A thin scar peeks out from Royals midfielder Lo’eau LaBonta’s hairline, where she and her brother Kalaukoa joked he left his mark on her.
Broken noses and scratches weren’t uncommon in a household with two young children about a year apart in age. On this particular occasion, Kalaukoa — Koa as most called him — was swinging a metal bat in the garage when Lo’eau ran past, catching him mid-swing. Blood streamed down Lo’eau’s forehead before their father rounded them up to get Lo’eau stitches.
“I’m pretty sure when it happened we were laughing because we were just like, ‘what the heck?” Lo’eau recounted.
The siblings were constantly together and so close in age they were often mistaken for twins. But two months ago, Lo’eau received news that her brother had died. He would have turned 24 last week.
“Obviously when I went back home for the service, support was unreal too, but I think the one that surprised me most how much support I got from my team, for it being a new team,” Lo’eau said.
Her teammates on the Royals brought her food and flowers. She was blown away by how they understood a simple hug before a practice was what she needed. Royals supporters rallied together as well, organizing a moment of silence to honor Koa at Utah’s next home game.
Lo’eau said she’s cried twice since her brother died — the first time was when her father delivered the news over the phone that Koa had passed. That was the kind of crying that left her face sore the next day. The second was at Kalaukoa’s memorial service, when she stood up to speak and noticed hundreds more people than they had planned for in the large room.
“I think that’s what helped me the most to get through it,” Lo’eau said, “because I was like, this kid truly impacted people in the best way possible.”
Lo’eau said Kalaukoa, staying in Arizona while attending Arizona State University, was found dead in his room. The investigation into the cause of his death is ongoing.
The Tempe police department did not respond to multiple calls requesting confirmation.
Lo’eau, 25, rarely called Koa by his name. Instead it was “brother” or “baby brother,” because that was something only she could use.
“I was the older sister,” Lo’eau said, “but I was always looking up to him.”
The two grew up with their dad, Mark, moving between houses and apartments in Southern California. They started playing sports at a young age, and were on the same team for the last time when Lo’eau was a freshman in high school and Kalaukoa was in eighth grade. But even when they weren’t in organized sports, they were competing.
“We were reckless,” Lo’eau said. “We were like, who can climb the highest on the playground and jump off the highest? We were always jumping off rocks on the lake.”
They both went on to participate in athletics at a high level. Kalaukoa played sprint football at West Point for two years before he left and continued his education at ASU. Lo’eau, of course, became a professional soccer player.
Kalaokoa had seen Lo’eau play at Stanford, but with his academic schedule, he hadn’t yet been able to make it to see her play professionally in person. The plan was for him to make a trip to Utah after he finished college.
Further down the road, Kalaukoa talked about starting a company with Lo’eau since they both studied engineering. He’d obviously be the CEO, he would joke to her.
But while others encouraged Lo’eau to think about her life after soccer, especially in a league with a maximum salary of $44,000, Koa stressed how cool of a job title ‘professional athlete’ was.
“He was always like my hype man,” Lo’eau said.
Years ago she made it a pregame ritual to write her brother and father’s birthdates in roman numerals on her forearm. Since Koa’s passing she has added his name, scrawled across three fingers on her left hand.
The marker washes off after a couple days, but the scar poking out from her hairline is permanent.