Rich Abney - UNBC Athletics
It had been a tragic week in Prince George, British Columbia. Two high school students had made the heartbreaking decisions to take their own lives, just days apart from one another. The school was reeling. The community was reeling. Questions mounted in the minds of those where answers would not.
It was 11:55 PM when my phone vibrated, notifying me of a text. It was Michael Henman, a member of the University of Northern British Columbia’s Men’s soccer team.
“I have to tell my story.”
I responded by asking him why he thought now was the appropriate time.
“Did you see what happened to those two kids this week. I have to tell my story. Maybe, if I had told it earlier, one of them may have seen someone who has gone through things. Maybe it could have saved a life.”
It struck me that in a time of sadness for an entire city, it was a Victoria transplant, just 20 years old, who felt compelled to do something. I text him back saying I would help him do just that. We had talked before about writing a piece on his journey to get to Prince George, but the timing hadn’t been right. In that moment, it struck me as unfair that when the vast majority of us were allowed to just be sad, he was feeling like his story could shed light, create conversation, or even save a life. I asked Michael if it felt unfair.
“Mental health is unfair.”
He saw the play developing at midfield. It was a scoreless tie between the visiting Calgary Dinos and his UNBC Timberwolves, on a brisk September afternoon in Prince George. The game was the sixth of his Canada West career. He had been held without a goal through his first five contests, but the Victoria native had a number of chances, with eight shots on goal through the first few matches. Now, in the 37th minute, that was about the change.
UNBC’s Owen Stewart took possession at midfield and cut across the pitch 40 yards from the Dinos net, drawing with him a pair of Calgary defenders. Henman, recognizing the open area, turned up field, where Stewart found him with a through ball that rolled perfectly to his feet. From there, instincts took over. Henman, who had proven his ability to make plays with either foot, changed the angle and managed to put it through Dinos keeper Jake Ruschkowski to make it 1-nil.
A big goal, no doubt. A go-ahead marker against a powerhouse school in the conference would be monumental for any player, and particularly any freshman. But as his Timberwolves teammates swarmed him in celebration, including childhood teammates Cody Gysbers and Jonah Smith, it was perhaps Smith who said it best.
“What a journey! What a journey.”
Michael Henman couldn’t quite clear his throat. No amount of coughing seemed to help. He had battled a sinus infection for a few weeks, but seemed to be coming out of it nicely. His cold symptoms were mostly gone, except for the feeling of a buildup in his nose and throat. No matter how much he tried, he had a nagging fear that we would try to breathe, but end up gagging or choking.
His parents, Pat and Diane, had taken him to three throat specialists for three exams, but every time, the scans and exams came back with nothing. There was, seemingly, no reason why Michael felt something in his throat. There was no reason why he was in constant fear of gagging and choking.
“There wasn’t anything there. I didn’t believe it,” said Henman. “As soon as we did the third test, and my parents saw, again, that there was nothing, they knew there was more going on. There was something psychological going on.”
It was 2015, and Michael was a member of the Victoria Highlanders U21 program. Soccer was his escape. His chance to play the game he loved, alongside friends he had grown up with. The Highlanders coach, Steve Simonson, had been made aware of Michael’s recent ailment, so a strategy had been devised. No matter what direction the Highlanders were attacking, Michael would play on the side of the pitch closest to his coach. That way, if he was having throat issues, Simonson could easily communicate with his player, and substitute him out of the game if needed.
The Highlanders made the trip to Ladysmith, a town of 8500 people on the east coast of Vancouver Island, for a rainy afternoon matchup. As usual, Henman was on the side of the pitch closest to his coach. With a few minutes left before halftime, he let Simonson know he would like to be subbed off. However, Simonson urged him to finish the half. It was a coaching decision that has happened thousands of times prior; imploring a young athlete to dig deep, take the hard path, and find the inner strength to battle through adversity. In nearly all occasions, the result is a positive breakthrough. But on that rainy afternoon on Vancouver Island, things were different.
At halftime, Henman experienced the first panic attack of his life. While his teammates sat in the locker room, he locked himself in the bathroom. While his teammates focused on the next 45 minutes, he struggled to try to throw up.
