As soon as I heard my dad’s voice, I knew something terrible had happened.
I had just gotten back from a hike in the Utah mountains — something we often do on our off days — and was hanging in a teammate’s backyard when I received the call.
“Are you home?”
“No, what’s up?”
“I need you to head home, sit down, and call me back.”
A million thoughts went through my head. I raced home, went straight to my room, sat on the floor with my back to the wall, and called him back.
My brother, Koa, had died.
Dad raised us on his own. We lived in Rancho Cucamonga, about 45 minutes inland from Los Angeles. In addition to being a single father, Dad was a cop. I remember not being able to find him at home one time, so I called 911, thinking it was his work number. He must have just been out in the yard, because when the police arrived, he opened the door to greet them.
Dad and Koa thought they were the big, strong protectors, but I always saw myself as the real protector and felt it was my duty to look out for them. With Dad heading off to work early and coming back late, it was often my responsibility as the oldest to take care of Koa. In the mornings, I’d wake him up, make breakfast, and get us out the door. In the evenings, I’d make sure we both did our homework.
He was my best friend.
As hard as I tried to be the responsible older sister, I couldn’t help but goof around with him. He used to run around the house, yelling and singing at the top of his lungs. For someone with such a horrible voice, he couldn’t have been a more confident singer. I’d try to be angry with him and get him to stop, but in the end, I’d crack and start laughing. That was all he ever wanted — to make me laugh.
From the earliest age, Dad signed us up for everything — soccer, baseball, basketball, hockey, karate, the lot. The only sport I wasn’t allowed to play was football, which was Koa’s favorite, but I always gravitated toward soccer anyways. As kids, we often played on the same team, but at home, we’d play against each other. There were no rules — we’d push and punch each other, doing anything we could to get a win. We were pretty wild, but it was all in good fun.
Those battles shaped who I am as an athlete. At 5’2”, I’ve been the smallest player on every team I’ve been on, but that has never held me back, since I grew up competing against an absolute beast at home. And as I’ve progressed through my career — playing on Youth National Teams, at Stanford, and now professionally — I’ve continued to carry that toughness with me.
Dad and Koa are a huge part of who I am. So when I came into the NWSL, I chose to wear #42 — the number both of them had worn when they played college football — in order to pay tribute to them and all of the support they had given me along the way. Seeing me run on to the field in my NWSL debut with that number on my back meant so much to them and our family.
Those first 24 hours after that call were the hardest of my life. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I felt numb. Nothing in this world can prepare you for that.
Koa had gone to a frat party, and at some point in the night, drugs were introduced. A bad mix of alcohol and drugs had shut his body down, and he was found the following morning, sitting at his desk. No one saw it coming.
I had training the next morning and a game that weekend in Utah. Everyone told me to forget about playing and go be with my family, but I knew that soccer was the best thing for me, physically and mentally. In the weeks that followed, my training schedule forced me to eat and look after myself. It forced me to get out of bed in the morning, and it kept me going when I barely thought I could get through the day. Being on the field was the only way to keep my mind off of what had happened.
There are still good days and bad days, but being on a team is a special thing. My teammates are always there to pick me up, and their love and support has helped me grow strong again.
I have only good memories of my brother — I can still hear his goofy laugh, and even just that thought is enough to make me smile. Every single day, I try to do something that I love. I try to be happy for him, since I know that’s what he’d want. And when I laugh, I know that he is with me.
I play for Koa now. In Utah, I have his name printed on the inside of my jersey. And before every game, I write his name on my knuckles.
Kalaukoa Kaha’i Kukailimoku LaBonta — I will carry your memory with me forever.