When he was a month shy of turning 8, Chris Hegardt suffered a ball to the stomach during a soccer tournament that ended up being the tip-off that something was seriously going wrong inside of him.
“Normally, that does nothing to Chris. … But he stayed down for a minute, got back up holding his stomach,” said Kevin Koptieff, head coach of the Fallbrook Fury. “We pulled him off the field.”
Chris’ father, Ron Hegardt, said he started having trouble breathing.
“And then, he was throwing up a little bit,” Ron Hegardt said. “You knew something wasn’t right.”
Chris, from a suburb near San Diego and viewed as one of the best child soccer players in the U.S. by coaches and the elite teams he played for, was rushed to San Diego’s Children’s Hospital for surgery after an ultrasound showed internal bleeding.
“He had like six or seven tumors within his liver, in all different sections of the liver, and he [the doctor] basically said, ‘We think this is cancer,’” said Chris’ mother, Kim Hegardt.
Chris was diagnosed with one of the rarest forms of liver cancer in children. The blow from the ball had ruptured one of the tumors. Doctors said his prognosis was poor.
He was placed on a national waiting list for a liver transplant. Chemotherapy followed along with weakness, hair loss and sweating.
“I took him on a little walk, just by the hand, and just let him know he was gonna be in the toughest competition of his life,” Ron Hegardt said. “There could be times when he felt like giving up.”
When he turned 9, Chris got a liver transplant. He said he worried that he would not be able to play soccer for a long time. But his family decided that, weak or not, Chris would return to the field. Sometimes, he couldn’t finish practice but, slowly, Chris’ old game made a comeback.
“Oh, he wouldn’t miss practice,” his mother said. “Don’t tell his teachers, but I would pick him up early so he could come and rest so he could go to soccer practice.”
In the summer of 2010 – a little more than four months since the transplant – Chris had his last chemotherapy and was eventually recruited to the elite San Diego Surf 9-and-under club team.
Now, at the age of 11, Chris is doing well and free of cancer. His Surf team, by most publications, is ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation in its age group. And Chris is sought after by teams in England and Spain that want him and his family to move overseas permanently.
“With cancer, you’re not sure when it comes back. … Just enjoy life. … People were all like: ‘I can’t believe you’re letting him play,’” Kim Hegardt said. “And I’m like, ‘God, he’s been through so much. You know, he’s gonna be fine. Let him do it.”
This piece originally aired on ESPN’s “E:60.”