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The Internal Reckoning of Javier “Chicharito” Hernández

Throughout his life, Hernández has been known as one thing: a soccer player. But last year, that identifier stopped being enough. Here’s the story of how Hernández waded through doubt, grief, and isolation to find himself—and his game—anew.

Harrison Freeman

Javier “Chicharito” Hernández glances at the ink that lines his arms. He points to a tattoo of a yin and yang symbol. Then one of two elephants, a larger one and a smaller one, drawn across his right forearm. The elephants represent what he refers to as his childish side and his mature side. He calls these competing parts of him his “dualities.” And there are others:

His ego versus his essence.

His light versus his shadow.

Chicharito versus Javi—the name he’s known by all over the world, and the one used by family and loved ones.

“I have two sides,” he says. “And it’s not just because I’m a Gemini. I think we all have it.”

Hernández is sitting high up in the stands of the L.A. Galaxy’s stadium, Dignity Health Sports Park, on a mid-September afternoon. When he speaks, he alternates between sounding sure and unsure of himself. Warm and guarded. He exists on extremes. “His emotions are very high,” says Galaxy general manager Dennis te Kloese, who’s known Hernández since he was about 15. “And very low.”

This day, the 33-year-old Hernández is wearing forest-green, calf-length socks with dozens of smiley-face emoji sprawled across them. The socks are fitting—an outward emblem of something the striker has been searching for internally. But perhaps more than happiness, Hernández has been searching for peace.

Seventeen months ago, Hernández’s grandfather Tomás Balcázar—the legendary Mexican professional footballer—died at the age of 88. Mourning his loss, Hernández became depressed. He disappointed on the field, logging just two goals in the entire 2020 season. And off the field, he questioned every bit of himself. He realized he didn’t know who he was beyond scoring goals—beyond making other people happy. And when he wasn’t able to do either, he had to contend with where his self-worth comes from: “I had to learn how to accept myself.”

Hernández is still learning. He’s rebounded triumphantly this MLS season, with 13 goals, and he’s hoping to help the struggling Galaxy (12-6-11) crack the playoffs in November. He is more at peace, too. But those dualities still compete within him; still make him question his purpose. Uncertainty was gnawing at him even before his grandfather’s death—he’d been reckoning with these thoughts since he entered his 30s, that unsettling, demarcating age when one is suddenly keenly aware of time. Of where one has been, and where one might go.

He often thought of the millions of dollars he had made; all the countries he had played in; the awards he had accumulated. But it felt hollow.

His mother, Silvia Balcázar, had been right, in the way that mothers often are. Back when Hernández was a young boy, dreaming of stardom, she warned him: “Ten cuidado con lo que sueñas, porque lo más seguro es que se haga realidad.”

“Be careful what you dream of, because it might just come true.”

Growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico, Hernández was something of a local curiosity. People used to beam at him, identifying him as Tomás’s grandson or “Chicharito,” which means “the Little Pea”—a nickname that stems from his father Javier Sr.’s moniker, “Chicharo” (“the Pea”), for his green eyes. Hernández was proud to come from such a storied family. Tomás played for Mexico in the 1954 World Cup, scoring a goal against France. And Javier Sr. played for the 1986 Mexican national team that reached the World Cup quarterfinals.

Hernández can’t remember a time when he wasn’t on stage. Performing. Being Chicharito. He always felt like he had to live up to the nickname because of the immense expectations that came with his lineage. When he first gained notice on the field, people in Guadalajara assumed that it wasn’t because of his technical skill, but that he was rising within the ranks only for political reasons.

“People always identified me not by me, but something else,” Hernández says. “Even if I was doing good, it was, ‘Of course he’s doing good, because probably the manager is friends with his family.’”

Eventually, Hernández would leave Mexico and play at some of the most storied clubs around the world: Manchester United, West Ham United, Real Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen, Sevilla. The rhythm of his life became: achieve, achieve, achieve. Train, train, train. “You have to be perfect,” he’d think to himself.

After a disappointing season with Sevilla FC in 2019—where Hernández scored just one goal in nine La Liga matches—he decided to return to North America to take on a new challenge with the Galaxy. Expectations were extraordinarily high for Hernández entering his first MLS season. He was the league’s highest-paid player; he was supposed to be one of its biggest stars, helping to draw more attention to MLS; and on his club, Hernández was supposed to replace the Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who had returned to Europe to play for A.C. Milan.

But when his grandfather, the man who first inspired him to kick a ball, died, Hernández felt lost. It was as if he’d lost a second father—and a piece of himself. “It was like a void,” he says. “I was trying to numb myself.”

The days thereafter blurred. He struggled to do simple things: wake up, eat, make his bed. He tried to mask his pain, pretend it didn’t exist. He was lonely, and he couldn’t visit family in Guadalajara because of travel restrictions during the pandemic.

He felt empty. At times he would cry while training alone. He isolated himself from friends and family. He feared he was letting down those he cared about most.

