I could tell. But thought it was kind of neat the lights and sirens were on because of him."
Kim eventually joined them at Children's Hospital, but not before Chris had been wheeled in for surgery. The doctors stopped the bleeding and performed a biopsy. Later, Ron and Kim were brought into a small, colorless room for the results.
"That was probably the low point of the process," Ron says. "It was one of those 'Sorry to have to tell you this' conversations."
The cancer was malignant. Worse, it was in more than one-third of his liver. One pathologist believed Chris had what is called hepatocellular carcinoma, a cancer more commonly found in adults. The Hegardts were told there are only 10 kids a year diagnosed with this nationally. But another pathologist felt Chris had characteristics of another liver cancer, heptoblastoma, more commonly found in infants. Until the doctors knew for sure, they couldn't begin to treat Chris. He was in limbo.
"Probably the worst day of my life," Kim says. "All I can remember saying is how can my baby have cancer?"
All Ron and Kim knew for sure was that a soccer ball had found a tumor growing in their son. If Chris hadn't been hit directly in the liver, they might never have found the mass until it was too late.
In other words, the soccer ball might have saved his life. Or maybe not.
Two weeks passed, and the San Diego doctors still hadn't learned whether it was the adult liver cancer or the children's liver cancer. The Hegardts would've gone to the end of the earth to find an answer, but it turns out, they needed to drive only two hours up Interstate 5 to Los Angeles.
Their research brought them to Dr. Leo Mascarenhas of Children's Hospital Los Angeles, who was said to be the pre-eminent expert on pediatric liver tumors. He reviewed Chris's case and was 99 percent certain the boy had a different transitional liver tumor, which had characteristics of both adult and child malignancies. It had been discovered in six European patients about five years prior, and Mascarenhas was said to be the first to diagnose and treat it in the U.S.
Mascaraenhas said that of those six European patients, five had died and one was still dealing with the cancer. However, he told them that of six cases he had treated in the U.S., two had died, one was managing the cancer and three were considered clear of the disease. The Hegardts liked those odds better.
Mascarenhas acknowledged that Chris's prognosis "was poor," particularly if the impact of the soccer ball had caused the cancer cells to leave the liver. Either way, surgery to remove the tumors from the liver was out. The cancer was in too many quadrants of the organ. He said Chris would undergo three rounds of chemotherapy right away, hope for a liver transplant and then undergo three more rounds of chemo.
To lighten the mood, or perhaps to raise the stakes, Ron then mentioned to Dr. Mascarenhas that the "future of U.S. soccer" might depend on the treatment. "Ron then told me Chris was on target to play for U.S. soccer someday," Dr. Mascarenhas says. "I said, 'Wow, that's great.' And he said, 'No, you don't understand. This kid's really good.'"
At that point, Ron decided he could finally have a candid conversation with Chris. We were about to start chemotherapy, the whole voyage to attack this tumor," Ron says, "and I wanted to let him know what he was up against. Because we knew it would be a several-month process, not just one doctor's visit. And we got to go home for a few days, and I took him on a little walk just by the hand, thinking how do you relay this to a 7 year old?
"I used the sports team analogy and just let him know he was going to be in for the toughest competition of his life. And that he had a good team. And there could be times when he may feel like giving up. But that that wasn't really an option."
Chris's reaction was matter of fact. Ron contends he never wept. "The doctors told me, like, there's something on your stomach that ruptured," Chris says. "My dad told me what it meant, so I was, like, 'Ugh.'"
Was he worried? "Um, only that I wasn't like gonna be able to play soccer for a long time."
He finally began his chemo in Los Angeles in late December. He dealt remarkably well with the first round and was able to come home from the hospital on Christmas Day.
There were presents waiting for him under the tree. He got a Lionel Messi jersey.
And, appropriately, a soccer ball.
The newest challenge, after Chris turned 8 in January of 2010, was finding him a new liver.
