09 January 2014

Two years ago to the day, Henry scored against Leeds. I cried.

At first, that headline may not mean much. After all, it was his 227th goal for the club, was it not? How many times had he delivered a similar goal—slicing in from the wing, running onto a through-ball, and curling one to the far-post just past the keeper's out-stretched fingertips—against tougher competitors in higher-stakes matches? A goal against Leeds United in the FA Cup may lack the historic significance of a goal at the Bernabeu in the Champions League or at White Hart Lane to win the Prem, but to me, having never seen the man in his prime, that goal was every bit as exquisite and sublime and memorable as any other he ever scored, and it was all the more poignant to see him celebrate with such unbridled joy. It was the kind of homecoming a Hollywood producer might draw up, but there was nothing smarmy or scripted or trite about it. Watch Henry celebrate that goal. Tell me he isn't feeling the same ecstasy so many of us were feeling.
There's nothing but joy there, pouring from a man who has scored hundreds of goals, won league titles in three countries, not to mention the Champions League and the World Cup and countless individual honors, and look at him. Pure, unadulterated joy from a man whose love for and contributions to this club cannot be questioned, even when he decided to leave. It's rare that a player plays for one club anymore, even if he wants to, but it's still a testament to the man and the relationship he formed with the club that this goal, one of hundreds he has scored, could inspire such a celebration from him and from the fans in attendance.

For myself, I'd never seen Henry score for Arsenal. Not live, at least. I missed the Invincibles as well. In those days, football didn't get any airtime in America, and the internet, at least as far as I knew, hadn't yet offered ways for us to watch online. I had to rely on newspaper reports, a poor substitute for seeing the action unfold in the moment. More recently, thanks largely to the internet, I've seen some spectacular goals that required greater skill or technique, that were scored under greater duress, that came against stiffer competition, but none that provoked in me such a response as the one I've have for this goal. For other goals, I've leapt from my seat; I've shouted to the heavens; I've hugged absolute strangers and spilled expensive bevies. I've sung. I've chanted. Hell, I've pulled muscles and thrown out my back. Not for this goal. Nope.

All I could do, a grown man, was sit there and let tears roll down my cheek, chin in my hand, and watch. I didn't want to miss a single glorious second. It was, in a way, like losing my virginity. Like being initiated or baptized. Remember—this was the very first time I had seen Henry score in real time. I've seen highlights. I've watched replays and documentaries. I'd seen him score for Barca and Red Bulls live, but these barely rate the mention. There's a long list of things I'll never get to do, such as seeing a match at Highbury, and seeing Henry score for Arsenal was on that list until this day last year.

Yes, the goal came at a time when we were worried about the club's direction, ambition, and future, but I don't think my response was borne from some misbegotten desperation for Henry to resurrect the club and impel it to past glories. His hey-day is in the past; his pantherine form has acquired a bit more heft, and his hairline has receded a bit more. Any time that talks turns to the legends and the glories of the first eight or nine years under Arsene, there's bound to be some myopic wishes made all the more irresistible when one of those legends returns and scores. Would he stay? Could he inspire the club to reclaim its status, to end its trophy drought?

No, there was none of that for me. Even then, I knew it was more curtain-call than encore from one of the finest players this club has ever seen and, instead of tarnishing the myth by asking him to try to lead the line, I'm just thankful that he came back and showed us that he still has the touch—that touch on the ball and, at the risk of getting melodramatic, that touch to our hearts.

The problem with spending too much time in the past, though, is that it takes our eyes off the present and future. Who among the current squad will we be hailing? Which moments, splendid as they will have been in the moment, will become burnished by time, bronzed in our memories as Henry's form is bronzed outside the stadium? This is where legends come from—moments of brilliance, ripened by memory. Henry's goal against Leeds may not be his most striking, his most stunning, or his most significant, but to me, it will always be his most memorable. Firsts always are.