Who is Thierry Henry? It depends on whom you ask.
Titi turns 39 year on Wednesday and fans who look back on his four seasons in MLS will be quick to remember the French star by his demeanor on the pitch, a no-nonsense taskmaster who is just as apt to score gravity-defying goals as he is to openly scold his teammates. Reporters came to know Henry as a prickly fellow, a player who can be charming, abrasive, amusing and dismissive – sometimes all at once.
But Henry's teammates and colleagues see the all-time great in a unique light. That doesn't mean they are immune to his obsessive competitiveness or bouts of frustration, but those attributes are tempered by his generosity, commitment to his teammates and desire to win – above all else.
MLSSoccer.com spoke to MLS figures who knew Henry behind the scenes to expose a different side of the Gunner legend:
The Game Changer
Henry's name litters the Red Bulls' record books. He is the team's all-time assist leader (49). He is third on the club's all-time scoring list (52 goals). He played a pivotal role in helping the team earn their first piece of silverware – the 2013 Supporters' Shield.
But his biggest contribution came the moment he decided to join the club.
Some Red Bull fans may have forgotten the state of the team pre-2010, but former managing director Erik Stover remembers those days well. He was at the helm of the organization as they transitioned from the cavernous halls of Giants Stadium to the Passaic jewel of Red Bull Arena.
For years, the team was plagued by four-digit attendance figures and a waning grip on the local media market. Stover knew Red Bull Arena would attract new eyes to the team, and it did – but nowhere near the numbers Red Bull management expected.
It was clear they needed something else to hook fans and keep them coming back.
Enter Thierry Henry.
"We were coming out of a really horrible season," Stover recalls. "We needed momentum in opening the stadium, and to have him on the team and have him join that summer, it was a shot of adrenaline for the entire organization."
After Henry arrived in July 2010, attendance swelled, the team played a more entertaining style and media coverage ramped up. Henry was the catalyst for it all.
"Having a talent like that on a club is a game changer," Stover says.
Always a Competitor
Peguy Luyindula was Henry's teammate during two seasons in New York, but their history didn't start there. Both men were prize prospects in the French national team program long before they arrived in MLS.
That makes Luyindula the perfect person to help analyze the roots of Henry's psyche – and his first brush with Henry's competitive side certainly explains a lot.
"We were with the French U-21 team in Clairefontaine," Luyindula remembers. "On this night, we had the right to sleep at the castle at Clairefontaine which was normally reserved for the main French national team. My room was next to Henry's, so we got together and played Pro Evolution Soccer.
"We were playing on the same team for the World Cup. It was 1 [in the morning] and we lost in the semifinals. I told him, 'OK Thierry, I'm tired. I am going to sleep.'
"He grabbed me, threw me down on the bed and told me, 'I will not relieve you until we have won this Cup.' I said, 'It's a freakin' video game! Let me go! I want to go to sleep!' He said, 'No! I will not let you go. We have to win this Cup!'
"We stood in the bedroom until 5 a.m., until we finally won the Cup – and when we won the Cup, he was so happy," Luyindula recalls with a hearty laugh. "And to be quite honest – I was happy too."
Hit me Connor!
Henry's competitive fire often reaches levels some people might call absurd. But Red Bulls’ Homegrown defender Connor Lade's brush with Henry the competitor taught him a valuable lesson.
"I remember my rookie year, Henry was not happy heading into a match against Houston," Lade recalls. "He stood out where the left midfielder would sit the whole week of training before the game. I was playing right back.
"Every time he would get the ball, he would look at me and say, Hit me.' This is Thierry Henry! He is an incredible athlete. But I would have to come up and hit him as best I could.
"The first time I kind of nudged him," Lade said. "He shoved me and said, Hit me.' So literally every time he got the ball, he wanted me to come up and give him no space and hit him. So I said OK.
"A couple of times, he threw his body to throw me off. But there was one time he got the ball, I went up and I hit him. The ball popped loose and I started going with it.
"Before I know it, he just takes me out from behind," Lade laughs. "It was a funny moment and it surely hurt, but I went on to have one of my best games of the year. He really got me in that mindset. Every time the person across from me got the ball, I gave them no room.
