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The first day of the rest of my sporting life

I knew this day would come, and I knew it was soon, but that doesn't mean I'm not sad about it.

Michael Regan/Getty Images

I am not a sentimental person by nature. I find nostalgia very claustrophobic and uninteresting, for the most part - I'm much more interested in the present and the future than I am in the past, which is over and done with and static. There are, however, times when I will make an exception, and look back on something or someone that has meant a lot to me in my life.

Of course, these lookbacks never happen at good times - it's usually because of a death or a retirement or other sadness-causing event. There's no point in being nostalgic on a random Tuesday, because there might be cool stuff that's happening currently that you will miss.

But this, friends, this is not a random Tuesday. This is the day that one of the top two sporting presences in my entire sports-watching life officially decided to call it a career.

There will be a whole boatload of articles, both on TSF and elsewhere, bullet-pointing TH14's accomplishments and listing out his top goals, so I'm not going to bother with that - mine are probably more or less the same as yours, anyway (nobody highlights a goal from a wet Tuesday night in Stoke, for fuck's sake). If you'll indulge me for a minute, my angle is going to be a bit more personal, anecdotal, and about what watching him play meant to me over the years.

I have been extremely fortunate in my life to have a number of friends in England - met through random chance here in the States, met through work, and met through my Arsenal fandom. In early 2001, I was planning yet another trip to England that was going to include at least two Arsenal games - had no specific time frame in mind, but I knew I wanted to go for a few weeks. Then, Arsenal beat Carlisle in the third round of the FA Cup, and later that month absolutely hammered QPR 6-0 in the second round.

I was talking to a friend during that match, and mentioning I was thinking of going to England soon - and he said something to the effect that I should wait until I see what happens with Arsenal in the Cup, because wouldn't it be amazing to get to go to a Cup final? So I waited, and watched. I watched Arsenal beat Chelsea, and then Blackburn, and set up a wee confrontation at Old Trafford with our North London neighbors. I think we all know what happened next.

The very next day, I was on the phone with the airline (2001!) booking my ticket to England for May. I then emailed my Arsenal season ticket having friend with my dates, and he said I could stay with him, travel with his family to Cardiff, and also have his spare ticket for the Leeds game the week prior to the Cup final.

This was extremely awesome - I hadn't been to England since 1998, so I had never seen this newish Thierry Henry kid in person before, but I had of course seen him play on TV, so I was pretty excited to see him up close. And, as it turns out, "up close" was up really damn close - my friend's "spare seat" was in the North Bank, front row, right by the corner flag. I literally could have reached out and grabbed TH14 when he came over to take a corner.

Do I have pictures? No, I do not - at the time, the Premier League did not allow "ordinary people" to take photographs of game action. I have pics of an empty Highbury, and of warmups, but every time during the game I'd get my camera out, thinking I was being all sneaky, a steward would give me the stinkeye and stand in front of me, blocking my view. Jerks.

Anyway, that game was where I first saw TH14 in person, and he did not disappoint - he didn't score (and Sylvain Wiltord did!), but he was involved in most of the buildup play, and had several fantastic shots that were saved by Nigel Martyn. Watching Henry read the game and work with his teammates was pretty awe-inspiring. Other than Bergkamp (who didn't play in this game), he was the best I'd seen at knowing what his teammates were going to do before they did it, and putting the ball where they wanted it a step before they got there. Arsenal won 2-1, and my love affair with Thierry Henry began in earnest.

Then, it was off to Cardiff for the FA Cup final.  That day was probably the most fun I've ever had at a live sporting event, until goddamn Michael Owen ruined it.  My enduring memory of that day, other than how amazing the atmosphere and most of the game was, was after the final whistle, when Thierry Henry, who had three great chances to win the game (one handball-prevented goal and two missed chances) was lying on the Millennium Stadium turf, bawling inconsolably, while Liverpool were celebrating on the other end and the rest of Arsenal were wondering what hit them.

Finally, after about five minutes, Tony Adams came over and literally picked Henry up - like you would with an unconscious drunk, Adams looped his arms around Henry's chest and dragged him to his feet. He then took TH14's face in his hands, leaned in, and said a bunch of stuff to him - from my perch in the second deck I obviously couldn't hear what was being said, but whatever it was, it brought TH14 back to life a bit - and walked him off the pitch.

That moment taught me how seriously Thierry Henry took the game. The rest of the Arsenal team looked shellshocked; they had been hit by a lethally quick Michael Owen double, and couldn't recover. But Henry? He looked like he was the one who singlehandedly lost the game for Arsenal, like he was personally responsible for the unhappiness of the traveling Arsenal supporters and the Arsenal team and staff.  I didn't think this at the time, because I was one of the shellshocked ones, but later on I thought "that's what I want to see out of a guy like Henry".

Apart from all the goals, and all the passes, and all the quotes, that's what I loved most about watching him play - how personally he took the game. He treated the game like it was his responsibility to make it better, to elevate it beyond the reach of his opponent, no matter how good that opponent - and on most occasions, he succeeded.

My wife mockingly refers to Thierry Henry as "my boyfriend" - when we became Timbers season ticket holders, one of my first reactions was OH MY GOD I GET TO SEE THIERRY HENRY IN PERSON AGAIN! Before she was a big Timbers fan, she didn't really follow soccer at all, except veeeeeeeery tangentially through me, so she was as sick of hearing me say "wow check out what Thierry Henry did today" as anyone without context would be.

I would always defend Henry, even though now he was playing for The Enemy (although NYRB and PTFC aren't huge rivals); I couldn't root for the Red Bulls, but I always sorta snuck in some Henry cheers when he took the pitch in Portland, and every time I would do that, my Timber-loving wife would give me grief. She saw him as anyone would see the best player on a rival team - as a player to dislike, as a player whose every mistake and misstep was cheered and mocked, which is of course as it should be for someone who wanted their team to beat his team.

But this year, before the MLS All Star Game in Portland, I was doing my usual overdosing on TH14 moments (and probably boring her to tears with them), because I figured that game would be the last time I got to see him play.  I don't remember at what exact point during one of my long, probably overly elaborate descriptions of his play she said this, but at some point, I think after watching a video that MLS put together about his career, she said something to the effect of "so it's really not just you - he's really that good, isn't he?"

No, it's not just me. He was that good.