Heart & Desire

by

David Orona

 

Adolph Joseph DeLaGarza came to the LA Galaxy as the 19th overall pick in the 2009 MLS Draft along with University of Maryland teammate Omar Gonzalez.  The pair was coming off a year that saw Maryland win the College Cup and AJ was named co-MVDP.  In their rookie year the pair went on to help the Galaxy turn around their last place finish in 2008 to making the MLS Cup Final in 2009.  DeLaGarza and Gonzalez went on to form one the best center back pairings in MLS between 2011-2012

 

 

AJ is known as one of the hardest working, toughest and smartest defenders in the league. He appeared in over 200 games for the LA Galaxy, In that time, he has won 3 MLS Cups and 2 Supporter’s Shields. Only 4 other players in Galaxy history have served the team longer, legendary players like Landon Donovan, Cobi Jones, Kevin Hartman and Mauricio Ceinfuegos.  

 

AJ was the last remaining link to the 2011 MLS Cup winning team, that is until he was unceremoniously traded to Houston for $125,000 in Targeted Allocation Money and $50,000 in General Allocation Money.  Ironically the trade was born at the same event that brought him to the Galaxy 9 years earlier, the MLS Superdraft.  New Galaxy GM Pete Vagenas said that the decision was a very difficult one to make but they,

“…feel that this will give us flexibility to strengthen our roster going forward with the use of additional allocation money.”

 Sep 14, 2014; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Los Angeles Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez (4) celebrates with Galaxy defender A.J. DeLaGarza (20) after Gonzalez scored a goal during the first half against the San Jose Earthquakes  at Buck Shaw Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

 

A champion and a leader in the team, AJ was the type of player that would put his body on the line, he played with heart and desire, and he was far more than a fan favorite, many LA Galaxy fans feel like he is family.  AJ grew up with this team, became a man. In the farewell he posted on Instagram he said, 

“since coming to LA in 2009, he got married, adopted a dog, had two beautiful children, bought a house, won a few games and a couple of trophies.”
— DeLaGarza

 

I remember when AJ first announced that he and his wife Megan were expecting their first child.  I remember being strangely excited for him, perhaps because my wife and I were expecting our second child.  A few months later, I met AJ at a team event, I asked him about his baby, he excitedly said that the baby was due in September so he still had some ways to go.  It was only a few weeks later that I read an article revealing that AJ’s son had Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome and he learned that his son would never be a professional athlete.  AJ was devastated but confided in the strength of his wife Megan. The DeLaGarza’s focus turned to meeting with doctors day after day to plan out what Luca’s first few days of life would be like.  Immediately Luca would need several surgeries to even have a chance at life. Most people would be consumed by this weight and other things in their lives would suffer, not AJ, it motivated him, he saw training and game days to be a welcome distraction but his dedication and heart was never questioned. 

 

As fans, we form bonds with players, we enjoy getting glimpses into their personal lives through social media, but AJ was different. I wasn’t the only one that felt this way. As news about Luca spread, so did the gestures of support.  AJ and Megan created Luca Knows Heart, a symbol to raise awareness for the rare Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome.  Soon after, fans started making banners, shirts, some even got the symbol tattooed.  When Luca was born, the team wore Luca Knows Heart shirts, just a week later, Luca was taken off life support and passed. LA beat Colorado 6-0 the next night, every single player that scored dedicated their celebration to Luca. The swell of support that the DeLaGarzas received for the next few weeks across the league speaks volumes about how much other teams respected AJ as a player and a person. 2014 ended with AJ lifting the MLS Cup for the 3rd time and helping the Galaxy become the First to Five.  In a genuinely heartfelt gesture, the LA Riot Squad named Luca as their Player of the Year thus engraining him in Galaxy history. 

 

I was taken aback when just a few months later, AJ and Megan announced that they were expecting a 2nd child. The strength that it takes to bounce back from such a tragedy is immeasurable. Noelle DeLaGarza was a beautiful and healthy baby girl, born on 8:28AM, Luca was born on 8/28, forever tied to her big brother.

 

What does all this have to do with a player trade? Ultimately, it doesn’t, its about the connections we as fans make with players, especially ones as special as AJ DeLaGarza.  We cheered for him, we mourned with him, we celebrated the birth of Noelle with him, we feel loyalty to him.  When the Galaxy traded AJ for $175,000 of MLS Monopoly money, we felt like it was a betrayal.  Galaxy fans want to stick up for a man whom they feel a strong personal connection to. They are angry.  Perhaps it’s the new direction the Galaxy organization is taking, perhaps fans feel like the team’s been gutted so much already. After all, it seem as though the Galaxy have lost their mastermind in Bruce Arena, the fiery lifeblood that pumped through the team’s veins in Robbie Keane but worst of all, in trading AJ, the LA Galaxy have lost their heart.