It’s a story you’ve heard many times before.
An athlete raised by a strong single mother because she was abandoned by her father before she was born — an honor roll student who prevailed in spite of ridiculous odds, trials and tribulations, and so on.
But freshman goalkeeper Makenna Henry, who has already recorded four shutouts in her young USCB career, is open about her past, her Jamaican and white ancestral roots and her older sister’s sexual orientation. She’s polite and confident. She smiles easily in her pink headband and UCSB workout garb.
She’s also easy to talk to in a collegiate environment of athletes who spew clichés, explaining to me at the Isla Vista Starbucks on a late September evening that at the age of nine she chose soccer over lacrosse because the latter sport wasn’t physical enough.
“I definitely want to hit someone,” she said with a laugh. “As a goalie you can go 90 minutes without touching the ball with your hands, so when you do get that one shot you’ve got to make the save and send a message. I’ll hit you harder the second time, so you better stay away.”
She then talked about why she chose UCSB and how she felt stepping on the beachside campus for the first time.
“I know it’s going to sound really corny, but I came to the campus and just had a feeling. I fell in love,” she said. “I didn’t have to look anywhere else.”
Five minutes later, she told me about the shoulder injury that almost ended her athletic career and the father she reunited with for the first and last time on his deathbed 3,000 miles away in Boston, 17 years after he abandoned his family.
“It all happened at the same time,” she said. “The injury, [my dad] coming back… all at the same time.”
Makenna’s father, Kevin McKenzie, a Jamaican musician who sold hospital beds by day, left the family in 1992 — before Makenna was born — to pursue a music career in Miami.
“I think when you’re dealing with artistic people, they need to be able to do that sort of thing,” said Makenna’s mother, Pamela. “We had a discussion about it, and I didn’t think he’d actually do it, but he did. His intent was to contact us and to bring us over there, but it never happened.”
Pamela, who was still pregnant when McKenzie left, immediately realized the urgency of the situation. She enrolled in school shortly after Makenna was born to pursue a nursing career, graduating with an associate’s degree five years later.
“The bottom line: It doesn’t matter,” Pamela said. “[I told the girls] that the thing about your dad is that we’re grateful that he was there to create you, but he’s not the center of [their] universe. There’s no time to pity. You just need to do the next thing.”
For Makenna, the next thing was sports. Before moving across the country, her father played cricket in Jamaica and in local leagues throughout Fountain Valley, CA. Her older sister, Keisha, played basketball in college. Even Makenna’s aunt, Pamela’s younger sister, earned a softball scholarship at Cal State Fullerton.
“[Sports] do kind of go way back in [Makenna’s] family,” Pamela said. “Back in my mom’s day they wore skirts and played half court ball because full court was too much work for a woman.”
By the age of 15, Makenna was one of the best goalkeepers in the country, earning a spot on the Under-15 U.S. Girls’ National Team. She began gaining attention from the nation’s top collegiate programs.
“She was a big-time recruit, period,” Head Women’s Soccer Coach Paul Stumpf said.
“I loved how professional everything was,” Makenna said of the national team. “For the first time, I saw how things really were when you get to that level. Everything you do is for your team. Everything.”
When she injured herself, the top collegiate programs began shifting their attention elsewhere. Although Makenna talked about how the experience helped her develop as a Division 1 soccer player, she also lost her spot on the national team, according to Pamela. A month later, she received a letter from her father’s side of the family in Boston, which claimed that her father had cancer and that she should visit.
Makenna looks at each transformative stage of her life as a stepping stone in building herself as an athlete and a person, as “hurdles I needed to jump.” According to Stumpf, she has room to grow as a player, but the team is comfortable with her abilities.
“She’s a kid who has had different experiences, but she’s not bitter about the world,” Stumpf said. “She’s one of the most mature, confident kids I ever met.”
After college, Makenna hopes to become either a sports psychologist or a coach. She takes the field again at Harder Stadium against Cal State Northridge on Oct. 8. at 7 p.m.