Kokomo was nothing like the small village Ezra Hendrickson emigrated from when he was 13.
Indiana is 2,400 miles from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, but culturally it couldn’t be any further.
It was cold. He looked different. And to some of the other kids, having a Caribbean accent meant you talked a little funny.
And pizza? Never had that before.
Fast forward three decades and Hendrickson — whose “culture shock” became “love” for his adopted home state — is the head coach of the Chicago Fire. After 25 years in Major League Soccer — 12 as a player, 13 as an assistant — Hendrickson’s moment to lead a team has finally come.
“It’s a fun job,” Hendrickson, 50, said Wednesday during a conference call. “I like to teach these guys how I want them to play, my style of play, myself with the coaches and coaching staff, and then to go out and see that on display on a Saturday night, it brings joy to me.”
And when he stands on the Soldier Field touchline for the Fire’s home opener, it will be the latest step in a long journey from Layou that includes 15 trophies — and a high school basketball prowess that made him a star in Russiaville, Ind.
‘The Michael Jordan of Western High School’
Hendrickson’s soccer accolades are extensive, but his earliest honors came on the court — not the pitch.
No team in the history of Indiana boys high school basketball has won more sectionals than Kokomo, but their run of six-straight titles came to halt during the 1989-90 season.
The opponent was the Western Panthers, led by star player Ezra Hendrickson, who earned sectional MVP honors in a 63-52 victory and was named All-Area in 1990.
That an underdog like Western defeated Kokomo became something of local legend — and likened Hendrickson to a certain Bulls star.
“In a little school like ours, he was the Michael Jordan of Western High School,” coach Tom Lewis told the Tribune. “All the little kids looked up to him. His nickname was ‘EZ’ and he made the game look easy. All the little kids were in awe of his abilities.”
But lest anyone think Lewis is exaggerating, fellow All-Area teammate Scott Gaskins can confirm.
“When we won the sectional, we went to our elementary school and there’s about 500 kids there in the pep session for us,” Gaskins told the Tribune. “After the pep session, we’re walking through and I see all these kids running towards me and I’m thinking, ‘Aw, yeah, they’re running to come see me and congratulate me.’
“They all run right past me and straight to Ezra.”
The Ezra Hendrickson who first walked the halls as a freshman was “impressive as hell” — in Lewis’ algebra class. But on the court? Not so much.
“My first impression was that this kid probably was not ever going to help us as a basketball player,” Lewis said.
Hendrickson’s self assessment was more blunt.
“It’s Indiana — everybody’s playing basketball,” he told the Tribune. “I want to play but I suck. I was just horrible. I didn’t understand the game, I had never played before.”
Hendrickson was the last player picked for the freshman team, but he spent the summer before his sophomore year shooting on the rim in his parents’ driveway.
“I knew I had a lot of work to do, a lot of catching up to do,” he said. “These kids, they’ve been playing ever since they were 5, some maybe younger than that. And here I am, 13, 14 years old, and just horrible. Can’t shoot, nothing.”
But Hendrickson improved, recording a triple-double as a junior, and led Western in several categories as a senior. According to Lewis, Hendrickson shot 33% on 3-pointers and a team-leading 56% overall. He shot 80% from the free-throw line — a team high — and averaged just under 16 points a game.
All while being ranked sixth in his academic class.
“He was our guy,” Lewis said. “He was the guy we depended upon. His attitude was phenomenal.”
Hendrickson got offers to play Division II basketball. But when Drake scouted him at an Indiana University soccer camp, they offered him a fortuitous full-ride.
And his Western basketball teammates? Sure, they knew Hendrickson played soccer, but they probably weren’t expecting what his future held.
“We knew nothing about soccer,” Gaskins said. “Then we played in gym class and he’d tear us up.”
‘Ezra, that was a (expletive) great tackle’
Hendrickson played his entire MLS career as a defender, but he primarily was a forward in college — and Drake’s all-time leading scorer with 43 goals.
