Jets LB Erin Henderson aiming to be “Comeback Player of the Year”
Although he’s not guaranteed a roster spot out of training camp, New York Jets linebacker Erin Henderson has some big goals for the 2015 NFL season.
And one of them is he wants to be in the running for the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award.
“I have it in my mind to become one of the comeback players or at least be in the conversation,” he said. “I think it’s an interesting story and I think there are lot of people out there who are suffering from similar things and maybe I can be an inspiration to them.”
The seeds of his motivation were planted on New Year’s Day of 2014 as he sat in a holding cell in suburban Minneapolis, where he had been arrested on suspicion of DUI and marijuana possession following a single-car crash. It was his second arrest in six weeks. And he had plenty of time as he agonized about his life and the future.
“I’d never been to prison before,” he told ESPN. “I sat there that night … you’re in there by yourself and you have a lot of time to think about things and figure out which direction you want to go. Coach [Leslie] Frazier always used to tell us, ‘Tell me your vision, and I’ll show your future.’ That night, I decided to change my vision.”
Henderson checked into rehab and eventually signed a one-year, minimum-salary contract with the Jets. Not a cent is guaranteed. He understands that his second chance could be his last chance. And he’s driven.
Henderson has beat the odds once before. He entered the league with the Minnesota Vikings’ as an undrafted free agent in 2008. He worked his way up to a starting job, but everything unraveled at the end of the 2013 season. After the second arrest, he was released by the Vikings. He received a four-game suspension by the league, which he served in 2014 as an unemployed linebacker.
“I waited until I was 27 years old to get into trouble,” he said. “I was in a bad place mentally and I didn’t necessarily know the best ways to handle it, so I went back to doing what I do best, the way I knew how to deal with it the best.”
Henderson has described himself as a recovering alcoholic. He declined to get into specifics, but he painted a quick picture of his upbringing, saying, “I was taught at a very young age, that’s how you handle your issues and your problems.”
One of his biggest supporters has been former Vikings teammate Greg Jennings, who became one of his biggest supporters. They engaged in brutally honest discussions in which Jennings shared personal feelings about his own fears and struggles. That transparency, he believes, may have helped Henderson unburden himself.
After rehab, Henderson auditioned for the Cincinnati Bengals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he failed to land a contract for 2014. He stayed in shape, taking a hot yoga class, and filled his empty Sundays by engaging in an American pastime: He occupied his man cave, watching the NFL RedZone channel. He enjoyed the down time with his family, but he longed to resume his career.
“I knew I wasn’t ready to walk away from the game,” he said. “I was just hoping the game wasn’t ready to be done with me.”
The Jets offered him a contract after a thorough check into his background. Their conclusion: Henderson is a good man who lost his way for a couple of bad months. The Jets asked him what he saw in the mirror, and his answer went something like this: “I see someone who can do pretty much anything he wants to do in life if he just decides to get out of his own way.”
Henderson didn’t make any excuses for his transgressions.
“I’ve always found ways to hold myself back and to not allow my life to shine as bright as possible,” he said. “I just got tired of it. I figured it was time to do something different and let people see who I really am and see the impact I can make on the world.”
Henderson said he’s clean and sober, insisting he has “the tools in my pocket” to maintain a healthy lifestyle. On the field, he’s a “high IQ football player,” according to Jennings. He’s getting plenty of practice reps, trying to win a backup job.