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From heartbreak to hope, A.J. DeLaGarza builds the legacy of son Luca

A.J. DeLaGarza has a mission and a purpose beyond that of most professional athletes.

The Los Angeles Galaxy defender wants to honor the memory of his son Luca, who died Sept. 4, 2014 due to complications from hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a rare congenital defect. Luca lived just one week, all of it at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles.

As devastated as the DeLaGarzas were by the loss, they determined to continue the campaign started on their son’s behalf, Luca Knows Heart. "Once he passed away, we wanted to help other kids and other families," said DeLaGarza in an exclusive interview with ESPN. "Before this happened, I had no idea about [hypoplastic left heart syndrome]. We’ve reached a wide variety of people and a bigger audience through the Galaxy."

With the DeLaGarzas spearheading the way, and the Galaxy’s foundation assisting, Luca Knows Heart has expanded to fundraisers, blood drives and other events to increase awareness of heart defects and collect donations for research.

"We raised nearly $30,000 for Children's Hospital L.A., collected over 30 units of blood for patients at CHLA, and held multiple supply drives for the Ronald McDonald House," wrote Megan DeLaGarza, A.J.'s wife, in a recent Facebook post. "As a mother, I am so grateful to know that Luca has not been forgotten."

“It’s incredible,” A.J. DeLaGarza said. “Especially how much money we were able to raise, whether for the American Heart Association, the Children’s Hospital or the Ronald McDonald House.”

The last cause is especially meaningful to DeLaGarza, who was a first-time father with the birth of Luca.

"My family and I stayed [at the Ronald McDonald House] for the week that Luca was alive,” recalled DeLaGarza. "You’re a block away from your child in the hospital, but you still have your own space and a bed. We were so grateful for that."

Time has helped ease the DeLaGarza family’s pain a little bit, but it's also been healing to stay active on behalf of Luca’s cause.

"It was easier almost -- reaching out to people who have been through the same thing," said DeLaGarza. "Instead of keeping it in and nobody else really knowing what I was going through. I wanted it be a story that we could share and kind of lean on other people and also help other people that are going the same situation."

Still, there are moments.

"It’s still difficult," DeLaGarza said. "There’s a lot of things I didn’t get to do with him, in being a father and all that."

For example, DeLaGarza never got a chance to impart to his son his unique cultural heritage. The son of a Native American mother and a Mexican-Guamanian father, DeLaGarza grew up in Maryland attending local cultural events with his mother’s family.

"When I was little, as an American Indian, I would go to powwows," recalled DeLaGarza. "I didn’t really see too much of my family from Mexico or my family from Guam where I grew up."

DeLaGarza even recalls taking part in native dances before soccer became an all-consuming passion. "Soccer kind of took over my life," he said. "It was an every weekend sport."

Internationally, the defender now represents Guam, though he was technically eligible to represent Mexico as well. While the competition for a spot on Mexico’s national team would have made international play difficult, Mexico nationality can be useful for a career in Liga MX. DeLaGarza’s good friend and former Galaxy teammate, Omar Gonzalez, has gone that route, winning a Liga MX championship with Pachuca last season.

"If I had gotten a Mexican passport, I probably could have [Mexico nationality]. I have family from Monterrey, so it probably wouldn’t have been too hard."

Yet DeLaGarza maintains that he’s content in Los Angeles. The Galaxy have won the MLS title a record five times, most recently only a few months after Luca’s passing in 2014. DeLaGarza has been with the club for the last three titles (in 2011, 2012 and 2014).

Landon Donovan, DeLaGarza's teammate at the time of Luca's death, spoke to the press about the impact Luca had on the entire team.

"We play a sport for a living that we tend to think is very important," Donovan said then. "Life is more important. We’re heartbroken."

The closeness on the Galaxy squad continues to the present day, and is part of the reason why DeLaGarza has stayed with the team.

"Omar loves it out there,” said DeLaGarza of Mexico. “I don’t know how well I’d do out there. I don’t speak Spanish. I’ve been here for eight years, and every time my contract would be coming to an end, I’d sign again. I don’t have an itch to explore something else at this point."

He’s focused instead on what's ahead for the Galaxy this season -- securing a playoff spot, even with an injury-decimated roster.

"It’s going to be a challenge," acknowledged DeLaGarza, who shares the field with Mexico international Giovani Dos Santos. "We're missing quite a few people. [Gyasi] Zardes is out for the season, Jelle [Van Damme] is out for a couple of weeks. Nigel [De Jong] is leaving. But the staff built this offseason a team that was very deep. You've seen guys step in seamlessly when called upon, like Sebastian [Lletget] , or [Mike] Magee or Gordo [Alan Gordon]. We have a deep roster. It’s important to take advantage of it. We need to last to the playoffs and then get hot. On Sept. 3, when we host the Crew, we want to turn things around pretty quick."

One special person who has been present at Galaxy games this season is DeLaGarza’s young daughter, Noelle, born in October 2015. She is already learning a bit about the family legacy and her big brother, Luca.

DeLaGarza sees it as a lifelong mission.

"What we will continue to do is to bring awareness and just help other families who are going through the same thing," he said. "That's all we want to do, for the rest of our lives."