“My heart was racing. I was covered in sweat, and yet felt cold. My brain was a cloud. I couldn’t sort out my thoughts, and it just wasn’t working. It felt like I was in a storm.”
Simonson was a distracted, conflicted coach during that halftime. He himself had battled with anxiety his entire life, and recognized some of the symptoms of his player. While trying to address the other members of the team on the x’s and o’s, his mind was with Henman, who was alone in the bathroom with only his own thoughts.
When the rest of the Highlanders headed out for the second half, Simonson stayed in the locker room. He knew something wasn’t right. Henman unlocked the door, and Simonson joined him, trying to calm a young man he had known for many years. Finally, Henman was ready to leave the bathroom. Simonson led Henman to his parents, so he could leave the field and make the trip home.
“My parents had a look in their eye that I didn’t understand at the time. They wrapped me in blankets. I was freezing. I remember laying in the car that day, completely scared, even though I was with my parents. They were usually what calmed me down, but that day I was so panicked. It terrified me even more.”
“From that point, it was a downhill spiral.”
Perhaps there were some signs in the years previous. Throughout childhood, Michael had a tough time sleeping. He needed his mom to sit in his room in order to fall asleep. He wouldn’t even dream of going to a friend’s house for a sleepover; the first overnighter didn’t happen until he was in Grade 9, and it was only possible at the house of Cody Gysbers – a close, lifelong friend, who would one day play a role in Henman’s return to the pitch.
The Henmans figured it was just a matter of everyone maturing and growing up at a different speed.
But now, as a Grade 11 student, everything was different. Suddenly, he was unable to regularly attend classes. Playing in soccer games was not even in the discussion. Henman would make it to some Highlanders training sessions, but even that was overwhelming at times. Simonson wanted those practices to be an option and opportunity for Michael to play the game he loves without any judgement.
“We worked together on a plan. I didn’t want him to give up playing soccer. I told him “you now have an injury. If your teammates want to know why you’re not playing, you have an injury. When you’re hurt, you step in and out of training, and you warm up on your own.”
“I would go to the game, and sit on the bench until I felt like I could play,” said Henman. “If I didn’t feel like I could play, Steve put no pressure on me. He wouldn’t question me, ever.”
Away from the pitch, the Henmans were looking for answers. Pat and Diane knew their son was going through something far more complicated than throat issues. Michael, on the other hand, was struggling with the idea that what existed beyond the surface was entirely more severe than he wanted to consider.
Michael points to a trip to see his doctor in Sidney as momentous in his own confrontation of the battle in his own brain. Dr. Lewis, who would prove to be a massive ally throughout Michael’s journey, asked to speak to him without Pat and Diane in the room.
“Dr. Lewis was amazing. She heard everything I was going through, and asked to speak to me alone. She asked me if I was self-harming. She asked if I had been having suicidal thoughts. But she was so incredibly cool and patient about it. It was a scary conversation, because I wondered to myself if it would eventually turn into those things. It freaked me out, in a way. But it also opened my eyes to what I was living with.”
“I didn’t want to believe I had a psychological problem. It was a weakness. I was embarrassed by the idea, and quite frankly, I was terrified. We saw multiple doctors, psychologists, therapists, and naturopaths before I began to realize I had anxiety.”
The soccer pitch had long been Michael’s sanctuary. For as long as he could remember, when he would tie up his cleats and get on the pitch, he was able to escape. But now, that refuge had been robbed from him. He no longer felt himself. And the idea of even leaving his bedroom became overwhelming.
“Basically, I was in my house all day. All week. All month. It was a struggle. I was sad and I was lonely. So many tears.”
For the young man whose smile once lit up the room, that very room had dimmed, for himself and those who tried to aid him. The tasks that once seemed easy had become insurmountably difficult. Rather than escaping with a soccer ball at his feet, the only way to win the war waging in his mind was by evacuating the conscious world.
“I remember trying to sleep as much as I could because that was literally the only time I wasn’t afraid of something. I lost weight, I lost relationships, and I separated myself from the outside world.”
The remainder of Henman’s high school life was anything but easy. He stopped attending classes regularly. On the days he got in the doors, he often only made it into a single class. Most of the time, he would sit in the counsellor’s office.
