Erin Henderson Continues the NFL's Best Comeback Story

After everything he put himself and his family through in the past two and a half years, the idea that Henderson, at age 30, would even be back in the NFL, let alone as a starter, seemed fantastical.

Sep 8 2016, 1:45pm

Photo by Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Erin Henderson was six seasons into a NFL career with the Minnesota Vikings when things began to unravel. He sometimes came to practice with a screeching hangover, and he was aware that some teammates even began to notice. He got pulled over for driving erratically while drunk once, only to get off with a warning. Eventually—perhaps inevitably—it was followed by an actual arrest for driving while intoxicated, which led to the team benching him for two games.

Still, Henderson did not seek treatment, rationalizing that he didn't want to let his down his teammates by going to inpatient rehab during the season. This was 2013. Henderson has since owned up to his struggles with alcohol and depression, but he didn't fully grasp the seriousness of his problems until a second DUI, coming just six weeks after the first one, landed him in jail.

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"The first [DUI] I could explain away in my head, I could make sense of it," Henderson told me recently. "The second [DUI] was kind of like, 'What are you doing, bro?' Like, you know? I had a golden opportunity; I had just signed a new contract, I was a starting linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings, beautiful wife, beautiful son at home, and I'm out here trying to piss it away."

Henderson basically did piss it away. The Vikings released him on February 7, 2014, a little more than a month after that second DUI, and the NFL suspended him for four games for violating the terms of its substance-abuse policy. For Henderson, that night in jail was a wake-up call.

"If you've been doing something for a long time, and you get familiar with it, and you get comfortable with it, that lifestyle becomes normal to you," Henderson said. "It doesn't feel like you're spiraling out of control. It feels like you're living the life that you are familiar with living and doing the things that you're used to doing.

"And that's kind of how I felt, until I realized that everything was in jeopardy, everything that I worked so hard to build up."

Henderson was recounting his recent past after a training camp practice this summer with the New York Jets, for whom he's penciled in to be this season's starting inside MO linebacker. After everything he put himself and his family through in the past two and a half years, the idea that Henderson, at age 30, would even be back in the NFL, let alone as a starter, seemed fantastical.

Even Henderson has trouble believing it. But here he is.

"I don't know, man," Henderson said. "It's crazy when you really think about it, how it all played out."

Henderson celebrates a win on November 7, 2013, just over a week before his first DUI. Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Henderson had sued the state of Minnesota after his first DUI, which came after a police stop in Eden Prairie on November 19, 2013. (He was also charged with marijuana possession.) He claimed the cops had violated his rights by coercing him into taking a breathalyzer.

But on January 1, 2014, just three days after the '13 season ended, Henderson skidded off the road while driving, sending his car across a grassy patch and a parking lot before hitting some trees. He was alone, and he was not injured, but his vehicle was "heavily damaged," according to Carver County, Minn., police. And he appeared to be intoxicated. The cops arrested him after he failed a field sobriety test. He was also again charged with marijuana possession. At that point, there was no one else to blame.

Henderson had been an undrafted free agent who scratched and clawed his way into a starting role with the Vikings. He has a wife, Maleah, and a young son, Lennox, who's now five. In March 2013, he had signed a contract with the Vikings with a max value of $4.75 million. Yet less than a year later, he was alone in a jail cell with nothing to do but to contemplate how he might be about to lose it all.

A few hours after he was released, Henderson checked into an inpatient rehab facility, where he remained for 30 days. Wide receiver Greg Jennings, a former Vikings teammate, visited him often, to talk and to provide him with some spiritual guidance.

Jennings told me there had been "an issue" with Henderson as far back as when the Vikings were in London for Week 4 of the '13 season. Jennings declined to go into detail, but he said it "could have been something that kind of blew up the team and kind of divided the team." It was after the London game that Jennings decided to "do something about it" by talking to Henderson, trying to drop what he called "little nuggets" of spiritual wisdom into their conversations. All the while, Jennings knew, Henderson would need to be the one to decide to change the course of his own life—a commitment Henderson eventually made when he entered rehab.

"I have very relatable moments—I've never been a drinker, but there's things, there's parallels in life that I could draw from, experiences that I could kind of parallel to his situation and help him, if you will, along his path," Jennings said.

Before visiting Henderson in rehab, Jennings felt things out. He asked both Henderson and Maleah if it would be OK. Jennings also wanted to bring along his spiritual mentor on visits (Jennings identifies as a Christian), but he said that could wait; he didn't want Henderson to think anything was being forced upon him. But Henderson told him he was fine with the mentor being there, too.