But the Galaxy’s season was underway, so he tried to push through. He’d run up and down the field in Los Angeles, but his body wouldn’t accelerate at the pace his mind told it to. He missed shots he’d ordinarily make. He hardly resembled the dazzling player who became the first Mexican transfer to Manchester United; the player who became Mexico’s all-time leading scorer with 52 goals; the player who was once part of Real Madrid’s attack with Cristiano Ronaldo. “I tried to be my best,” he says, “but my best wasn’t good enough.”

To make matters worse, Hernández suffered a calf injury that caused him to sit out for two months as the Galaxy failed to make the playoffs. Critics wondered whether he had lost focus. Some said that he had become too arrogant. Others believed he was past his prime. As the criticism persisted, it became harder for Hernández to ignore it:

Chicharito’s overrated.

Chicharito couldn’t cut it in Europe.

Chicharito can’t even make it in MLS.

Chicharito’s done.

And the person he would have turned to for refuge was gone.

Hernández realized something needed to change if he was going to pull himself out of his despair. He thought back to when his perfectionist mindset began—when he became so wedded to exceeding others’ expectations. Then he saw a Jim Carrey interview in which Carrey described depression as the self asking for a deep rest—a rest from the character that the self creates and tries to play.

When Hernández heard the word “character,” something in him shifted. He realized that all his life, he had been playing a character: the character of Chicharito; the character of the soccer player.

“I played a character because that’s what we ask of famous people,” he says. “It’s give me, give me, give me.”

The more he questioned his place in the world, the more unsettled he felt, and the more epiphanies he had. One would bloom into two. Two into three. For the first time, he noticed that whenever someone asked him to describe himself, he’d respond with what he did: “I’m a soccer player.” This time, though, when he said those words to himself, they seemed foreign.

“Who are you?” he’d ask himself, staring at his reflection in the mirror.

A part of him is still searching for answers. Recently, he was stunned when someone driving by in a car in L.A. recognized him on the street, even while he was wearing sunglasses, a cap, and a mask. “Chicharito!” the voice screamed.

Hard as he tries, Hernández can’t hide from the character he has created. The character he has become.

Portland Timbers v Los Angeles Galaxy Photo by Shaun Clark/Getty Images

For Hernández, figuring out who he was meant accepting the parts of himself that he didn’t want to see. The parts that compose his “shadow”—his word for his imperfections and shortcomings.

There was his poor play during the Galaxy’s dreadful 2020 campaign. The pain that came when his wife returned to her home in Australia that year with their two young children, Nala and Noah. And his avoidance of confronting his grief around his grandfather’s death. “It kind of broke him,” says Ana Silvia Hernández Balcázar, Hernández’s sister. “I don’t know how he managed to get through that season. It was like all his world collapsed in a minute.”

He’d zone out for long stretches on his couch, playing video games. He was disappointed in himself, especially in how he related to others. “I wasn’t the best partner I needed to be, I wasn’t the greatest dad that I wanted to be,” he says. “I wasn’t a great friend. I wasn’t the great human being I wanted to be.”

He wasn’t yet ready to admit those things, though. He says his ego wouldn’t let him. He kept trying to hide his emotions, a behavior he internalized as a boy. “I’ve always been very sensitive,” Hernández says. “A lot of times I tried to hide it. I realized I had to. … I’m not the tallest. I’m not very big. I’m not very stereotypically masculine. … We see a man cry, we think he’s weak, but we are all human.

“In society, vulnerability is weakness. For me, vulnerability is one of the most powerful, strong, and loving things that you can do for yourself and for humanity.”

But Hernández struggled to have empathy for himself. He considered quitting soccer for good after the season ended. “More than once,” says Diego Dreyfus, his close friend. “Some people at the top fall and never get up again. And he was right there.”

“I didn’t truly believe in myself,” Hernández says, adding later: “I was letting myself down.”

Soccer was no longer the refuge it had been since he was 9, when he first joined C.D. Guadalajara. At that point in his life, he was just happy to play. To run up and down every day. He remembers being taught to fight for his goals on the field, to appear strong and confident at all times. His family taught him that he would not be guaranteed anything, even with his name. The warning about dreaming, about unintended consequences, was never too far away.

“Las oportunidades sólo se presentan una vez en la vida,” his mother would tell him. “Si las dejas ir, no vuelven. Por eso tienes que estar preparado.”

“Opportunities come one time in life. And if they pass, they don’t come back. That’s why you need to be ready.”

So he worked and worked to carve his own identity, to prove that he was worthy on his own merits. He became quick on his feet; an instinctual, energetic player who was savvy in the box. He became almost a cult hero in Mexico, where footballers are revered as if they can cure illness with their feet.

His life started to speed up. He left his comfort zone and played around the world. He tried harder and harder to push past every perceived slight: being left out of the starting 11 at times, being left out of the Mexican U17 team that went on to win the 2005 FIFA U-17 World Championship, being left off the Mexican national team this past June. Each snub threatened to chip away at the most fragile part of him.

“Sometimes,” he says, “you don’t even have time to love yourself. It’s about survival. Reaching for another goal.”

Maybe that’s why, after a lifetime of reaching, of yearning to be embraced, he started to realize what lay at the core of his emptiness: the belief that one had to achieve to be loved.