"To this day, there are times I try to tap into that moment if I need a boost of my competitive will. I think back at the moment of him telling me to hit him and how scared I was of Thierry Henry. Those experiences I will always remember."
A Lesson For Moreno
My favorite Henry story took place on a hot afternoon at Montclair University.
As I approached the entrance to the team's training grounds, I noticed a line of kids standing where members of the press usually gathered. The Red Bulls had invited their academy players to training – and they even had a few playing alongside the senior team.
One of those players was 16-year-old striker Amando Moreno. Moreno would eventually be signed to a Homegrown Player contract in 2013, but his first taste of first-team action came on this visit with the academy.
Then head coach Hans Backe split his players into five-a-side teams. Moreno was paired with several Red Bulls veterans, including defender Tyler Ruthven. Even at 16, Moreno had a big personality for a small forward and he showed off his skill (and ran his mouth) in the small-sided games.
Henry watched on as the academy standout castigated Ruthven for what he considered an errant pass. When Henry's team rotated in to play Moreno's, the Frenchman gave the teenager a lesson he would never forget.
When the whistle blew to resume play, Henry made a bee-line for the youngster. Just as Moreno received the ball and turned, Henry plowed into the teenager. The tackle sent Moreno into the air, and he landed face first on the ground.
Henry stood up and made his message clear: "Now you learn to keep your mouth shut."
Then the World Cup star turned to Ruthven and said, "Hey – I've got your back." Ruthven nodded with a blank stare, trying, as we all were, to digest what had just happened.
Henry and the Kit Men
Not all Henry stories stem from his competitive nature. He was also infamous for his cordial and friendly demeanor with his teammates and team staff as well as their family members.
Fernando and Sean Ruiz are the long-time father-son kit men for the New York Red Bulls, and over the years the Ruiz family developed a unique bond with Henry.
They were playful with each other. In one instance, Henry went out of his way to aggravate Fernando’s wife.
"For my 60th birthday, my wife wanted to make a video of some of the players that had an effect on my life, people who I loved and respected,” he recalls. "It was emotional when I had seen it. It took her 7 months to compile all the videos from [Colombia and Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon] to [current Colombia and Arsenal goalkeeper] David Ospina. Meanwhile, Titi was messing with my wife. He refused to do the video!
"Finally my wife approached him and said, 'You are going to do this today.' And he got it done! He was just messing with her."
But not all their times together were playful. During Henry's final season with the club, Fernando underwent quintuple bypass surgery. The news rattled the entire organization – and left 29-year-old Sean to take the reins of the equipment staff from his father.
"I met with the team's main core, which was Andy Roxburgh, Mike Petke, Peguy Luyindula, Tim Cahill and Thierry. They told me to go and be with my dad," Sean remembers. "On my way to the hospital, my dad said, 'The guys need you more.' I was in the truck, and I literally turned around, went back to [Red Bull Arena] and went to Philly."
During that time of uncertainty, Henry was there for both Sean and his family, even paying a visit Fernando in the hospital.
"He was super big on that," Sean says. "He called my mom to check on her and told her he was on his way. The hospital had a visitors' list, which had my family and a few other people. We had to tell them to add Henry to the list. People did not know who he was. He was very passionate about doing something for [my dad]. He was very on top of the situation to let people know how things were going and how important my dad was to the club.”
"There is a lot you can say about Henry," Sean adds. "He is a competitor, fiery, passionate. But anything he did, he did with 100-percent effort."
Henry the Baker
Few know this, but Henry is a big foodie. Most could guess, however, that he likes a challenge.
On this occasion, those two worlds collided.
Henry decided to take up baking. One day, out of the blue, the World Cup winner decided to surprise his teammates. Following training at Montclair, Henry filled a table with pies for everyone – pies he baked himself.
"He liked to bake," Stover recalls.
Details of the day are sketchy. Several people MLSsoccer.com spoke to acknowledged the occasion, but few wanted to go on record about it.
Nevertheless, the image of the fiery Henry baking pies is, at the very least, worthy of a mention.
"That's a great example of how he had the ability to be really enthusiastic and a great teammate," Stover says.
Unsurprisingly, those who partook remember the pastries being delicious.
"Do you want to go to London tomorrow?"
