Henry Tolbert felt alone. Out of place. Different.
His family had moved from Liberia to the United States in 2015 and Tolbert admitted that he didn’t have many friends in his new hometown of Austin.
He didn’t have much in common with anyone. Junior high was difficult.
“Sometimes, there was no one to talk to,” Tolbert said. “My history teacher, he wanted me to play football. But I didn’t really know anyone or know anything about sports.”
For two years, Tolbert lived in anguish. No friends, no activities, no joy.
“For those two years, I would go to school and then go home,” Tolbert said. “Go to school, then go home. Didn’t really know anyone. Didn’t know the culture. Didn’t know what to do. The transition was really hard.”
As Tolbert prepared to head into high school, there was seemingly no end in sight.
Then, he caught a break. Austin senior midfielder OJ Cham happened to notice Tolbert’s impeccable skill on the soccer field, but he didn’t know who he was because Tolbert hadn’t played one second in Austin’s soccer program. Cham had compassion for Tolbert because he had gone through a similar transition. Cham moved to Austin from Kenya when he was in fifth grade.
Austin coach Jens Levisen was preparing for the 2017 season. There were back-to-school meetings, and Cham walked right into his office.
“Coach, I have this player that you have to meet,” Cham said.
It didn’t take long for Levisen to notice Tolbert’s game-ready skill. Tolbert was lightning fast and tough as nails. He’d do whatever it took to take the ball away from someone and there was no way he was giving it back.
“Even as a freshman, he was just different,” Levisen said.
The joy started to come back for Tolbert. And so did his wide smile. He’d always loved soccer. But now he had guys to share that passion with. He had a team. He had a coach who was there for him. He had friends for the first time in his life since coming to Austin.
“I’m pretty thankful for them,” Tolbert said. “They accepted me right away.”
Tolbert was in the starting lineup right away as a freshman, and he helped Austin go 18-1-3 in 2017. The Packers’ only loss was a 4-3 overtime heartbreaker in the state semifinals to St. Thomas Academy.
As a sophomore, Tolbert immediately became one of the Packers’ best players. Austin lost two early-season games, to Lourdes and Mayo. Tolbert missed both of those matches while recovering from a nagging leg injury. After both of those games, coaches from Lourdes and Mayo walked up to Levisen and asked where Tolbert was.
He was that important to the Packers and his absence was that noticeable.
“(That attention) helped to push him out of his shell,” Levisen said. “With Henry, he was kind of elevated into that starting role so early. So as a sophomore, he was viewed as a returner and someone the rest of the team was looking at. He didn’t let them down.”
Tolbert had a passion and a mission again. From there, he went on a roll. For the next two years, Tolbert dominated everyone in his path. He notched 24 goals and 11 assists this season for the 13-0-1 Packers. His team didn’t get a chance to win a state title due to COVID-19, but it did win its fourth consecutive section championship.
“A lot of things went right for me and the program,” Tolbert said. “We had three players named All-State this year. This year turned out pretty good. We had a perfect season. We knew COVID-19 could’ve hit and taken away our season, so we just played our hearts out.”
Tolbert was named Minnesota’s Class A Mr. Soccer. And he’s an easy choice for the Post Bulletin’s boys soccer All-Area Player of the Year.
“He’s leaving here with such a legacy,” Levisen said. “We lost three games to the state-title winners. Four Big Nine titles. Four Section 1A championships. His sophomore and junior year, he was named to the all-tournament team at the state meet.”
Tolbert became the player who found the eighth-graders and took them under his wing. He was the one who made sure there was no one left out. He was the one facilitating work in the offseason. His senior teammate Andres Garcia notched a team-high 32 goals this year and was named All-State. Tolbert didn’t have any jealousy of Garcia. Instead, they worked flawlessly together and had success together.
Austin’s soccer program had 50 kids from seventh grade all the way up to 12th grade when Tolbert joined the program.
Now, there are 50 soccer players at the junior high level and another 75 at the high school level. Part of that is because of the inclusive culture that Levisen, Tolbert and the Packers have created.
“He just gives us that spark,” Levisen said. “Everywhere.”
Tolbert is leaving a huge hole in the Austin soccer program. But the things that Austin gave Tolbert might be more important than anything Tolbert gave Austin.
“I wouldn’t be here without those guys back in my freshman year who accepted me in,” Tolbert said. “And Coach Levisen is like a second father to me. He’s always been there for me. He helped me so much as a freshman. I didn’t know about the shooting tactics. He caught me on the side to teach me where to move the ball and how to shoot. He does everything for us.”
But most importantly, Tolbert found his identity. He rediscovered his happiness and joy. He no longer was lonely. He no longer was the odd-man out.
Tolbert got his smile back.
“He has the biggest smile all the time,” Levisen said. “You could tell that soccer makes him happy.”