The biggest reason he was even able to attend school, even in limited fashion was his dad, Pat, who sat in the parking lot, waiting in his car. Every single day. A retired school principal, he wanted his son to be at Reynolds Secondary. He knew that, even though school terrified Michael, it would help his son to be there. Pat Henman valued education, of course, but he parked his car outside the school every day because he valued his son’s mental wellness.
“If I was feeling trapped, it was so helpful to have my Dad outside. I can’t tell you the amount of times he had to talk me down. Even on the days I was really struggling, not many people around me knew I was panicking. Friends would walk by and they had no idea. Knowing my Dad was around helped a ton.”
Grade 11 and Grade 12 were a blur for Michael, who was significantly shy of the required credits it would take to graduate. The administration at Reynolds offered him a chance to still walk across the stage at graduation with his classmates, but Henman declined the offer. The idea of being in front of hundreds of people in the crowd, to accept a diploma he hadn’t technically earned was non-negotiable.
In fact, it would take him two more years of online courses to complete the required credits to graduate.
“I just wanted to get through high school. It took an extra two years. It was a weird feeling because my parents were so excited. I was obviously happy, but I was angry too. It should have happened earlier, and I was hard on myself about it.”
Nearly two-and-a-half years after the 2015 incident that left him shivering and crying in the backseat of his parent’s car, Michael was still struggling to leave the house for any extended period of time.
“My therapists would recommend I attempt things that scared me, so I would try. I would go to Cody’s house and hang out with him for as long as I could, while my Mom would be in the area. She would stay nearby in case I couldn’t hold out anymore and needed to leave.”
But, slowly yet surely, this approach was proving effective. He was frustrated with the difficulty he would have just preparing to leave the house, but he was, in fact, leaving the house.
“I started doing something that scared me every day. The more I did these things, the easier it became. I think it was at that point that I was able to begin trying to play soccer again. I was growing, and maturing, and I think it was happening naturally.”
Michael was finding his strength. In the Spring of 2018, he started to get back into soccer games. In April of 2018, he visited the University of Northern British Columbia. He was not yet a high school graduate, and he had taken two years away from the game he loved. But he had found a way to leave the house. He had found a way back into the game he loved. And now, he had a goal.
Henman received his high school diploma in July of 2018. More than two years later than his contemporaries. Twenty days before training camp with the UNBC Timberwolves in Prince George. He had held up his end of the bargain, and it was time for the next test. To play the highest level of university soccer in Canada. The Timberwolves coach? Steve Simonson.
“As long as I have been at UNBC, Michael has been telling me he would play here one day. When he first told me that, I remember thinking that he wasn’t even able to step on the field. To even verbalize that goal must have been terrifying for him.”
Simonson has a twinkle in his eye when he talks about his longtime pupil. It is a twinkle that is part reflective, part proud, and part emotional. Their journey together was unlike any he had with any other player in two decades of coaching.
“The door was open. He is definitely a good enough soccer player, that was never the question. But, what he would do for our program on the pitch was secondary. What the program, and the experience, would do for him was why I wanted that young man here. I knew, if he got here, it would be such a step forward in his life.”
The UNBC coach was so certain that Henman would benefit from the program and the program would benefit from Henman, that he offered him a spot before he even graduated. That was par for the course in the world of recruiting players at the university level. It was, however, far from a sure thing considering the obstacles his newest recruit was having to overcome.
Michael remembers spending his first night on UNBC’s Prince George campus at the end of July, in advance of his first training camp for the highest level of collegiate soccer in the country. Waking up in his room in UNBC housing, his anxiety was escalating. He asked his mom, Diane, to take him for a drive to try to calm him down. As they pulled into a roundabout in front of housing, he asked her to pull the car over.
“I swung the door open. I had to throw up. I had literally graduated from school three weeks before that, and now I was going to move 10 hours from my home. I remember tears in my eyes and all the fear rising to the surface.”
Diane Henman wasn’t forcing him to stay. She knew how hard her son had worked to put himself in this position.
“She just reminded me why I was there. She reminded me how far I had come. What it meant to me. And how much I deserved to be there. That was enough.”
Two days later, Michael was in his Timberwolves training kit, cleats on, heart racing as he tried to blend in. He was surrounded on the Northern Sport Centre training field by 30 other Timberwolves in their training kits, cleats on, hearts racing. He was exactly where he was supposed to be.
