He wanted to leave last winter and play in the NFL. Was pretty
sure he should leave. He wasn't going to get any better with
another year in college, was he? But there was this nagging pain
in E.J. Henderson's back, and then this tiny bit of uncertainty
rattling around in his brain. So one of the best linebackers in
college football chose to remain at Maryland for his senior year,
and he was praised for it. College athletes are always praised
when they Stay in School, as if they're keeping alive the fragile
ideal of the student-athlete.
If only it were that simple. Declaring for the draft opens the
door to potential instant wealth but also to the possibility
that those riches could vanish with a poor showing at the NFL
combine. Returning for a final college season means spending
another year in the sheltered campus world, perhaps playing well
enough to move up in the draft, yet also facing the risk of
injury on every snap. So many people have a stake in the
decision: family and friends, college teammates and coaches,
agents and advisers. Henderson chose to stay, and this autumn he
is in a sort of football purgatory, the best player on a
rebuilding team, trying to carry a defense and prove to pro
scouts and coaches that he's as good as ever.
Last season was a brilliant one for Henderson and the Terrapins.
Under first-year coach Ralph Friedgen, Maryland, which hadn't
won more than six games in a season since 1985, went 10-1 to win
the Atlantic Coast Conference title and a BCS bowl invitation.
Defensive coordinator Gary Blackney turned Henderson loose at
the vortex of a hyperaggressive 3-4 defense, and the 6'2",
250-pound junior--an unheralded recruit whom the Terps had taken
in large part because he was an in-state kid--became one of the
most disruptive defensive players in the country. "If there was
a play to be made, he was there," says Denver Broncos director
of college scouting Jim Goodman.
Henderson's season was a collection of big plays, including a
fumble recovery that he took 36 yards for a touchdown against
Georgia Tech, and a crucial red-zone sack in that same game; a
run-him-down tackle on slippery Clemson quarterback Woody
Dantzler; and a lights-out backside pursuit sack on Florida
State quarterback Chris Rix. "He was one of those guys who
altered offensive game plans," says former Clemson guard Will
Merritt, who played against Henderson. "He makes offensive
coordinators dwell on him for a couple of days before the game."
When the regular season was finished, Henderson had 150 tackles,
103 of them unassisted and 28 of them for lost yardage, breaking
Randy White's 27-year-old school record of 24. He might have won
the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker, except that
Oklahoma's Rocky Calmus benefited from residual familiarity
after the Sooners' 2000 national title. Henderson was the ACC's
defensive and overall player of the year. "The most complete
linebacker I've ever coached," says Blackney, who handled Chris
Spielman and Steve Tovar at Ohio State in the late 1980s. "He
has an uncanny ability to get to the ball, to take the right
angle, shed blockers and make the play."
In each of two consecutive November wins over Clemson and North
Carolina State that clinched the conference title, Henderson had
13 solo tackles. "By the seventh or eighth week of the season I
was completely in a zone," he says. "It was like I knew where
the ball was going. I felt completely dominant. I've never
played football like that in my life." Over the season's final
weeks Henderson began to consider leaving Maryland. Already on
track to receive his degree in criminology (which he did, in
May), Henderson sought input about the NFL and received few
dissenting opinions. "I said, 'E.J., if you're going to be a
first-round draft choice, you should go,'" says Friedgen. "I
mean, how many times in your life do you get a chance to make a
million dollars?" Friedgen consulted NFL general managers, who
projected Henderson as a mid-first-rounder.
At home in Aberdeen, Md., Henderson's mother, Quinette, who's
divorced from E.J.'s father, pushed him to leave. "E.J., you're
going to graduate," Quinette told her son. "You've done
everything there is to do in college. You're ready to move on."
A decision was reached--but kept confidential--just after
Maryland's regular-season finale on Nov. 17. Henderson would
declare for the draft after the Orange Bowl, Maryland's first
major bowl since 1977, the crowning event in an unexpected season.
Then, in December, Henderson's back started to hurt. The
discomfort was subtle at first: a slight tightness in the lower
back, some soreness in the hips. Football stuff, Henderson
thought. A middle linebacker's body hurts in a thousand ways at
the end of a long season. But the pain became steadily worse. He
had sharp twinges in both thighs when he ran hard, chasing down
ballcarriers. He didn't feel dominant anymore. After the
Terrapins' 56-23 Orange Bowl loss to Florida, Henderson found his
father, Eric, outside the locker room at Pro Player Stadium. "He
said, 'Dad, I played terrible,'" says Eric. "I told him he went
100 percent, and he should be proud. But he was sad. He felt real
E.J. was mystified and scared by the sudden intrusion of an
injury that would be diagnosed in the spring as a stress
fracture of the fifth lumbar vertebra, the lowest vertebra in
the back. Turning pro began to look like more of a gamble. His
projected draft position slipped to the top of the second round
as numerous other underclassmen declared for the NFL, and what
lay ahead was worrisome: Though his brilliance jumps off a video
screen--"Everybody who came here and watched tape was very
impressed," says Friedgen--in the vacuum of the private workout
or the NFL combine, where stopwatches and clipboards rule,
Henderson does not stand out. He barely breaks 4.8 seconds for
the 40 (defensive tackles run faster), and his best bench press
is only 375 pounds (cornerbacks lift more). There was potential
for him to lose a lot of money at the combine, and with a tender
back that potential was multiplied.