Ideally -- and he wouldn't wish harm on anyone -- it would come from some child or teenager who died young and whose family had been willing to donate an organ. All the better if it was someone his size. But the odds of that happening were long. What's more, Chris was hardly first on the donor list. There were other young children who needed livers, which is why Ron raised his hand to volunteer.
Time was clearly of the essence. Dr. Mascarenhas said that if there was a delay with the transplant, the chemotherapy might not be able to stave off the cancer. Ron stepped in and said he would be a living donor and give his son part of his liver. The surgery would be risky for Ron. Doctors would be splitting his liver in half, and the subsequent bleeding could lead to death. He was in his 40s; this wasn't routine.
The transplant was set for Feb. 25, 2010, in Los Angeles. Ron would donate his liver at USC Medical Center and have it urgently transported to Children's Hospital. But at about 2:30 a.m. on the morning of the 25th, Kim was awakened by a transplant nurse. Ron's surgery was off. A 17 year old had died that night from head trauma, presumably in a motorcycle accident, and a more suitable liver was available. The first child on the donor list was a boy younger and weaker than Chris. But the transplant surgeon, Dr. Yuri Genyk, knew Chris -- now bald because of the chemo -- was asleep in the same transplant ward. He decided he would split the 17 year old's liver in half and divide it between the boys.
The nine-hour procedure went as well as could be expected. There was no evidence the cancer had spread outside the liver into Chris's abdomen. Genyk originally thought Chris could be hospitalized up to three months, post-surgery. But after 10 days, Genyk sent him home.
They returned to L.A. weekly for the next three rounds of chemotherapy. "Yeah, chemo is kind of bad," Chris says. "Especially the first one. Then all the rest of the ones were all right. All I remember was barfing a lot."
The chemo finally ended in June of 2010 -- four months post-transplant -- and Dr. Mascarenhas cleared Chris to start playing soccer. "He had this smile on his face," the doctor says. "And there was a little … well, I don't know if it was a shriek. But it was a yell of excitement."
The boy had spent the last seven months puttering around the house without the sport. He had played every FIFA video game imaginable, watched every Spanish and Italian League game on TV he could find. He had showed up at Fury games with a knit cap over his bald head, and the other kids on his team shaved their heads to honor him. He couldn't stay away. At one of those games, in fact, he bumped into Danny Salas, the coach who nicknamed him "Green Shoes."
Salas told him, "When you're ready to go, come play on my team." Ron and Kim were ambivalent with all of it. Their son had a strange liver in his abdomen. Dr. Mascarenhas had assured them he'd be able to handle a blow to his mid-section. But the thought of him playing again was a scary, uncertain notion.
Then, one day at Children's Hospital L.A., they tried to find the family of that other little boy who'd shared a liver with Chris. They had met them the day of the transplant and gotten the sense the family was struggling to make ends meet. Ron, who works in the finance industry, wanted to pay for them to have a free weekend at Disneyland, just as a thank-you.
But when they broached the subject with hospital personnel, they were informed that the other little boy had died. His condition had been more complicated than Chris's. The transplant had been a last resort after a previous surgery to remove his tumors. Ron and Kim were devastated. They couldn't dare tell Chris. To them, it was a wake-up call that Chris's time could be short, too, and they decided it served no purpose to prevent him from playing the game he loved.
Now, there was no doubt: He would be allowed to play soccer full-bore. He would be allowed to play for Salas' elite team, the San Diego Surf.
At his first practice, 8-year-old Chris wore yellow cleats. "Green shoes" was no more.
Salas had been bragging to the Surf parents about Chris for weeks. But when Chris showed up thin as a rail, no one knew quite what to say.
"He was weak, soft, bald, could barely talk and struggled to breathe," Salas says. "He probably couldn't kick a ball over 10, 15 yards. So the comments were, 'Is he sick?' 'What's going on?' 'Doesn't make sense.' 'This team's so good, why would you do this?' They just didn't understand early on."