He didn’t make the switch to defender until his senior year after begging Bulldogs coach Bob Wood.
“I felt at home,” Hendrickson said of playing on the back line. “That’s where I always wanted to play.”
After college, Hendrickson joined the New Orleans Riverboat Gamblers of the United States Interregional Soccer League for the 1995 and ‘96 seasons. He was then selected by MLS’ New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls) in the 1997 supplemental draft and was dubbed “The Caribbean Beckenbauer” because of his ability on the ball.
But his stint in the Meadowlands was short-lived, as he was cut midseason. The LA Galaxy took a chance on him — and Hendrickson never looked back.
MLS credits him with 23 goals and 30 assists in his career — impressive numbers for any defender, said former Galaxy teammate Robin Fraser, now the Colorado Rapids coach.
“He was as good of an attacking defender as there was in the league at the time,” Fraser, a two-time MLS defender of the year, told the Tribune.
But Hendrickson’s attacking prowess didn’t mean he shirked his defensive duties. He wasn’t afraid to get stuck in, including a little too hard in training — much to the chagrin of Sigi Schmid, who coached Hendrickson in LA and with the Columbus Crew.
“I was very competitive,” Hendrickson said, laughing. “So if my team was losing, at times I think maybe I became a little too physical for Sigi’s liking because it’s your teammates, you know?
“I was always so focused on winning that I was willing to do whatever it took to win. Sometimes I might have been a little excessive in some tackles, but it was all from working hard, it wasn’t in malice. But Sigi would get upset and show me to the showers.”
Fraser can attest to Hendrickson’s tackling ability after being dealt to the Rapids in 2001. Like any traded player, Fraser was out for revenge against his former team. Then Hendrickson swooped in.
“He came out of nowhere and tackled me so hard,” Fraser said. “And as the ball was flying off into the distance he was like, ‘Sorry, boss! Sorry!’ Sorry about tackling me that hard.
“And I’m laying on the ground and going, ‘Ezra, that was a (expletive) great tackle.’ Like, the timing of it was so good.”
Hendrickson, who captained the St. Vincent national team, retired in 2008 with an impressive trophy haul: With the Galaxy, he won MLS Cup (2002), Supporters’ Shield (1998, 2002), U.S. Open Cup (2001) and the 2000 CONCACAF Champions Cup, scoring two goals in the final. He also won MLS Cup with D.C. United (2004), and MLS Cup and the Supporters’ Shield in 2008 with the Crew.
Alecko Eskandarian, who roomed with Hendrickson on road trips, called him the “missing piece to our puzzle” that helped D.C. win in 2004.
Hendrickson was 32 at the time and a midseason acquisition, but he stepped in and played 120 minutes in the Eastern Conference Final against the New England Revolution, helping D.C. reach MLS Cup.
“I have vivid memories leading up to the final of him just giving me confidence before the game even though he knew he wasn’t really going to take part,” Eskandarian told the Tribune. “He was still my hype man in the room, putting on music and being like, ‘You ready to put on a show today?’”
‘Someone that you instantly grew to trust’
That Hendrickson is now an MLS head coach isn’t hugely surprising. According to Eskandarian, Hendrickson showed an early ability to work with young players.
“‘EZ’ was great because he always had a smile on his face,” Eskandarian said. “He’d always send his message subtly by pulling you aside, not necessarily making a scene in front of your teammates or in front of your coaches.
“He’d throw bits and pieces here and there, which made him really approachable and really easy to talk to. He became someone that you instantly grew to trust.”
Schmid clearly trusted Hendrickson — wherever the MLS coaching legend went, he took Hendrickson with him. And when Schmid became the Crew coach in 2006, he acquired Hendrickson to anchor the defense.
When Schmid left the Crew after 2008 to coach the expansion Sounders, the recently-retired Hendrickson joined a staff that included Brian Schmetzer, now Seattle’s head coach.