The Timberwolves had two preseason trips on the schedule. Henman had missed the first trip to Kamloops. He had been sick, but even he admits he would have likely had trouble going, even if he was healthy. The team was now set to take the bus to Edmonton, where they would take on a number of opponents in preparation for the Canada West regular season. Michael had made a major impression on his teammates in camp with his athletic ability and fluid movement. He had all the makings of an offensive threat that would provide the UNBC attack with an athlete who would put pressure on opposing backlines.
But when it came time to hit the road for Edmonton, Michael wasn’t on the bus. He was going to miss the second trip of the preseason.
“I was too nervous. I couldn’t go. I also knew the guys would want to know why, so I actually asked Steve to tell the team why I wasn’t there.”
Simonson wanted to pick the right time to tell his team. Michael had asked his coach to express how much he cared about the program, and how committed he was.
“I can remember it plain as day. I had a lot of trouble, emotionally, telling the guys. We stopped in Jasper and it was incredible. The attention from the guys, and the amount of care the men instantly showed. In that moment, I realized, he is in good hands here. To have the courage, to tell a group of college athletes. We know how tough that sports environment can be. But he wanted every single one of our men to know.”
Sitting in Prince George, Henman’s phone began lighting up with notifications. One by one. His teammates were reaching out.
“Steve told my story, and I cannot thank him enough. I have never actually asked exactly what he said, but I got a lot of very supportive texts, and comments from my teammates. It was incredible. This was my team, and that day proved it.”
Tuesday, September 4th, 2018, the Timberwolves were set to open their Canada West schedule at home against the Victoria Vikes.
Simonson and Henman had been in constant dialogue about their plan for the first time he would put a UNBC jersey on. The coach wanted him in the lineup.
“Opening day, start of the season. Michael wasn’t convinced he could play. I told him, if we put you in the 18, and you don’t play, you blow a year of eligibility. But, who cares? If it takes you five years to play a soccer game, we are going to do just that. It is not about you playing for UNBC, it is about you getting over that hump and just playing.”
Michael agreed to be in the lineup. In the hours leading up to the match, he felt ill. The anticipation, the fear, and the pressure were causing a physical reaction. He thought about the hours, days, and weeks he had lay in bed, hoping he could fall asleep and avoid the world. Now, there was a clock ticking towards 6 PM, when he would play university soccer.
“I didn’t want to be a liability. I didn’t want to burn a substitution. This is high level soccer. Steve and I talked about me starting, because he had so much faith in me being capable. Eventually, we agreed I would try to come on at halftime.”
After the first half of play, the TWolves and Vikes were knotted at 1-1. Simonson nodded to Henman. He was being subbed into the match.
You would think the next 45 minutes would have been a blur for Henman. The first touch of the ball at his feet could have been an overwhelming culmination of emotions and expectations. But, instead, it was like he was playing a game he had loved his entire life.
“I felt great. It was crazy. I felt totally fine. I just wanted to get on the field. I told Steve after that I could have started.”
Michael led all players in the game with four shots, including two on target, and had a pair of scoring chances that came within inches. The game ended in a draw, but it was a victory for number 9.
“It was a feeling of wow. I just played soccer at a university level. I was so proud of myself. And as soon as I realized I could do it, I was able to focus more on the game.”
Three days later, with perennial powerhouse Trinity Western in town, Henman stood on the field alongside his teammates as the National Anthem played through the speakers. He started that game, and played every second, including a brilliant assist on a goal in extra time in a 3-3 draw.
Four games later, against the Calgary Dinos, the young man’s story added another chapter when he scored his first goal.
“I was so relieved. I had thought about what it would be like to go the entire season without scoring. I was so relieved it happened. I can just remember Jonah running up me yelling “What a journey, what a journey,” and it almost made me cry right there. He told me after it almost made him cry too.”
Henman would play in eleven games for the Timberwolves in his freshman season, making five starts, registering two points, and nineteen shots. But his coach suggests those stats are meaningless in the big picture.
“I smiled the day he was subbed in for the first time. I smiled when he was standing there and the National Anthem was playing prior to his first start. And I smiled when he scored that goal. In fact, I was emotional when I saw that goal cross the line. But I also smile knowing he is right where he needs to be. Flourishing. Battling some days, but flourishing.”
