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Good guy goes out on top
by Ridge Mahoney, January 13th, 2009 7AM

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[MLS] There's time enough to get serious before the season starts, even though January in MLS is much like the summer everywhere else, the so-called "silly season," when groundless rumors and "done deals" that aren't (done) dominate cyberspace. This January, though, is a bit sad, because one of the truly good guys has called it quits, a man whose love of the game always shone on his face and gleamed in his smile, a player who could look clumsy and graceful and labored and smooth all at the same time, a fierce fighter on the field and a genial giant off it.
 

Ezra Hendrickson came to MLS in 1997 seemingly too tall for his bulk, the Manute Bol of his sport, a native of St. Vincent & The Grenadines whose gangly frame lined up at right back, sweeper, central midfielder, and center back during an MLS career that took him to numerous teams, three of which he helped win MLS titles.

He didn't play much for the 2008 Crew nor D.C. United four years ago, yet back in the day of Galaxy glory (1998-2002), he scored 17 goals and perplexed many an opposing coach as to ways and means of stopping a tall (6-foot-3), confident, powerful (185 pounds), attacking right back.

In 266 regular season games, he scored 23 goals, and netted five more goals in 32 playoff games. That's more than twice as many goals as former Crew teammate Frankie Hejduk, whose relentless run and header against New York in the 2008 MLS Cup rekindled memories of Hendrickson's assaults.

The key was attacking Ezra to keep him from attacking you, and certainly, he could be wrong-footed in open space and occasionally goaded into rash decisions. But hundreds of defenders came and went during his career, so there must have been more to his game than curiosity. He had some speed, a good presence in the air, the willingness and determination to tackle, and a thirst to attack. So it went for a pro athlete from a tiny homeland (approximate population: 120,000) seemingly named after a teetotaler steel-drum band.

In the days leading up to the 2002 final at then-new Gillette Stadium, some pundits predicted a few of the Galaxy players from smaller Concacaf nations, such as Carlos Ruiz (Guatemala), Tyrone Marshall (Jamaica), Mauricio Cienfuegos (El Salvador) and Hendrickson, would get rattled by Revs fans packing the stadium.

Ezra just laughed, pointing out he'd played for his country in qualifiers against teams like Mexico, in venues like Estadio Azteca. "Now those were tough places to play," he said. "We were overmatched but we weren't scared. As a professional player, you want a big crowd, no matter who they're cheering for. Playing here is going to be fun."

Ezra played every one of the 113 minutes, Ruiz scored in sudden-death overtime, and the Galaxy won in front of 61,316 mostly unhappy fans. Hendrickson had been on the losing side the year before and again in 1999, but this time, he and his teammates shared the joy.

He did again in 2004 and once more last November, when despite the disappointment he must have felt to play just 13 regular season games and only a few minutes in the playoffs, he laughed and shouted as ice water and champagne cascaded over Coach Sigi Schmid and hair clippers razed a few heads.

When I congratulated him in the locker room, his smile was just as wide and his handshake just as sincere, but he felt more than a bit nostalgic and wistful, to feel the aches and look at the calendar and know the end is near. Injuries, and age (he'll turn 37 this week) will do that to a player.

The games and the league and the sport he loves will go on, they just won't be as much fun.



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