"You're nervous, coach?" Sean Henderson said. "I'm nervous, too!"
Kiffin wanted to reassure the family once more. He spoke with Sean and then Seantrel, a 6-foot-8, 330-pound senior at Cretin-Derham Hall (St. Paul, Minn.), telling both that any upcoming penalties from the NCAA's infractions committee would not make the Trojans ineligible for future bowl games. USC is expected to appear in front of the committee between Feb. 19 and 21 to answer charges of major rules violations.
"Ain't nothing change, coach," Sean Henderson said.
The younger Henderson, who considered Notre Dame, Florida, Ohio State, Miami and Minnesota, had decided he would commit to the Trojans 18 hours earlier in his 16th-floor room at The Time Hotel in midtown Manhattan. Laid out in front of him were the pros and cons of choosing the Trojans over the Buckeyes. He went with USC. Henderson didn't sign a letter of intent, however, and should USC get major penalties from the NCAA he could reopen his recruitment.
The reverberations were felt in his family's vibrating phones after the on-air announcement at 5:33 p.m. Henderson did not call the other coaches beforehand, letting them learn the news with the rest of the country. Within an hour of the decision, "Seantrel Henderson USC" was the No. 2 search on Google's trends list.
"Out of everyone's name in the world, people are searching me," Henderson said, sitting in a white No. 10 USC jersey and eating chicken quesadillas. "Wow, just wow."
The final press to sign Henderson came in various forms. Former Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins was the face of Buckeye nation with a video plea at the Super Bowl media day that went viral on YouTube. Miami was Henderson's last official visit, and the Hurricanes showed Henderson and his father around South Beach last weekend while the NFL's Pro Bowl was in town. On Wednesday, the Minneapolis Star Tribune declared on its Web site that Miami was the winner 20 minutes before the announcement.
"I was more worried what other people might think," Henderson said. "I developed so many great relationships."
Kiffin's courtship was a whirlwind. He bolted Tennessee, where he spent one season, for Los Angeles on Jan. 13, but former USC coach Pete Carroll had left an impression on Henderson with a visit to Minnesota last spring. When news spread at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl that Carroll was leaving to be the Seattle Seahawks coach, USC recruits expressed dismay.
"I felt it too and I wasn't even committed," Henderson said.
Youth and inexperience as a head coach did not hurt Kiffin, who graduated from a Minneapolis-area high school. His father, Monte, unexpectedly helped bridge the age gap, as well, connecting with Henderson's paternal grandfather.
"They talked like they were long lost friends," Henderson's mother, Bree Jasper, said.
Enthusiastic wooing came from ace USC recruiter Ed Orgeron as well. Henderson, who saw The Blind Side with his girlfriend on Thanksgiving and has been compared to the movie's star, Michael Oher of the Baltimore Ravens, for his size and backstory, recognized Orgeron's distinct Cajun voice from the movie. Orgeron had landed Oher while head coach at Ole Miss.
"He's gonna kill me for saying this, but he was telling me about being on the set of The Blind Side and how hot Sandra Bullock was," Henderson said. "When she hugged him at the end of the shoot, he said he just held onto her."
Though no hostesses were involved, Henderson said he enjoyed his visit to the USC campus, having breakfast on the beach with Carroll on his first trip to California.
"Hollywood's 12 minutes away," Henderson noted.
Cameras have trailed Henderson for an in-progress documentary most of his high school career. In three seasons on Cretin-Derham's varsity, Henderson surrendered one sack and started 36 games, the last one being a state title victory.
"That was the icing on the cake," Henderson said.
Henderson, 18, was born a month premature, but respect came immediately. His father has addressed him simply as "Sir" since birth.
"I wanted him to know how to treat people," said the elder Henderson, a property manager who plans to relocate his family to Los Angeles by September.
Questions followed the oversized Henderson wherever he played as a youth.
"How old is he?" was a constant refrain from parents in the stands.
His mother started carrying his birth certificate to games.
Seantrel's credentials needed no backing. Andy Bischoff, currently the running backs and offensive line coach for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League and a former Cretin-Derham assistant, first saw Henderson play in the seventh grade. After Henderson flattened an opponent, he helped him up immediately.
"If you could read his mind, I'd imagine him thinking, 'Geez, I didn't mean to hurt you,' " Bischoff said.
During homeroom one morning as a freshman, a teacher asked the class how their adjustment to school was going. One boy said he was being picked on by classmates after lunch. No one, except Henderson, spoke up.
"You can sit next to me and no one will bother you," Henderson said.
The evolution of the passive tackle into a lean blocker continued. In the ninth grade, Henderson's shadow lengthened as coaches visiting the private school to see Joe Schafer, then a senior who eventually signed with Wisconsin, wanted him. The first time Minnesota coach Tim Brewster ever laid eyes on Henderson, without having seen him on film, he offered him a scholarship. Charlie Weis, then at Notre Dame and recruiting Cretin-Derham wide receiver Michael Floyd, followed suit.
"If he were to choose Minnesota, he would be the bell cow that other recruits would join," said Cretin-Derham assistant Ray Hitchcock, who played at Minnesota before winning a Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins.
Recruiters pursued tirelessly. Bischoff would set up 7 a.m. workouts for Floyd and Henderson at the school. Once in the fall of Henderson's sophomore season, Billy Gonzales, then the wide receivers coach at Florida, watched the duo go through pass sets and shuttle drills. Gonzalez turned to Bischoff and said, "I've never seen a guy move like that other than Orlando Pace."
In the land of linemen, Henderson was king. His footwork improved from jumping rope and playing basketball alongside the nation's top-ranked basketball recruit, Harrison Barnes, with the Howard Pulley Panthers, a traveling team.
"Every missed layup of mine was a tip dunk for him," Henderson said.
As National Signing Day wore on, Henderson watched USC and Florida assemble top classes. At 11:51 a.m., J.R. Ferguson, a defensive end from Florida, committed to Louisiana State in the same studio. Henderson's father said, "Wow, I thought he was going to Miami."
While checking Web sites on his phone, the father commented, "Guys love to leak things out." When the inaccurate Miami announcement went public, the father received inquiring text messages and phone calls from recruiters.
Meanwhile, Seantrel, dressed in a black Coogi shirt and matching jeans picked out by his girlfriend, played X-Box and ate barbeque chicken on a wintry day. "I wanted to keep it light," said Henderson, who hasn't qualified yet academically and plans to take the ACT next week.
Upon arriving in New York on Tuesday afternoon, Sean Henderson declared that his son would be back in three years for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. As he walked out of the television studio, he said that any doubters would see his son in the Rose Bowl shortly.
"This is about fate," he said.
Seantrel seconded the notion. "I think we can all rest a little," he said. "I have a basketball game Friday."
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