KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Daniel Henry remembers the days after he lost his mother. They were dark and chaotic. He spent many of them in his grandmother’s bed, unable to do anything but grieve.
He found purpose only in tennis.
“What I really wanted to do was play tennis,” Henry said. “I don’t know. It was the only thing that could make me feel better. It was like when I was there, I just didn’t seem to really feel like I was orphaned. I didn’t really feel like I had lost so much.”
Henry was 14 when his mom Gina Rickman died following a battle with breast cancer. His dad, also named Daniel Henry, died of brain cancer when Henry was 5.
“It’s just another experience that’s added on top of what really makes me what I am,” Henry said. “‘Cause I could think, what if my mom had never passed? What type of person would I be? And I’m very sure I wouldn’t be as resilient; I know I wouldn’t be as motivated.”
Motivated is exactly what comes to mind when reviewing the resume of the 21-year-old from Kalamazoo. This spring, he graduated from Kalamazoo College with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. He was a presidential ambassador and the captain of his nationally ranked tennis team.
Tennis has remained his one constant through the loss of his parents and later the death of his grandma, June Cotton.
“In the case with my grandma, when she passed away with an aneurysm, I was like, there’s not anyone that’s going to have pity on me. I got that out of my head a long time ago,” Henry said. “You can feel sorry for yourself for a long time, but I’ve learned that I think, people want to see that you’re trying.”
Henry grew up in Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood, which he described as a side of town that sometimes can get neglected in terms of resources. He remembers a friend on his street who was allowed to stay home from school if he helped his mom with chores around the house.
It was Henry’s mom who gave him tennis and a way out.
“A lot of the times, I’m on the court and I know this person has had $100 an hour lessons three times a week for however long and I started playing in high school; I had under 20, 30 private lessons total,” Henry said.
But he said he has leveled the playing field with his work ethic.
“You’re given the cards that you’re dealt and then you literally have to make the best of it,” he said.
In June of this year, Henry posted a tweet laying out his struggles and successes. It was meant to show his community how he has risen above his circumstance.
It went viral and inspired others he had never met.
“I think even speaking about it, I’ve come to understand that I’ve grown so much,” Henry said, explaining used to become hysterical talking about his life and all his losses. “Which really opens it up for other people going through those certain types of things, having someone that’s a little more actualized with what their baggage has been in their life and being able to lead by example and lead by giving advice.”
That’s what Henry is doing now. Aside from working to get his law degree working with West Michigan attorney Ven Johnson, Henry has become a head tennis coach. It’s where that is the most meaningful. The Kalamazoo Central star is coaching at his former rival and his mother’s alma mater, following in her footsteps at Loy Norrix.
“Coaching is important right now. I want to make these players better,” Henry said.
And he’s using the voices that guide him still — his mom, grandma and dad — to echo the wisdom they have left him.
“I think (my mom) would come up and tell me, ‘Imagine what they would’ve done if you weren’t there,'” he said.
“I feel like their will, their love, and their want for me to succeed and thrive is instilled in my mentors, instilled in Ven Johnson and (Kalamazoo College) Coach (Mark) Riley. That’s my mom and my grandma right now,” he continued. “They’re the ones checking in on me and making sure I’m doing things the right way and making sure I’m honoring my mom and dad and my grandma’s memory the right way. Just thinking of 13-, 14-year-old Daniel, motionless, if I knew these things were coming, if I knew there was opportunity waiting for me, I wouldn’t have been laying in bed anymore. I would’ve been out on the court or something like that. I think it would’ve been very motivational to know that better things were ahead.”