Three days after gutting out a 12-tackle Orange Bowl
performance, Henderson announced that he would return to
Maryland. The decision was greeted by the media and Terrapins
fans as a sign of loyalty and academic dedication. In fact,
Henderson was disconsolate. "I would have gone," he says. "I
would have been in the draft and started my career. But I
couldn't do it with my back. I couldn't risk running for [the
scouts] that way."
On April 9 Henderson underwent surgery at Presbyterian
Orthopedic Hospital in Charlotte, where orthopedic spine surgeon
Craig Brigham performed a procedure to stimulate the healing of
the fracture in Henderson's vertebra. Henderson awoke from
anesthesia that day to a very different world. Different,
because what had been described to him as minor surgery left him
in agony. "What did y'all do to me?" he asked as he drifted out
of his postsurgical fog. "My whole lower back is killing me! You
said this was a small surgery." Henderson's father, who
accompanied him to Charlotte, says, "E.J. has a very high
resistance to pain and a very quiet demeanor. But that day it
was almost like he was a little infant again. He was in a great
deal of pain. I'm sure it was frightening to him. It was
frightening to me."
The operation required Brigham to make a four-inch vertical
incision along Henderson's spine, running north from the top of
his buttocks. "I'm not surprised that E.J. was in pain
afterward," says Brigham. "I was exhausted after doing the
surgery, just from the effort of pulling the muscle off his
spine. Athletes hurt more than you or me after an operation like
this because they have twice the muscle mass to cut through. But
it was a very common injury and a very routine procedure."
Though his recovery was slow at first, Henderson was back for
the beginning of camp on Aug. 10. He knew he would have to prove
all over again to bloodless NFL scouts that he deserves a big
contract. "I want to say I'm going to ignore the pressure, come
out relaxed and have a great year," Henderson said during the
heat of the summer. "But it's hard to ignore the pressure when
you've got it coming at you from every angle. On campus, people
are saying, You're gonna be rich, you're gonna have this and
that. Agents and insurance people calling me all the time,
financial people calling me about investing money I ain't even
got yet. It drives you crazy.
"I've got so much left to do, it's not even funny," Henderson
said. "I was ready to go, then I had this fluke injury. Now
there's no cruise control. I want to take care of my mom, help
out my homeboys. What happens if I'm not as good this year?"
So far, so good. Even in Maryland's lethargic 22-0 loss to Notre
Dame in the Aug. 31 Kickoff Classic--which dropped the Terrapins
out of the Top 25--Henderson had 11 tackles. Last Saturday night
he had four tackles, a sack and a pass interception in a 44-14
rout of Akron at College Park. He says he feels fine. But the
road gets harder this Saturday, with fifth-ranked Florida State
coming to town.
Nearly a year has passed since Henderson was convinced he
would--should--be in the NFL by now. "I watched the exhibition
games and saw all the guys I met last year at the college awards
banquets," he says. On the field, teams are sending blockers at
him on every down. It will be a longer, tougher year than 2001.
"I've second-guessed myself a lot about my decision," Henderson
said late Saturday night, "but I've got business here now. I've
got to help this team get better and show that I'm the same
player I was." There is a pause. "Time to move on," he said.
"What's done is done."
Read Tim Layden's Viewpoint column every week at cnnsi.com.
E.J. Henderson isn't the only NFL-caliber collegian who chose to
stay in school for 2002. Here are five others.
Mike Doss, S, Ohio State, Sr. Thorpe Award semifinalist went
with gut instinct, which may have been wise. Six defensive backs
were drafted in the first round in April; Doss was projected as
a second-rounder at best.
Lee Evans, WR, Wisconsin, Sr. After choosing to return to
Madison, projected second-round pick tore left ACL in Badgers'
spring game--on draft day. May be ready by Wisconsin's Oct. 5
Big 10 opener.
William Joseph, DT, Miami, Sr. Third-team All-America and son of
Haitian immigrants stayed to become first in his family to earn
college degree. He's on track to receive liberal arts diploma
after this semester.
Rex Grossman, QB, Florida, Jr. Last year's Heisman runner-up was
persuaded to come back after being assured Gators' offense would
remain pass-oriented under new coach Ron Zook. His performance
against Miami might cause some second-guessing.
Kelley Washington, WR, Tennessee, Soph. Vols' leading receiver
in '01 (64 catches, 1,010 yards) says he decided to stay after
mother, Debbie, a nurse's aide in Stephens City, Va., told him
she could afford for him to wait one more year. Says Washington,
"It was a tough decision when you have a mother and you look in
her eyes every night, and she's tired."
"He has an uncanny ability to get to the ball and make the play."