With five days between training sessions, Henry offered to fly McCarty and Pearce to England to take in the North London Derby between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.
"We went from hanging out [in New York] and not knowing what to do to traveling to London," Pearce recalls.
Henry paid for their flight – and his generosity didn't end there. Knowing he would be busy with other business, Henry arranged for a private tour guide to show them the sights and sounds of London. He capped off every evening with a private dinner – all on his tab – and the trip culminated with the North London Derby.
"He took us out on the field when the stadium was empty and we had all-access to everything and everyone," Pearce says. "It was the three of us with Sol Campbell and Jens Lehmann in his box. We got to experience the entire stadium singing to him. It was pretty incredible."
After a tour of the Arsenal locker room, Henry asked McCarty, Pearce and Borrajo who their favorite Arsenal players were. He used that information to gift them jerseys of the players of their choice – directly from the team locker room.
"He took care of us," Pearce says. "We expected nothing or to be taken care of in any way, but he was so generous. If we had to pay for our own trip, we would have done it."
On a separate occasion, goalkeeper Ryan Meara was in England for a training stint with Charlton. Looking to score tickets to an Arsenal match, he called Henry.
Before he could even ask, Henry beat him to the punch.
The two met and made their way to the Emirates, taking their seats in Henry's personal suite. Arsenal beat Hull 2-0, and after the match, Henry opened the doors of the Arsenal locker room and backroom to the awestruck Meara.
"He brought me into the locker room. I met all the players, met Arsene Wenger and we just hung out there for an hour," Meara says. "It is probably the coolest thing I have ever done. To see him in his element over there, it was like Derek Jeter in New York City or Kobe Bryant in L.A. He didn't have to do that. He went above and beyond and it was just such a cool experience.
"He did so many things like that. That is just one of a number of stories like that – and the side that fans should know as well."
Teammates and Fans
They may be professionals, but MLS players are fans of the game, just like the rest of us. Red Bulls defender Chris Duvall was a fan of Henry long before he became his teammate.
"I remember when he first signed with Red Bull, I just got into college," Duvall remembers. "I bought a Thierry Henry Red Bulls jersey because I was just a huge fan. When I got here, I brought it with me so he could sign it. A lot of guys would do that, but they would go to the front office and ask for an Henry jersey for him to sign.
"When I showed it to him, he said 'Oh, the office gave you an old jersey.' I was like 'Uhhh, no. I'm a little embarrassed, but I've had this for five years,' and he just laughed. I told him about how I had an Arsenal Henry jersey that I wore so much that the number fell off and we joked around about it.
"I don't think he realizes how awesome it is just to step on the field with him," Duvall adds. "Even the teammates he had were fans."
The Hook Up
While Henry's on-field barking and aggression may have driven his teammates up the wall from time to time, he was always quick to hook them up away from the pitch.
When he arrived in New York, Henry gifted brand new iPads to his new teammates. Following a sponsorship deal with Beats by Dre, he shared the spoils by giving headphones to everyone on the team.
Conscious of his status as the team’s highest-paid player, Henry also helped younger players get ahead. In one instance, he took Marius Obekop to the Puma store in New York City and told him to "pick as much stuff as you want. It's all on me."
On another occasion, he took the unsuspecting Danleigh Borman to a BMW dealership and bought the him a car after watching the young South African midfielder struggle to make his way to Montclair on public transportation.
And the stories don't end there.
"He knew I was a big hockey fan, a big Islanders fan, and he was with Reebok for some time," says former Red Bull Carlos Mendes. "One day, he just came into training with literally two huge bags filled with NHL gear and Islanders gear, just for me. He was in the city and he just wanted to buy this for me."
Meara adds, "He was a big basketball fan and I was a big basketball fan. He gave me and [Dax McCarty] Knicks playoff tickets out of the blue."
That was life with Thierry Henry.
He was a fiery competitor and demanding leader, but his intentions were always good. He rode players hard in training and during matches because he believed they could do better. Off the field, he showed his appreciation through meaningful acts of kindness.
He didn’t have to visit the kit man in the hospital. He didn’t have to fly his teammates to London for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. He didn’t have to share his passion in the form of delicious pastries.
But he did. And for those who spent time around him in MLS, he created memories that will never fade.