Henman is the first to concede there wasn’t a single day that came easy to him. In fact, on many occasions he didn’t feel ok. Training was often difficult. The grind of the academic pressures facing a student-athlete were often overwhelming. But, through it all, he kept going.
“The guy I was a year and a half ago would have never dreamed he would be here, playing at the highest level, taking classes, and being social. And a year from now? I will just keep doing these things that worry me, or freak me out.”
“Imagine having the same dream your entire life. And then it’s gone. No backup plan. I started to wonder what am I meant to be? My dream is still to be a professional soccer player. It stopped being my dream, but it is back again. I love being able to dream that again.”
In a not-so-surprising turn of events, he has also discovered a desire to aid those who need it most; the young, the battling, the vulnerable.
“I think being a teacher one day would be very cool. I am doing so much better than I thought I would be doing. I guess it is not a shock I am interested in that. Eventually, maybe I think I would like to be a counsellor. I really want to help people.”
For Simonson, the decision to recruit Henman to UNBC has been one of the most rewarding choices of his professional and personal life. For years, he carried with him the decision to push Henman to stay in the game that led to his first panic attack.
“I probably spent a year blaming myself for that moment. I thought I was helping him through a moment, but I was unknowingly driving him into a hole. A decision you make can have a profound impact. The relationship has been amazing. We have talked about that moment. There was no blame, which was healing for me. Coaches underestimate the impact we have.”
“As coaches, we need to stop looking at an athlete with an issue, and be angry at them for having that issue. We need to dig deeper into why they’re having an issue in the first place. These are human beings. If you take care of the human being first, the athlete will thrive. We have tried to create an environment where everyone is safe to be who they are. Every single guy has something going on in his life. We all have them. I have had some amazing conversations with players here, who aren’t afraid to come forward to talk about how they’re feeling. Michael is a major reason for that.”
Henman, who will be a major part of the TWolves’ plan in his second season, says it is no accident he ended up in Prince George.
“He may not want to admit this, but Steve is a huge reason I am here. From the beginning, this was the only university I could have gone to. This is my home.”
“Mental health is unfair.”
Those words stuck with me. I couldn’t shake the wisdom of a young man who lived every morning and every night with this as a part of him. Mental wellness, after all, doesn’t take a day off.
He visited my office the next day, where we discussed the goal in getting his story in writing. He didn’t want it to glorify himself as anything more than someone living his life, challenging himself, under invisible yet heavy circumstances.
“I do not want this to be a ‘hey, look at me, I have anxiety but I am doing great, give me credit’ story. I hope this is a way for kids who are struggling to see what happened to me, and realize they can do it too. This is for the kids who are struggling with mental health.”
I ask him how he keeps pushing himself to climb the next mountain standing in front of him. It occurs to me that the usual obstacles of a university student may look different to a young man who couldn’t leave his bedroom for days at a time.
“I will just keep doing these things that worry me, or freak me out. It’s baby steps, for lack of a better word. It is an ongoing battle. It’s a thing I am dealing with, and I know it is not going to go away.”
In that moment, the seriousness in Henman’s expression and the shaky certainty in his voice would have been enough to silence a raucous crowd. Only Michael fully knew his path to the point where he felt the strength and responsibility to be a role model. He had been fearful he would never again play the game he loved. He was worried he would never graduate from high school. Not so long ago, he had been terrified of losing his friends, and lose his family. But now is the time to tell his story.
“I want people to realize they’re not the only ones feeling that way. I know what this feels like. I want to help. If there is someone out there dealing with what I deal with, or worse, I can’t just sit back and do nothing. Maybe this article coming out helps one person, and that will all be worth it. To have an idea what they are going through, I need to stand up. I am not going to sit by and let it happen.”
“In a way, I wish all this didn’t happen. But, in a sense, I am glad I got anxiety in the first place. I wouldn’t be right here, right now, if I didn’t have it. It has made me stronger. It’s weird that the worst thing that happened to me has ended up being so rewarding. I don’t want to say it is the worst thing, because everyone is dealing with something. But it was really bad. And yet, here I am.”
What a journey. What a journey.