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Words: Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic
Jamal Omar


And every week, Triston Henry is providing visual proof that young Black players all over Canada can indeed play football at the highest level. Not only that, but they can thrive, too, even if it means facing shots in one of the toughest positions in sports - as a goalkeeper.

The main man between the sticks for Forge FC since their inception in 2019, Henry has backstopped the club to three Canadian Premier League titles in four seasons, and can count appearances in the Concacaf Champions League, a Canadian Championship final, four CPL finals and more on his resume.

Not bad for the kid from Scarborough, who at 29, is getting to live out a dream that many, himself included, would’ve never thought possible when he was a 12-year-old looking to one day make his mark in the professional game.

In fact, at 12, things were looking pretty bleak for Henry. There was no Canadian league to look forward to playing in, having witnessed the fall of a few leagues in the past. Heck, there was no professional team to even look forward to playing for, with the creation of Toronto FC not coming until one month after Henry’s 12th birthday in 2005.

But now, with the creation of the CPL, kids in Henry’s shoes these days don’t have the same obstacles to keep them down. Instead, they can look forward to one day following in Henry’s footsteps as a player, shining in the world’s game while playing professionally in their backyard.

“Yeah, it's amazing, especially having this league in Canada right now,” Henry explained to DARBY. “It gives something for these kids to try to obtain, and goals to achieve. When we were growing up, there wasn’t that, everything was about just trying to get to the States or to Europe, as that’s all that there was - there was nothing in our backyard.

“No teams to support, no local players that you could go see on a weekend and meet and greet, get their autographs, so that all of that is there now is really inspiring and really powerful, and I think those experiences are going to be huge for the sport going forward.”

Especially for Black kids, that’s key, as back when Henry was a kid, football in Canada wasn’t always as diverse as it is now, a change that has really only come on over the last couple of decades as a lot of barriers to entry got lifted.

Because of that, Henry is extra grateful to be able to provide that opportunity to inspire a whole generation of kids, knowing that seeing his future self as a youngster would’ve made a world of difference in terms of pushing him to make it to the next level.

“What it’s doing is inspiring the next generation,” Henry said. “I can only imagine if I was that age and I was a younger guy and seeing a couple of Black players playing in the CPL, seeing a Black goalkeeper, [which] you don't see that often, that’d have definitely inspired me to have aspirations of playing at a professional level, which is key.”

“When I was growing up - and a lot of guys I know can attest to this - there weren't as many coloured players, Black players in our sport,” he added. “And I think you see it a lot more now with the diversity in the teams, and that’s huge, as it really pushes you forward and makes you feel like it’s somewhere you can belong, something you can try to achieve. So it's definitely something that makes us feel more comfortable, and it’s huge for our culture.”

Yet, that just shows the importance of representation, and why Henry’s story is so important.

In a country that is becoming more and more diverse, that Henry was the only Black goalkeeper to feature in the top 11 keepers in minutes played in the CPL in 2022 shows how much work it takes to shed old stereotypes. (For reference, three of the nine next goalkeepers to see minutes were Black, and all were under the age of 22, showing that improvements are on the way).

A position that is typically regarded as one of high intelligence and quick reflexes, many Black kids stayed away in past generations, preferring to play other positions on the pitch, where they could take advantage of the “speed” and “power” that they were often wrongly told that they only had.

As a result, it meant that goalkeepers have always lagged behind other positions in terms of Black representation, especially at the highest levels. That’s changing, with Henry’s success certainly helping out in that regard, but work remains to be done.

But that’s why Black History Month holds a special spot in Henry’s heart. A time to reflect and tell important stories, it can allow many to understand why many systematic inequalities exist - such as the lack of Black goalkeepers in football - and show why it’s important to amplify stories that help fight that, such as Henry’s.

“Yeah, I think it’s huge,” he explained. “And I think it's great for outsiders in the world to hear our stories and hear where we've come from, hear about our heritage, and just to really gain that knowledge. The pandemic helped a lot with that, people were able to slow down, hear our stories, and learn about our history, so they could really understand us a bit more, and I think that will definitely help in the push forward toward that equality that we all want.”

And there are several more inequalities still to tackle.

Another big one? A lack of Black involvement at the highest levels of football, as despite being prominent at the playing level, that diversity isn’t reflected in boardrooms, on the sidelines, in the media and in other key administrative areas of the game.

There, however, things are changing, especially in Canada. For example, former CPLer Jordan Wilson recently traded his boots for a microphone by joining OneSoccer, while ex-CanMNT international Tosaint Ricketts now works for the Vancouver Whitecaps, and more Black CPL players are expected to follow similar paths when retiring.

For Henry, that’s a big plus, and another benefit of having professional teams in one’s backyard, with the opportunities provided by it extending far beyond just the players, helping fill the societal gaps that exist elsewhere in the sport.

“I think it’s important, I think that's the next step we do need to take,” Henry said. “Because I think you do see a lot of Black players in the sport now, but I think at the management level, that's where we need to see a bit more improvement.”

“And I think by having a CPL, and having that leeway to then go into coaching or the business side of the sport after playing is a huge way to see our culture grow, by (introducing more people) to management positions, and positions of power, so we definitely need to see more of that.”

Therefore, look for Henry to one day make such a jump, settling in among the pioneers looking to tackle that inequality off the pitch.

Before then, however, he’s still got lofty goals to achieve. Especially after winning the 2022 CPL finals, which was Forge’s toughest triumph to date following heartbreak in 2021, he still has eyes on building off that in 2023, with many of his team’s core players returning.

“Yeah, it was good,” Henry admitted. “I felt that we missed out in 2021 by losing the Pacific in the finals, we had such a successful year, and just seeing the calibre of players that we could have on the field at any given time was pretty crazy. So to come back from that and go win it away in Ottawa and in a convincing manner, that felt good, so we want to just keep pushing forward.”

From there, he still has aspirations of pushing as far as he can in the game, where his story is far from over.

Yet to even reach 30, at a position where players tend to mature later than at other spots, he knows that he’s got a lot more growth in his future, and has no intention of slowing down anytime soon.

Because of that, look for Henry to keep shining on the pitch, while continuing to be a key role model off it, reminding kids that they can break barriers, building on football’s ever-growing diversity in Canada.

“It’s been a unique experience, to go into a brand new league and to be on a great team such as Forge, where we’ve [been able] to do what we did over the last four years is truly amazing,” Henry finished. “And it’s something that I never thought would even be possible before, joining Forge in the CPL, so it’s huge and I just want to continue growing, to continue getting better and help the team out, help the league out.”

“Of course, I have my own aspirations as well but for now, I just want to keep getting better and keep growing the game in Canada.”

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© DARBY Magazine 2023