By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Soccer is different for boys growing up in Latin American countries. It’s not just a game, but an opportunity to display one’s personality. Showing off isn’t seen as unsportsmanlike conduct, but rather expressing yourself and your joy for the game. Players from countries like Mexico, Brazil, Panama, Honduras, Peru, Argentina, etc., they love to show off their talents and prove why soccer is sometimes called “The Beautiful Game.”
Henry Calix grew up in a place called Saba, in Honduras, and moved to the United States at age 12. He didn’t speak English, and transitioning to a new country with a new language, new food and a completely different climate wasn’t easy. But he always had soccer to help him through.
Little did he know just how completely different even soccer can be in a different country.
The American style of soccer is much more plodding, more physical, more in-your-face. American high school teams value possession, and set pieces as their best chances to score. Latin American players love the freedom of having the ball at their feet with no set plays, just have fun, be creative and find dazzling ways to put a shot on net. It took a while for Calix to understand how Egg Harbor Township High coach Pete Lambert likes to play, but once he did, Calix became an instrumental part of a team that was one of the best in South Jersey this fall.
“He’s a good kid. He’s a knowledgeable player who got better every year. As he matured each year his game developed as well. When he was younger he wanted to kind of dance on the ball, but his junior and senior year he really developed into a special all-around player where he was dangerous on the ball and his vision got much better,” Lambert said. “He was more unselfish and looking to spread the ball around and create what he could. He played strong on the ball for his size, and a lot of that you can’t really coach or teach. He just had a knack for getting his body in the right spot to seal the ball or get in on tackles. That, I was really impressed by — his development on how to receive the ball and not lose it.
“It took him a year or two to develop the English language and he really worked hard on that and worked hard in school,” Lambert added. “I was really impressed with his senior year. His junior year he had a couple guys he was competing for time with but he stepped up and was a captain this year. He had six goals and five assists, and he had some really good games. He led us by example on the field.”
“It was a big change, living in a country that only speaks Spanish, it was a completely different world out here (in New Jersey). The weather was cold and I had to adjust to eating certain foods I wasn’t accustomed to. I loved Honduras and I still love visiting there,” said Calix, now an 18-year-old senior. “I was taking ESL classes and there were Hispanic kids who would help me out throughout the day, showing me the school and helping me meet new people. I took (learning English) as a challenge and I like overcoming challenges. I was able to communicate with people within three or four months. I speak the language about 90 percent, I’d say. I still struggle sometimes with writing in English.”
When he first came to EHT High, Calix admitted he was a little unprepared for how seriously Lambert and his coaching staff and players take the game of soccer. To Calix, soccer was just something fun that he and all his friends played growing up.
“The first year, I didn’t really take (high school soccer) that seriously, but when I saw some guys getting advanced to JV I started taking it seriously. I didn’t get to play varsity, but I moved up to JV my freshman year then played three years of varsity,” Calix said. “I used to tell my teammates and coaches funny stories that here, if you don’t have the proper shoes or shin guards, you can’t play, but in my country sometimes we play barefoot. It was just the way we played the game.
“I can still hear my coaches telling me to keep it simple and don’t over-do it. But in my country, you take the ball and try to do what you can with it,” he explained. “There aren’t any plays you have to follow, you just go out and play the game. That’s my style, being more creative with the ball than just doing the simple stuff, so it was hard to adjust and be more simple with the ball.”
“Some parts of his game were frustrating through the years because that Latin American style where everybody wants to be pretty and be flashy — I tell the guys that in our league and in South Jersey Group 4, you’ll have moments when you can be flashy but that’s not what we need. You have to be gritty and do the simple things,” Lambert said. “It took him a while to get that. You could see his wheels spinning when he’d want to do something fun and flashy, but he would think twice and take the easy pass or a quick one-touch. That part of the game he had to develop, and a lot of players coming from different parts of the world, they watch their favorite players and they grow up wanting to do the flashy moves and the highlight-reel moves. Sometimes that works, but more often than not it doesn’t. The way we play, you just have to be smart and move the ball. It took him a little bit to get that out of his system, but by his senior year he was an all-around player and the kind of player we knew he could be. He played defense at a high level and was always looking to get into the attack and spread the ball round. I was really happy with his development.”
As a junior, Calix helped lead EHT to a 12-2 mark in the covid-shortened 2020 season, and this fall the Eagles went 13-7 and won the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament for the first time, beating St. Augustine Prep and Hammonton. They also scored a 2-0 win over Eastern in the opening round of the state playoffs.
“He can play anywhere on the field, so we needed somebody like him who could read the field and get into the passing lanes and get us out of trouble. He was our utility guy,” Lambert said. “He’s always plotting and thinking, he knows where his teammates are and he can get a ball to any part of the field. We told him, at times you need to be selfish with the ball and at times you need to be unselfish. Once he put that all together he was pretty dynamic. When you watched EHT soccer this year, you were like, ‘OK, who is No. 8? That kid is flashy and talented and works hard.’ There’s not a moment out there when he wasn’t working hard and thinking about the team.”
“Coming into the varsity level, I was still adjusting to the team. I wasn’t getting a lot of minutes, so when I did I tried to go out there and prove I could play at that level. I got more physical with the ball when I had to and tried to play quicker. I got more confident (as a senior) because I knew what I was capable of and what the whole team was capable of. I was working hard and pushing my teammates, and myself, to be better than the day before,” Calix said.
Calix said he took the lead of Lambert, one of the top coaches in South Jersey and a recent induction in the South Jersey Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
“He’s always willing to put in the work, and me and my teammates were willing to put in the work for the good of the program, and that’s why we were successful this year. Coach said to make sure I was always on point and to make sure I was checking everybody to do the right things,” Calix said. “My favorite part of EHT soccer was us, as a team, connecting really well, both on and off the pitch. We could truly say we were like a family, even outside the field. We always made sure we were connected and one with each other.”
All of Calix’s hard work earned him the captain’s arm band this year — an honor he didn’t take lightly.
“It was an honor. I dreamt of that. I remember my first year of varsity seeing the captains named and I remember wishing one day I could be one of those. If you wish it, that doesn’t mean it’s going to come true. You have to work for it, and that’s exactly what I did. (Putting on the captain’s armband) was an incredible feeling. I felt like I was a leader out there and I had to make sure I was on point so my teammates could follow and see example I was willing to put out there on the field,” Calix said. “A good leader is a guy who is always looking out for his teammates, a guy who is always there when he needs to be, being on time to practice, being respectful to the coaches and the teachers in school. You’re a student before you’re an athlete. It just means being responsible for everything.”
“I think it was just his passion for the game and wanting to be a teammate first. He wanted to be around this program. He was always popping into my classroom wanting to talk soccer,” Lambert said of what makes Calix special. “He got on a couple of club teams and developed in the offseason, and was always excited to play for his school and with his buddies. We have a handful of kids from Honduras and they are proud of their heritage. They play for their family and they play for their country. When you put it all together, it’s pretty exciting to see how much soccer means to these kids like Henry.
“I was really happy with the way he developed through the years. I love his energy.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays