32 players to watch, April 2010

Player To Watch #15: Thierry Henry

Number 15: Thierry Henry

Country: France

Position: Forward

Club Team: FC Barcelona, Spanish La Liga

American-Based Professional Athlete “Soulmate”: Warrick Dunn (retired), RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Atlanta Falcons

I wouldn’t be too upset if our informed, gregarious and quick-witted The Yanks Are Coming readers called “handball” on our number 15 player to watch, France’s Thierry Henry. Just understand that you’ll join a whole island in assuming that Ireland would have won on penalty kicks. Also understand that it is likely that no one outside of said island feels genuinely worse about what transpired that fateful day in Paris. Henry felt so bad about it he tweeted an apology, admitted embarrassment, and unlike a certain national team head coach whose hand was compared to that of our Lord, he even suggested a FIFA replay would be a fair solution. Call “handball” then, if you’d like, but the The Yanks Are Coming’s number 15 player to watch is hardly a villain of Commodus proportions. In fact, although Henry will be forever villainized and associated with the handball, once the 2010 World Cup kicks off, he’ll simply be one of the greatest to ever play the game, an aging warrior looking for one last moment in the sun on the world’s grandest stage. So call “handball,” if you’d like—but be leery. I wouldn’t want to have to head butt anyone who is quick to forget what happened the last time a French footballing giant took his final stroll in the spotlight.

In a moment of levity, I’ll admit I don’t expect Thierry Henry to have the same type of tournament that Zinedine Zidane put together in 2006, where he won Golden Ball honors, along the way becoming only the fourth player in the history of football to score in two World Cup finals. Henry has lost more than a step. He’s no longer blessed with the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it acceleration, and in losing that he’s lost a bit of the creative flair that was such an enormous part of his game. Indeed, at times he’s a shell of his former self. Still, Henry continues to be marvelous with the ball at his feet. Even with weary knees, he possesses tremendous balance and superb control, and he’s undoubtedly one of the coolest finishers the game has ever known. He’s also the French captain and the all-time leading goal scorer in Les Bleus’ storied history. He is without a doubt playing in his final World Cup, and the 1998 World Cup Champion, 2000 European Champion, and 2003-04 FIFA World Football of the Year is a consummate champion who will be hungry to sign off as gloriously as Zidane (nearly) did in 2006. Of course, I don’t expect a brilliant performance accompanied by a Scarlet Letter, either—though of course there’s an island of folks who think he’ll already wear one in South Africa. Fair enough. Well, actually…not fair at all. He’ll get no Scarlet Letter because he’s devoted his life to attacking football’s oldest Scarlet Letter, racism.

Henry’s character and commitment to making the world better, and improving the plight of the underprivileged, is unparalleled, at least in the history of football. As a young player, Henry was subjected to constant and at times vicious racism on and off the pitch. These weren’t isolated incidents or ones that could be funneled away to old tribal or religious rivalries. This was racism without borders.

The young Parisian has long remarked the abuse reached two personal high(low)- water-marks. First, in 2002, when he was pelted with cigarette lighters, coins, bananas, and all manner of racial insults as he took corner kicks in Arsenal’s 4-nil Champions League victory at PSV Eindhoven. Second, in 2004, while in a training session prior to a match against the Spanish national team, Spanish manager Luis Aragones called Henry a “black shit.” The incident caused uproar in Britain, where Henry’s brilliant form had won over the heart of the British press contingent. It resulted in strenuous denials from Aragones that he was a racist (laughable, IMO); a record fine for the remarks by the Spanish federation, and a decision by Henry that from that moment forward, Henry would make his life about more than being lavishly paid to play brilliant football. He’d make his life about battling the scourge of racism.

Henry founded, along with Nike, “Stand Up, Speak Up,” an international organization designed to isolate, identify, and report racism in football with an eye to eradicating it in 2005. An immensely successful project, NIKE and Henry designed armbands that were worn by over 5 million people at the 2006 World Cup. Since, Henry has founded the One 4 All Foundation, which through football camps and schools aids children in disadvantaged countries and communities on four continents. It lists as its primary goal the promotion through sport and education, projects against racial inequality. Named FIFA’s Ambassador against Racism in 2005, Henry has recently expanded his fight to a general charitable thrust to alleviate global poverty. Less than a month after the fateful handball, Henry played in the 7th Annual UN Match against Poverty, which he helped co-found, and donated over 90,000 pounds to Haitian Earthquake relief shortly before the match.

Henry will be honored to continue his fight against racism, and his beautiful style of football, as the World Cup kicks off this summer in the rubble of Apartheid. His brilliance on the pitch (51 international goals), is far exceeded by his brilliance off it, and in a world that sees Tiger Woods tee it up at the Masters, Henry is an example of all that is right in sport.

His American sporting soulmate, Warrick Dunn, also embodies this spirit of charity. The former collegiate All-American tailback at Florida State used to make me cry, especially when he broke a young boy’s heart in 1993. Problem was, like Henry, it was impossible to make Dunn a villain. While there is little argument that the Henry-Dunn comparison is a touch unfair in terms of athletic accomplishment: Dunn was a fine pro but hardly a Hall-of-Famer; Henry is one of the greatest to ever don a French shirt, and the greatest ever to wear an Arsenal shirt—there is no debate that off-the-field Dunn is a giant.

The winter before he left to attend Florida State, Dunn’s mother, a Baton Rouge, Louisiana cop, was killed off-duty by armed robbers at a Baton Rouge bank. Dunn went to Florida State anyway, leaving brothers and sisters behind. With the help of father figure Bobby Bowden, Dunn turned depression and an unfair hand into a spectacular collegiate career, and became the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1997. Making three Pro Bowls with the Bucs and the Atlanta Falcons, Dunn found time to remember his mother and those dealt similar hands off-the-field.

His two foundations, the Warrick Dunn Foundation and the Homes for the Holidays Foundation, make down payments on homes for single parents who can’t afford them, and then attract local sponsors to build the homes and help with late payments. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Dunn challenged all NFL players to donate at least 5,000 to hurricane relief. The league, respecting the man who won the NFL’ Award for on-field and off-field achievement (called the Walter Payton Man of the Year) in 2004, raised over 5 million dollars to help the people of the Gulf Coast get back on their feet. Since the hurricane, Dunn has focused his foundations on rebuilding the homes of Katrina victims, and, along with Lance Armstrong, Mia Hamm and Andre Agassi, founded Athletes for Hope, a charitable organization that helps guide athletes who want to help their communities but don’t know where to start to causes that suit them.

Henry may be remembered for his brilliant football, and to college football fans, Dunn will always be remembered for his sterling career with the Seminoles, or for being professionally one of the greatest situational tailbacks of his generation. But more importantly, to countless of unnamed people, Henry and Dunn will be two men who used their social position and privilege to challenge racism and poverty and make their lives better. Quite simply, they are inspiring men whose lives are a credit to the general good of humanity.

Call “handball” if you want, then—but we should all be pulling for Thierry Henry this summer.

Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at neil@yanksarecoming.com or @nwb_USMNT.

Neil W. Blackmon