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In a season full of comebacks, Henderson's return most unlikely

When Michael Vick and his first-place Eagles stunned the Giants with that comeback for the ages last Sunday in the New Meadowlands Stadium, it made for a fitting centerpiece of sorts for Vick's electrifying 2010 season: The comeback within the comeback, if you will.

Vick's return to prominence this season has generated significant league MVP support on his behalf, but it was that furious rally against New York in Week 15 that got me thinking about how his performance relates to this year's Comeback Player of the Year honor in the NFL. I'm one of the 50 media members who in a couple weeks will vote on the league's individual awards that get handed out each season by the Associated Press, and I find this year's competition in the comeback player category the most intriguing issue on the ballot.

The question to wrestle with, as always, is what exactly constitutes a comeback? Does the award extend to cover a return from injury, or ineffectiveness, or irrelevancy, or as in Vick's specific case, even incarceration? And was Vick already "back'' last season in the most literal sense, and thus isn't really staging a comeback in 2010, unless you consider him now fully back in comparison to the relative insignificance of his role last year in Philadelphia?

The answer is yes to any and all of these interpretations of a comeback. A comeback is in the eye of the beholder, and it can involve a return from anything that either kept a player off the field, or off the proverbial radar screen in terms of his profile or his previous standard of performance. And that's the way the award was intended to be framed, said AP sports editor Terry Taylor.

"We deliberately left it open-ended,'' said Taylor this week, noting that AP began the award in 1998, the year Buffalo Bills quarterback Doug Flutie won it with his triumphant season of work after returning to the NFL following an eight-year stint in the CFL. "You can come back from a lot of things. Injury. Irrelevancy. Any sort of personal adversity. We have left it to our voters and entrusted them with making a choice as to what a comeback is. But it's purposely left undefined.''

In the first 12 years of the award, the comeback player of the year has most often been someone returning to top form after injury, like Tom Brady, who won it last year following his 2008 knee surgery, or Tedy Bruschi, the Patriots inside linebacker who played so well in 2005, just months after suffering a stroke. Quarterback Chad Pennington has won the award twice (2006 and 2008), both times for bouncing back from season-ending shoulder injuries the year before.

But as in the case of Flutie, there have been instances where the winner was returning from a non-injury NFL hiatus of some sort, like Pittsburgh quarterback Tommy Maddox in 2002, who won the award 10 years after being drafted in the first round by Denver, and after being out of the league for four years while either selling insurance or kicking around the likes of the Arena League or the short-lived XFL.

This year, the field of comeback candidates is a ridiculously deep one, and they've overcome varying types of setbacks and trials to get where they are today.

Some would say the award has to go to Vick, and how can you really argue? His tale of personal redemption and re-emergence to star status has been the season's most remarkable saga.

But what about Vikings middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, who suffered one of the most horrific injuries in memory last December when he broke his femur in a game at Arizona? Henderson shocked the Vikings and the rest of the NFL by not only rapidly returning to the field this season from Week 1 on -- despite there being virtually no protocol in football for a rehabilitation from his injury -- the reality is his play has been every bit as good or better than it was before he was hurt.

And let's not overlook Patriots slot receiver Wes Welker, who blew out his knee in Houston in early January, but was back to being his productive self in the New England lineup from Day 1 this season. There's Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher returning from last year's season-ending Week 1 wrist injury to lead Chicago to a surprise playoff berth.

Seattle receiver Mike Williams escaped NFL exile (and previous underachievement in Detroit) to make an impact for the Seahawks this season. Troy Polamalu's return to health (well, limited health) has been instrumental in the Steelers success this season. The all-pro safety missed all but five games last season due to a knee injury, and Pittsburgh missed the playoffs.

And what of Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who was given up on by San Diego after his underwhelming 2009 season, but has returned to relevancy with playoff-contending New York, proving that reports of his demise were at least partially premature?

With two weeks to go in the regular season I'm still not certain who I'll cast my vote for as comeback player of the year. But in my midseason NFL review for SI.com, I gave the nod to Henderson, whose recovery from last December's gruesome broken leg is as compelling and inspirational as any injury rehabilitation story in football. I was there that night in Arizona at the Vikings-Cardinals game in Week 13 of last season, when Henderson's leg snapped and flopped grotesquely to one side. I didn't think he'd ever play as an NFL linebacker again, and that seemed the consensus opinion of Henderson's prognosis.

But play he did, and though the Vikings have suffered through a 5-9 season with more than their share of disappointments and defeats, Henderson's comeback has been Minnesota's preeminent highlight of 2010.

Henderson, 30, leads the Vikings with three interceptions, and his 129 tackles ranks second on the team. His three picks also tie him with San Francisco's Takeo Spikes for the most by any linebacker in the league. In a Week 6 win over Dallas that was his finest hour, Henderson had two interceptions of Tony Romo, and posted a season-high 13 tackles. Not bad for a guy who will forever have a titanium rod in his leg.

When Henderson began his rehab last winter, the Vikings medical and training staff weren't even sure what regimen to put him on, because there were almost no previous examples of football players suffering broken femurs, with proven recovery methods. But there is now, and it's called the Henderson Protocol, named in honor of the eighth-year NFL veteran by Vikings trainers.

"There was a little skepticism on my part when I first began the rehab process, because they said there was really no sports injuries to go off of,'' Henderson told me this week in a phone interview. "But once we got rolling, and the process started to take place, and I was able to drop a crutch and walk, and then jog, I knew I'd be back. It definitely makes the work, and I'm not scared to say it, the pain of those early days all worth it.

"For me, the lowest time was probably in that first seven days or so, laying in that hospital, after seeing my leg on the field going the opposite way, and not even being able to get up. The guys were making their playoff run and getting ready for the postseason and I wasn't able to be there and be a part of that.''

I asked Henderson if winning the comeback player of the year award would cap his story in crowning fashion and make his recovery complete? But I don't think he needs the honor bestowed to know where he's been and what he's accomplished.

"Honestly I've never really thought too much about winning comeback player of the year,'' Henderson said. "For me, the standard for that award is Bruschi coming back and playing after he had a stroke. That's what sticks out in my mind. But it would be recognition of the hard work that was put in, and it'd be a message to guys who have suffered major injuries in their careers. Maybe it's a knee, or a back, or whatever. But you have to know that you can come back. You can be a player again. You can make it happen.''

Henderson has. And so, too, in their own way, have Vick, and Welker, and Urlacher and all the rest. This season, the memorable comebacks just keep coming.

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