As a physical center back who was first thrust into the spotlight for his hometown team at the age 17, Doneil Henry is accustomed to battling.
But nothing could have prepared him for the battle he’d face when the time came to leave home and head across the pond.
The native of Brampton, Ontario, just north of Toronto, became the first player to make the jump from the Toronto FC academy to the first team, back in 2010. He played five seasons for the Reds before joining Premier League side West Ham United in January 2015.
Though Henry was excited to be following his footballing dream, the 22-year-old found the initial transition to be difficult.
“Everything I know is Toronto. This is the first time I’ve lived alone, I have to do a lot of things on my own, kind of adjusting to being a real man,” Henry told reporters last week. “At first [it was] challenging, dealing with the time change, trying to communicate with family, and just being alone.”
Henry had gotten his foot in the door at West Ham thanks to former TFC manager Ryan Nelsen, who had recommended the youngster to then-Hammers manager Sam Allardyce. After impressing on several trials, Henry won over Allardyce and headed to England in last year’s winter transfer window.
Impressed by the structure and history of the 115-year-old club, Henry took some time to acclimate to his new surroundings. But before long, he was eager to prove what he could do on the field; that March, he was sent to Blackburn Rovers on a one-month loan.
“I went in and did really well. I was really happy,” says Henry, who played three games for Blackburn that month. “The game [after which] I would probably have been called back to West Ham is the game I absolutely tore my hamstring.”
The injury, which Henry describes as “very, very serious”, would end his season and only exacerbate his feelings of isolation. But he pushed himself physically and mentally in the coming months, and would eventually earn his debut appearance for West Ham, playing in a Europa League qualifying match on Aug. 6.
With a loss that day, West Ham’s Europa League journey ended – as did Henry’s comeback. He would later learn he was dealing with a sports hernia, and underwent two surgeries in 2015 in an attempt to get back to full health.
“Maybe I came back a little too early,” says Henry. “I just had to give myself the time, and then operating again really took a mental toll on me. But I feel like I’m definitely over everything. I feel good.”
Indeed, Henry is now feeling good enough that he’s back with the Canadian national team for the first time since late 2014. He’s been training with Canada ahead of Friday’s friendly against the United States (10:15 pm ET, TSN in Canada, FS1, UniMás, UDN in US) and is looking forward to getting back into regular rotation with head coach Benito Floro’s side.
“I’m definitely at the stage where I feel fit and healthy,” he says. “I want to be part of those [World Cup qualifiers] against Mexico. I want to be a part of this national team for a long time.”
Henry feels like he enjoys the support of not only Floro, but also Slaven Bilic, who took over from Allardyce as West Ham manager this season. And though Henry knows he’s down West Ham’s depth chart at the moment, he believes a good performance for Canada could help turn some heads at the club.
“It’s unrealistic to [think] he’s going to throw me into a Premier League game right now after not playing for a year,” says Henry. “But I’m still young, I’m willing to learn, I’m willing to do what I have to do to make it to the top.”
With a fresh start in 2016, Henry no longer wants to talk or think about the injuries that marred his first year abroad. Rather, he’s intent on battling to repay the faith shown to him by so many, and working hard to fulfill his vast potential.
“Now I feel like some of these days that were pretty rough will be the days I remember, the things that build me as a character, as an individual,” says Henry. “I’m not going to let these days get the best of me; I’m going to go with the flow and keep grinding. I know eventually my time will come.”