Schmetzer monitored Hendrickson’s progress, especially when Hendrickson took over Seattle’s second team in 2015.
“I’d love going into the locker room at halftime to listen to what he said to his team,” Schmetzer told the Tribune. “I learned a few ideas. I listened, I gave him feedback, the relationship was very good, very open. It was back and forth.
“I appreciate it because of his different way of looking at things. My dad was German and we played that kind of stoic, workman-like soccer and Ezra had a little bit more flare than me. I loved that part of him.”
And when Schmid returned to the Galaxy in 2017, he tabbed Hendrickson to join his staff the next year.
“Sigi loved him,” Fraser said. “Loved him, loved him, loved him.”
Schmid died in 2018, but his influence on Hendrickson is always top of mind at Fire practices.
“Sometimes when I’m planning the sessions, I try to think back to some of the things that he would stress,” Hendrickson said. “I try to go back into that framework and try to figure out some of the things that he would do to get certain points across. He’s very much a big part of what’s going on with me.”
‘He had a good eye for talent’
For Schmetzer, there are “probably a ton of different reasons” why Hendrickson is ready: His knowledge of MLS, his success as a player and an assistant, his apprenticeship under some of the league’s best coaches.
But one thing in particular stands out.
“He had a good eye for talent,” Schmetzer said. “He had a good eye for guys that were able to influence the game. And then he was never afraid to share his opinion, even in dissent, with Sig or myself or any of the other coaches in the room.
“And I always felt that that trait — to be able to speak to other peers and get your opinions across — showed a strong character. He believed in what he saw.”
Fraser said the Fire are “extremely lucky” to have Hendrickson, while Schmetzer, who tuned into the Fire’s scoreless draw against Inter Miami CF, is eager to see how Hendrickson handles the man-management side of the game.
“Management of people is important because, look, the tactics are the tactics,” Schmetzer said. “Most coaches have some basic way we want to play. We have our tactical schemes and all of that.
“But it’s really about managing individuals and getting the best out of them. He’s got a superstar in (Xherdan) Shaqiri and how he manages his best player will be critical for the success of the team. How does he manage young players? How does he get the maximum out of a young goalkeeper (Gabriel Slonina)? Managing people is a real critical skill in our sport.”
‘This is so much beyond me’
Hendrickson is one of only three Black head coaches in MLS along with Fraser and Montreal’s Wilfried Nancy.
“It took me a while to be in this position, but it might not take the next Black coach that long,” he said. “Not to put added pressure on myself, but I know that this is bigger than just me getting the job.”
Fraser, who was born in Jamaica and like Hendrickson moved to the U.S. in adolescence, has some words of wisdom.
“There are a lot of people cheering for us,” Fraser said. “Black coaches in general are cheering for myself and Ezra. People from St. Vincent are cheering for Ezra. People from Jamaica are cheering for me. It’s something that I wear very proudly and carry very proudly, as I’m sure Ezra does.
“But the key to making all of that work is to really be true to yourself and your philosophy and not get worked up or caught up in what people think. You have the job because you’re good. You earned the right to be there. You certainly paid your dues as an assistant. And now you get this opportunity.”
The opportunity was a long time coming for Hendrickson. He wants to win not just for other Black coaches, but for the family who supported his journey, including fiancée Fitsum and daughters Xavia and McKenzie.
“Those girls really, really make a difference in my life as far as me wanting to always be successful,” he said of his daughters. “I always want to make sure that life for them is a lot easier than it was for me and do whatever I can to make sure that they grow up the right way and teach them properly and be a great father figure to them.”
And Hendrickson wants to be successful for something else too — St. Vincent.
“I’m happy to be in this position and to shed some light on my country,” he said. “Now that I’m here finally, it becomes even harder because now I’ve got to stay here. But I’m looking forward to that challenge. Anytime I could raise that Vincy flag I’ll be doing that on the sideline.
“This is so much beyond me.”
By Jeremy Mikula (Chicago Tribune)