Salas had recruited every one of his players; all of them were forces on the field in their own ways. But even though Chris's body had grown puffy because of the prednisone steroid he was on, Salas still considered him his most special player. "Chris at 30 percent was, to be honest, better than three-quarters of my team," Salas says.
He says he told the doubters to be patient, to keep an open mind even if Chris could only jog to the ball. As for Ron and Kim, they were near tears when he took the field for his first tournament, the Surf Cup. He was playing up with 10 year olds and was mostly a step slow. But Kim says it was one of the most gratifying days of her life.
They were prepared for him to be just a middle-of-the-road player. That was enough. But then, in one of his first games back, one of the Surf players took a corner kick. 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, Salas had no more explaining to do. The boy had won over his new teammates, his teammates' parents, the referees, the ballboys, their opponents.
Salas began to tell anyone who would listen that, if Chris went to Spain, he would never come back. But in the interim, the idea was to put together a 9-and-under Surf team that could win the biggest tournament in California, the State Cup. Salas had never won it and planned to build his team around Chris. They were still seven or eight months away from the event. Salas felt that gave them just enough time to gel.
Over that period of time, Chris was still making regular trips to Children's Hospital L.A. But Kim would schedule the appointments around practice so nobody knew. Ron and Kim would let him leave school early so he wouldn't miss any soccer; again, it was because his time might be short, and they wanted him to live whatever life he had left to the fullest. They saw the big picture. There was a time in the summer of 2010 where it appeared his body might be rejecting his liver. It was a false alarm, but a gut-wrenching one. He was still sick enough that the Make-A-Wish foundation asked him what was dream was. He was still taking up to 20 pills a day, from anti-rejection medication to antiviral medication. Just to be able to get through the grind.
By his ninth birthday in January of 2011, his hair had grown back, and the team was making final preparations for the State Cup. Finally, in February of 2011, the tournament was under way. But just as it was getting started, Dr. Mascarenhas took Chris off prednisone. This sent Salas into a panic. People being weaned off of prednisone can experience body aches and joint pain. "Can't the doctor wait until after the tournament?" Salas asked, only half-facetiously.
Each game, Salas didn't know which Chris he'd be getting; he'd either be a phenom or fatigued. There'd be times he'd sit in Kim's lap during games, and other times Salas says they'd drive him to L.A. to get a blood transfusion, just to rejuvenate his body.
"What was his health like going into the State Cup? Not good," Salas says. "It was 30 percent health to 80 percent. He struggled daily with temperatures and medicines and getting pricked and pulled by doctors. Stuff I couldn't imagine.
"After games Kim kept it hidden. I'm like, 'Where are you guys? For team dinners and stuff? And she's like, 'OK, a lot of times Chris will play so hard that his levels will spike and he will immediately go to a temperature of 103, 105 and so we have to fly into the ER and bring him down and put meds in him and IVs.' I said, 'Kim, that's something you need to tell me. You know if he can't do it.' She's like, 'Yeah, but we can't pull him. He won't allow it.' And so Chris's MO was to show up, play as hard as he can in the soccer game, head to the ER to recover and be ready to go for the next day."
Through it all, the Surf kept advancing. In their 4-2 quarterfinal victory over Pateadores, Chris was lethargic, a non-factor. He was in Ron's and Kim's laps. But in the semifinals against FC Bayern, Salas says Chris was 80 percent and chipper. He deployed him at a position he calls "rover." "What rover means is, 'Chris, here are your instructions for today -- do whatever you want,'" Salas says.
The Surf easily won that semifinal, 3-0, which advanced them into the final against their rival, the Cosmos Academy West. The Cosmos already had defeated them twice that season, and Chris remembers craving revenge. But Salas just wanted a 50-percent Chris.
On the morning of the final, the first person Salas looked for was his rover. "I wanted to see did he have a hop in his step?" Salas says. " I'm texting Kim on the way there, 'How's Chris, get him hydrated.' So I show up, grab a bag of balls, step on the grass, and the first person to come zipping by me is Chris. He's flying by, and I'm like, 'All right, I've got at least 80 to 90 percent Chris today. This game is over.'"