As Hernández headed into this past offseason, he got another tattoo on his arm: “El amor es mi súper poder.” “Love is my superpower.”

“It was about accepting me,” he says. “Like, I don’t need to achieve to have value, you know? That’s what society tells us. We are confused in a way—that we value ourselves by our achievements.”

Changing the way he thought about himself was difficult, though. He had to confront the things he didn’t like and feel, as he puts it, “comfortable in being uncomfortable.”

“Imagine this stadium,” he says, stretching out his arms. “You want to rebuild it? You need to tear it down. … I knew deep inside myself that I needed to take responsibility of my life.”

That meant being responsible for not just how he played, but how he interacted with others. “He said, ‘I am the one who underperformed, I need to change that, and I’m going to do that,’” says Nico de Zambiasi, Hernández’s close friend. He vowed to not point fingers at anyone. Not at God. Not at his coaches. Not at anyone but himself.

“That day was a turning point in his life,” de Zambiasi says.

Hernández thought a lot about the word freedom. “In Mexico, we say libertad,” he says. “All the time, I felt that freedom was doing whatever. Literally, whatever the fuck you want to do, anytime.” He shakes his head. “No.” Freedom, he learned, meant responsibility; responsibility to thoughtfully choose how he acted.

“Just waking up every day. Waking up in what mood. Or beating my anxious moments, beating my ego,” he says. “It’s a process.” Freedom, too, meant defining himself by his own terms. Playing out of creativity and love of the game, not to demonstrate a point to others.

He started to embrace all parts of himself—the philosophical side, the playful side. How the boundless energy he brings to matches never quite wears off. Sometimes he loses his voice from singing too loudly in the car. He laughs when he burps. He brushes his teeth every morning with such fervor—dancing and making all kinds of noise—that Dreyfus can hear him from rooms away.

Hernández started listening to all of his thoughts rather than trying to rid himself of negative ones. Instead of harping on mistakes, he saw them as opportunities. He worked hard to rehab his calf, training at all hours of the day. He ran up and down hills, at full speed, over and over. He was determined to prove that he still belonged.

“Here is this guy who climbed to the peak of his career. He has played with all of the greats,” says Roydian Chan, his fitness trainer. “As he’s getting toward the later stages of his career, he’s not the same player as he once was. So what motivates you?

“A lot of it had to do with the fact that he just felt like it’s not over for him yet,” Chan says. “He thinks he’s going to reach his best version at this age and prove everybody wrong that doubted him.”

Hernández also started to think more about loving himself, exactly as he is; whether he is failing or succeeding; scoring or sitting out. He had to believe he is worthy, in any situation. But in becoming that vulnerable, he had to surrender old beliefs. Let go of the need to prove that he was good enough. That he was his own man. Not his grandfather, not his father. But Javi.

As the winter turned to spring, Hernández started to turn his attention to tiny joys. The sight of a bird. The sunset. The palm trees. He felt a little bit lighter. Brighter.

He started talking to himself more, and started to have more epiphanies. “I’m more than my money, than my fame,” he says.

To honor his grandfather, Hernández wore a ring with a “T” below a star. He shared stories with his kids about Tomás—how he was part of the “Campeonísimo,” the historic Guadalajara team that won seven championships; how there is a street in Guadalajara named after him. He told his kids how funny his grandfather was. How sarcastic, how kind.

Hernández became determined. In the Galaxy’s opening game against Inter Miami this spring, Hernández scored a goal—a left-footed shot from the edge of the 6-yard box in the 62nd minute. Afterward, he jumped around and pointed to the sky, then tucked his head down into the chests of his teammates. It was a relief. The two teams went back and forth, and then Hernández scored again in the 73rd minute, helping the Galaxy to a 3-2 win. He needed that. “That was honestly a huge monkey off his back,” Chan says.

Hernández continued his streak, scoring 10 goals in the first 10 games of the season. He felt happier. His family was proud. He still called his parents after every game, as he always had.

But then he suffered a calf injury in late June, which caused him to miss 12 consecutive games. It was incredibly frustrating; to rebound, only to be set back by something out of his control. Chan expected him to look angry after the game in which the injury occured, as any person might. But instead he looked calm.

He focused on what he could control: he’d visualize himself coming back, scoring. Enjoying himself. He’d play full matches in his head. He worked harder in rehab, from morning until night.

Finally, he returned to play in early September. In a game against Real Salt Lake, he nearly scored in the 16th minute, but goalkeeper David Ochoa batted away the attempt. Hernández bowed his head in frustration, then quickly shook it off.

He came close again, in the 57th minute, but Ochoa stopped him again. This time, Hernández didn’t put his head down. If anything, he became more energized. Finally, in the 76th minute, he broke through, beating Ochoa to the near post.

Hernández bolted toward the crowd, then slid on his knees, leaning back in a gesture of bravado. He stared at Real Salt Lake’s fans, defiantly, as if to say, “You really doubted me? You really thought I was done?”

He popped back up, pumping his arms back and forth. A giant smile washed over him. He laughed and screamed and jumped around. He looked exhilarated. He looked lighter. He looked like himself.

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