Ezra Hendrickson in 2nd year as head coach of Chicago Fire
Mar. 4—Turn on the Chicago Fire FC game Saturday, and if you're a fan of Western School Corporation athletics or local athletics in general, you will see a familiar face.
Ezra Hendrickson, a standout athlete in basketball at Western High School, county club soccer, a member of the Howard County Sports Hall of Fame and a successful former professional soccer player, is now in his second year as head coach of the Chicago Fire FC, which begins its 2023 campaign Saturday when the Fire play New York City FC at Soldier Field.
The Fire's hiring of Hendrickson in November 2021 is the first time, as far as local sports aficionados say, a local athlete has reached the head coaching position of one of the major professional sports leagues, a rather significant achievement given Howard County's storied sports history.
Those who played with him and coached, though, say they're not surprised Hendrickson has ascended to a top coaching job in American soccer.
'THE MICHAEL JORDAN OF WESTERN'
Hendrickson moved to Kokomo from his native country St. Vincent and the Grenadines as an eighth grader to be with his father who worked at Delphi. The young Hendrickson loved soccer, but Western did not have a school soccer team then. He was extremely athletic and booksmart. He was short and skinny and had not played much basketball, if at all.
That would soon change, though.
Tom Lewis, Western's boys basketball head coach at the time, said Hendrickson, as a freshman, was the last boy of 18 picked for the basketball team. Hendrickson wasn't very good at basketball, but his pure athletic ability and his desire and willingness to learn and be coached were enough to keep him in consideration.
Scott Gaskins, a Western grad and basketball teammate of Hendrickson, said the St. Vincent native scored a total of 24 points his freshman year and hardly played.
"I remember the coaches saying 'Well, he looks like an athlete so we'll keep him,'" Gaskins said.
By Hendrickson's senior year, not only was he much taller than when he first arrived at more than 6-feet-tall, he led the Panthers in scoring with an average 15.8 points a game and was tied for team rebound leader with 7.1 rebounds per game.
Hendrickson's improvement over his four years at Western played a large part in the Panthers dethroning Kokomo, who had won 13 sectionals in a row, 63-52 in the 1990 sectional semifinal game.
The Panthers would later defeat Northwestern for the 1990 sectional championship, the school's last single-class sectional championship. Hendrickson was the first Panther to cut the basketball net after the sectional win.
Hendrickson's stellar defense against Kokomo was cited at the time by the Tribune as a major reason why the Panthers won.
"Because of his soccer background, he was great at defense because he played with his feet," Lewis said. "Many young basketball players play defense with their hands, reaching in and all, but Ezra played with his feet and was never out of place."
The championship made Hendrickson a star at Western. His stellar senior year led to many accolades, including being named all-Mid-Indiana Conference, an Eastern Indiana All Star and named one of the state's top 100 seniors by Hoosier Basketball magazine.
"He was the Michael Jordan of Western," Lewis said. "All the young kids wanted his autograph."
Hendrickson was just as well-liked by his teammates.
"He was a great guy to get along with," Gaskins said. "He was a very personable guy, very intelligent and very friendly and outgoing."
Despite some DII and DIII basketball offers, Hendrickson would choose his first love — soccer — for his post-high school career.
Hendrickson was also no stranger to the local soccer scene, having played club soccer and with the Howard County Huskies in the Kokomo Police Athletic League. After high school, he played club soccer in Indianapolis as part of the Metropolitan Soccer Association.
It was at an Indiana University Bloomington soccer camp that he caught the eye of the coaches at Drake University, a D1 private university in Des Moines, Iowa.
Lewis said he was happy for Hendrickson getting a campus visit at Drake University, though he cautioned the young man about the cost to attend a private university and to not commit to anything at the moment because of it.
Drake University ended up offering Hendrickson a full ride scholarship during his campus visit.
"I asked if he accepted it, and he said 'No coach, you told me not to,'" Lewis said. "I told him we needed to call them back right away and take it before they gave their scholarships to someone else."
Hendrickson excelled at Drake. He was named three times as an all-Missouri Valley Conference player and was named as an all-American soccer player his senior year.
Hendrickson started out with the New York/New Jersey franchise (now the New York Red Bulls) in 1997, which was Major League Soccer's second year of existence, after being drafted fifth overall in the 1997 MLS Supplemental Draft. Midway through the season he was waived and picked up by the L.A. Galaxy.
His release ended up being fortuitous.
He spent his peak years with the Galaxy, playing for Sigi Schmid's squads and winning the first hardware in the franchise's history. Hendrickson played parts of seven seasons with the Galaxy, scoring 17 goals and dishing out 26 assists playing primarily as a raiding right defender.
Hendrickson was part of the Galaxy's 2001 U.S. Open Cup championship team, and was on the club that finally won the MLS Cup in 2002. He was named the team's MVP in 2001.
After the Galaxy, he had stops at Dallas, the now-defunct Chivas USA and D.C. United, where he picked up his second MLS championship in 2004. He spent his last three seasons in the MLS with the Columbus Crew, which won the title in 2008 with Schmid at the helm.
Shortly after retiring, Hendrickson went into coaching, serving as an assistant coach for various MLS teams, including the Seattle Sounders, LA Galaxy and Columbus Crew. He also served as the head coach for the St. Vincent national team from 2015-18.
Now, Hendrickson faces one of his biggest challenges yet: turning around the Chicago Fire FC franchise.
The Fire entered the MLS in 1998. Things started out well as the franchise won the league's championship and the U.S. Open Cup in its inaugural year.
More recently, however, the franchise has been one of the worst in the league. Since 2013, the Fire have made the playoffs once, in 2017, bowing out in the first round.
Last season, Hendrickson's first as head coach, the Fire started strong with a 2-0-2 record but suffered a 10-game winless streak in the middle of the season. In all, the team posted a 10-5-9 record, placed 24th out of 28 in the league and did not qualify for the playoffs.
Hendrickson told the Chicago Sun-Times in January that he knows his team needs to improve. The Fire have not been shy to relieve underperforming coaches of their duties; the team has had six different coaches since 2013.
"The key for us is getting deeper at every position, making sure there's competition, good enough competition so that no one gets complacent in their position," Hendrickson said. "At times, we fell victim to that. We've done a good job in the offseason to make sure that we're getting better and getting deeper as a team."
The Chicago Fire did not respond to a request for an interview with Hendrickson.
Both Lewis and Gaskins said they are not at all surprised Hendrickson has had such a successful sports career and is now leading a top-tier U.S. professional team.
"No, it doesn't surprise me at all because Ezra can accomplish anything he puts his mind to," Lewis said. "That's how it's always been. He's always had dedication and a strong work ethic."
Tyler Juranovich can be reached at 765-454-8577, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @tylerjuranovich.