Early on, the Surf outshot the Cosmos, but kept coming up bare. One shot hit the crossbar. Another four shots were spectacularly blocked by the Cosmos goalie. The game was being played mostly in front of the Cosmos net, but a long punt by their goalie found its way to a Cosmos forward. And then the first Cosmos shot of the day went in. At halftime, the Surf trailed, 1-0.
Chris kept telling his teammates, "Zero-zero. Treat it as if it's zero-zero." He didn't want them to panic, even though they were panicking. "I was like, 'Come on, guys,'" Chris says. "I was like so mad." He needed to make a play himself, and that's when he channeled his inner Italian. Teammate Eitan Breziner rolled him a pass near the scoring zone, and when he got slightly entangled with a Cosmos defender, Chris took a dive. It was straight out of the Italian league, the same move he perfected on his couch. He always felt there would be a time and a place for flopping. He just didn't know it would occur in the biggest game of his life.
The referee signaled for a penalty kick. But Chris didn't exactly leap up to take it. He was rolling around on the ground, partly because of his act, partly because he was worn out and partly because he had stage fright.
"I was so nervous,'' Chris says. "I was like, if I miss this, I'm gonna get killed.'"
Salas went on the field to see how he was and to ask him if he could take the penalty kick. He was afraid if Chris didn't rise up, the ref might order someone else to kick it. "I tell the ref, 'Listen, there's no one else taking this penalty kick but him,'" Salas says. "I said, 'So if we need to get him a massage, if we need him to get him some water, some snacks, whatever, we're not going anywhere until he takes the penalty kick."
A minute later, Chris was lined up over the ball. He was 13 months removed from a liver transplant, a liver that could fail at any time. His cancer could return, as well. Nothing was guaranteed … except the game-tying goal. He made it. Pounded it into the left corner.
The game's momentum had changed. Late in the contest, the Cosmos goalie strayed too far from the net, and a Surf player named Francisco "Pancho'' Gomez steered the ball by him. It was rolling toward the goal, and Chris could have easily tapped the ball in for the winning score. But only a kid 9-going-on-19 would know not to touch it, not to risk being called for offsides. Chris let the ball drift into the goal. They won the State Cup, 2-1. Sometimes it's about smarts.
It's why Salas says he belongs in Spain.
Make-A-Wish never forgot him. Every month that passed, every MRI or blood test that was clear meant Chris was further and further away from jeopardy. He was cancer-free, but still a transplant patient, still taking 14 pills a day, still in the care of Dr. Leo Mascarenhas.
"That soccer ball saved his life," the doctor says. "But we continue to keep an eye on him."
The transplant isn't the most serious issue. If his liver fails and he needs another one, Ron is still more than willing to donate part of his. The more pertinent concern is a return of the cancer, which is why Chris got a call one day last fall from Make-A-Wish. Their question: Who would he like to meet? We all know his answer.
He was flown to Barcelona with his family and had his moment-in-time with Lionel Messi. On the tree-lined field that day, Chris was 100 percent. He could've played rover for days. He wore black cleats. He was all business now at 11 years old. He'd grown to 4-foot-8 and 82 pounds. By 2013, his Surf team would end up being ranked No. 1 in the nation, and the talent scouts couldn't wait to see what Chris Hegardt would look like after puberty. Because he was definitely going to make it to puberty.
After his day with Messi, Chris trained with the Barcelona junior team, C.E. Jupiter. He played elegantly, connecting his passes and looking extremely European. As Danny Salas predicted, the team asked him to stay and train, to be a permanent member of the squad.
It was tempting. And the family will never say never.
But Salas was wrong. Green Shoes -- or Black Shoes or whatever he's wearing now -- came back to the United States.
He's got time. He's got plenty of time.