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Thanksgiving football: Long journey has landed Becker at home in Upper Darby

UPPER DARBY >> From the sandy beaches of Sierra Leone to Upper Darby, Henry Becker’s path has been unique.

Born to an English-speaking father, the Upper Darby senior spent the first 14 years on another continent. Before he had reached high-school age, Becker’s parents wanted the best for their son, so he immigrated to the United States.

That’s just the beginning of what Becker said is a “crazy” journey.

“After I turned 14, I moved up here to the United States,” he said. “When I moved up here, I moved to New Jersey. Then I went to (Los Angeles) for about two months. Then I went back over to the east to live in Delaware. I was in Delaware for about two weeks, then I moved to Maryland with a family friend. I was there for another two months and then I got the chance to go to Texas because a family member wanted to take me in.”

Becker was able to settle in Texas for the majority of his high school career. He spent his first two years at Alief Elsik High School in Houston. Texas, of course, is famous for its Friday Night Lights culture, which is where he learned the game of football.

Upper Darby lineman Henry Becker goes through reps at practice this week. The senior transferred in from Katy, Texas, last December; Upper Darby is the third high school for the Sierra Leone native. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

“I didn’t even know about football. It’s funny,” he said with a smile. “It was my second semester of my freshman year. I remember this like it just happened. The freshman coach asked me, ‘What position do you play?’ I answered, ‘Uh, what sport?’ I was confused.”

In Africa, while Becker had a working knowledge of American culture — “because I watched a lot of TV” — he did not understand the country’s version of the sport. When he heard “football,” one might imagine what a kid from West Africa thought.

“When (the coach) said football, I was thinking about soccer. So I said, ‘I play goalkeeper.’ He said, ‘No, no. Football,’” Becker said. “Then he had me come with him after school and he said, ‘I’ll go show you how the game is played, and maybe you will like it.’ He took me down to the fieldhouse. The first thing they asked me was, ‘What are your grades like?’ and I said, “Uh, all As.’ So they said, ‘OK, let’s take you to the locker room and get you over here.’”

Becker speaks impeccable English and is an excellent student. His favorite subject is history.

“My family was weird in a different type of way. My dad and grandpa, they had this thing for English and they were able to learn the language,” Becker said. “I was pretty much around the language forever. You would think I am an American kid because I was always watching TV and listened to the language, so it kind of just rubbed off on me.”

There was a time when Becker’s parents wanted him to return to his native land, but then the Ebola virus outbreak struck the region. Becker was told to stay in the United States. It was too risky to come home.

“That whole thing affected my hometown. That’s kind of where it started, in Sierra Leone,” he said. “My parents were thinking, well maybe I should go back and get things sorted out before I came here (to the United States) for good. I still remember this. The very next morning, after my parents told me to come back, I remember waking up and I went to look at the TV and saw on the news, ‘Sierra Leone.’ I thought, ‘Wait, what?’ I saw the people with the masks and everything. I thought it was serious. I knew I couldn’t go back home. I had to stay.”

Unable to return home, Becker was poised to make the most of his opportunities in the States. Eight months ago, his father passed away. He hasn’t seen his family in Africa since he left in 2014.

In Texas, Becker fell in love with football. He remembers the first day of practice his freshman year.

“They had me kick a football all day,” he said. “It was exhausting actually.”

By his sophomore year, Becker switched to fullback.

“I was bigger than the other freshmen and sophomores,” he said. “As a freshman, I didn’t even know how the sport was played. I was still getting introduced to it. That was a lot of fun.”

Before his junior year, the school hired a new coaching staff. Becker was a gym rat, and the new coaches took notice of his dedication. He was told he had earned the starting fullback job on varsity. It was a special moment for Becker.

And then everything changed. He had to move again, this time to another school district in Texas. Since he has been in the United States, Becker has lived with different relatives across the country. He had grown used to not staying in one place for long.

But this time, it hurt.

“Going into my junior year, the month before my first game, they told me we were moving to a different school district,” Becker said. “I thought it was a joke and that I could stay with the family member. But I couldn’t. The week before leaving, I had to watch the home game but I couldn’t be on the sideline.

“Man, that was hard. I thought, ‘That should be me out there.’ It was tough.”

Becker transferred to Cypress Lakes High School in Katy. He was there one semester.

“When I got there, their season was already under way,” he said. “After that fall semester, that’s when I moved here. So, my junior year I went to three different schools in two different states.”

Upper Darby welcomed Becker with open arms in December. So, too, did Royals coach Rich Gentile and his staff. Becker is currently living with a cousin “who is more like a big brother,” he said.

“When I got here, the first day I asked if I could talk to the football coach. That’s when I talked to Coach Gentile,” he said. “I was able to work out with the team, and that was pretty great. The first time I played football, I didn’t feel that. But on the first day I got here and went to the weight room, it was instant chemistry.”

What’s the biggest thing Becker misses about Texas?

“Whataburger,” he said of the fast-food joint. “They should have those up here.”

Nonetheless, Becker is loving his time at Upper Darby. He moved to defensive tackle and has played in virtually every game this season. He enjoys playing alongside players bigger than him, including All-Central League lineman Derrick Korboi.

“I came here thinking I would be fullback or maybe linebacker. When I moved here, coaches said they might try me at defense,” Becker said. “The change is perfect. The way the defensive line works, which is one of the strongest parts of our team, everyone communicates. It wasn’t hard to move from fullback to defensive tackle.”

Becker got a crash course on the Thanksgiving rivalry with Haverford, too.

“We had big rivalries like this in Texas,” he said. “I can’t wait.”

Becker missed one game for a court hearing for his temporary Protected Status. His goal is to graduate, attend college and one day gain American citizenship.

A young man who has been all over the map, Becker finally feels at home at Upper Darby.

“It really is (home),” Becker said. “I’ve bounced around a lot and I remember almost every place I have ever been to, very, very vividly. This place is great, from my family to the school to the kids and to my teachers and coaches. I feel like this is pretty much my home now.”

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