Galaxy's A.J. DeLaGarza is a model of strength, on and off the field

Galaxy's A.J. DeLaGarza, whose infant son died three months ago, has shown great strength of character

Soccer is a little less important to A.J. DeLaGarza than it was just three months ago.

Back then, there were seasons and games and even individual plays that felt like life or death to the Galaxy defender. Then he got to know death and soccer became just a sport again.

On Sept. 4, DeLaGarza's son Luca died of a rare heart condition just six days after being born. The infant endured one complicated surgery and was being taken off life support in preparation for a second when he succumbed.

The family was devastated.

"You never expect to only have a week with your child," DeLaGarza, standing in a hallway outside the Galaxy locker room Tuesday, says quietly. "And to not be able to hold him except for one time when he was actually passing away? It's tough."

DeLaGarza's wife, Megan, just recently returned to work, and even then on a part-time basis. The couple's Redondo Beach home remains thick with photos of their son, whose name is stitched, next to a small red heart, on DeLaGarza's soccer boots.

"We talk about him. We think about him. It's hard not to," DeLaGarza says. "But I try not to be down about it anymore. We enjoyed that week that we had and we're grateful for that."

And DeLaGarza has his work. Sunday's Major League Soccer Cup final between the Galaxy and New England Revolution will mark the end of his best season.

It was DeLaGarza who quarterbacked the defense when Omar Gonzalez, his college roommate at Maryland, went off to play in the World Cup for the U.S. national team. It was DeLaGarza who anchored a back line so depleted by injuries and absences the Galaxy shuffled 10 defenders in and out of the lineup, forcing DeLaGarza to play four positions. And it was DeLaGarza who set up what proved to be the game-winning goals in wins over Real Salt Lake and Seattle in the MLS playoffs before missing the team's final game with a hamstring strain.

"He's as valuable as any player we have," Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena says of DeLaGarza, who was named the top player on a defense that gave up a league-low 39 goals in 38 games, including the playoffs. "He's a great leader. Shows up every day. Works hard. He doesn't complain.

"He's a model player."

Even stronger than the strength of DeLaGarza's play, however, has been the strength of his character, something that inspired players throughout MLS this season.

"Watching him go through what he had to go through this past summer was pretty tough," says Gonzalez, DeLaGarza's closest friend on the Galaxy. "It wasn't only myself that was rallying behind him. The Galaxy, players from around the league, his past teammates. Everyone showed their support. And it was amazing to see."

For much of September, Gonzalez hovered close by, never asking questions but ready to offer a shoulder should his friend need one to cry on. But that never happened, with DeLaGarza finding his peace in soccer.

"I don't think I'm the type of person to feel sorry for myself," he says. "As soon as that was done I was back on the field trying to get back to the happy place that you enjoy. I always thought about it like that.

"And off the field I wanted to help other families. It's not easy to have surgeries for an infant."

Which is how DeLaGarza turned his personal tragedy into a helping hand for others.

For years, DeLaGarza has been among the Galaxy's most tireless community volunteers, spending countless hours visiting patients at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, participating in youth soccer clinics, buying presents for needy children and dedicating playgrounds and soccer fields all over Southern California.

So it was only natural that after their son's death, the DeLaGarzas quickly organized another charity, raising funds for the Heart Institute at Children's Hospital to assist families dealing with conditions similar to the one Luca had. For that, the league presented DeLaGarza with its Humanitarian of the Year award.

"I've been through a lot on and off the field. It's weird how you can kind of have the worst year off the field and…my best year on the field," he says.

The challenges aren't over, though. DeLaGarza missed the 2012 postseason with a torn ligament in his left knee and didn't start in last year's playoffs after dislocating his left elbow. Then a left hamstring strain kept him out of last Sunday's Western Conference championship game in wet and wintry Seattle. But DeLaGarza is optimistic he'll be able to play in Sunday's MLS Cup final, where he'll have a chance to write a sweet ending to what has been a bittersweet year.

"It's the only way to end it," he says.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
63°