"And so we went, and I just remember literally sharing, like, very transparently about different things that I had gone through in my life just to tear down the veil of however he saw me, so that he would begin to be comfortable to open up," Jennings said.

"He began to just share things that he had never shared with anyone, admit things even to himself. It was such a powerful moment because, as men, we become so prideful and we always keep things in and we try to deal with things ourselves. But it was that visit, that first visit, that was, like, man. It felt like a breakthrough. And after that, you kind of just saw him lightening up, like, literally almost every ten minutes. And I don't even recall how long we were there, but it was like from the moment we walked in till the moment we left, he was a completely different person."

Opening up, being vulnerable, showing weakness—these are not characteristics often associated with pro football players. That can be a problem in and of itself, Jennings said.

"That's the part that's so hard because in our industry—everyone's so prideful," Jennings said. "All we think about is what somebody else is going to think. Our entire careers are based on what somebody else—how they judge you, how they critique you. And so that becomes our way of thinking and it really impacts us, even in our day-to-day lives."

Soon after he left rehab, Henderson was cut by the Vikings, a decision that cost him $2 million in salary and bonuses, but one he says he "completely understood," even then. Henderson committed himself to getting another opportunity to play in the NFL, but he also knew what he was up against: it is not a league that frequently gives second chances to substance abusers who land in legal trouble. This was especially true for a player like Henderson, who was not a household name, and who would be 28 years old by the time the 2014 season began.

Henderson was back on his own. He was clean, but he lacked the structure that playing for a team had long provided him, which proved to be a challenge. In May 2014, he pled guilty to a single misdemeanor charge in exchange for two years' probation. Tryouts with the Bengals and the Bucs went nowhere, but Henderson continued to work out. He spent time with his family, and according to ESPN, he watched NFL games every Sunday that fall on the RedZone channel, longing for another shot.

Even though he was not on a NFL roster in 2014, the NFL credited Henderson with having served the terms of his suspension that year.

"It was definitely a roller-coaster year, filled with ups and downs," he told me. "Not having a job, not having anything to do aside from working out, It was definitely tough. There were some moments when things could have [gone] either way. But my family—my wife and my son—they both do a great job of supporting me. They helped me through what was a very trying time."

Henderson with his family in 2013. Courtesy Erin Henderson/Facebook

As an undrafted free agent, Henderson had proved himself capable of belonging in the NFL once before. All he could do was put in the same kind of effort and commitment—and hope he'd get another chance.

"The odds were definitely stacked against me," he said. "But in my life I've always tried to play the cards that have been dealt to me. You try to make sure that you're handling it the best way that you can because life's not going to change."

In March 2015, Henderson saw a way to create a chance for himself. The NFL staged a veteran combine for players who had washed out of the league for one reason or another. Henderson didn't even get an invite, but he and his agent arranged for a workout nearby around the same time. Scouts from six teams showed up.

The 49ers saw enough to invite Henderson to San Francisco for a visit; he left without a contract, and was told he wasn't in good enough shape. The Jets invited him in soon after that; head coach Todd Bowles recently said Henderson had proved to them that he was in shape. But the Jets were also impressed by the openness with which Henderson discussed his history of abuse; a source told me at the time that his candor struck the team as sincere. In April, the Jets agreed to offer Henderson a non-guaranteed contract for the veteran minimum ($745,000). They were willing to give him a shot.

"Erin was a tough player before he got put out of the league," Bowles said. "He's shown that since he's been here."

The Jets already had a pair of starting inside linebackers in David Harris and Demario Davis. Henderson knew nothing was going to be handed to him. He was doing fine until his first preseason game, when he sprained his knee. The injury kept Henderson out for the remainder of the preseason—no small thing, considering he was battling two other veterans for one or two backup spots.

"So, you know, you're wondering, Am I going to have a chance to play here? Am I going to get released? Is somebody else going to want me? Have I done enough? Have I shown enough?" Henderson said. "I felt like if I would have been able to play throughout camp, I would have been able to show and prove it then, and I still would have liked my chances.

"But when you're unable to go out there and compete..." he added, his voice trailing off.

Turns out Henderson had shown enough during the early part of camp to make the roster. He carved out a role on special teams, and by midseason he began rotating series with Davis. By the season finale—a crushing loss at the Bills that kept the Jets from their first playoff appearance in five years—Henderson was playing significantly more snaps than Davis.

Henderson in a 2015 game. Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Henderson went into the offseason as an unrestricted free agent, but he was confident he had shown enough for the Jets to want to keep him around. He was right. In March, the Jets rewarded Henderson with a contract that includes a max length of two years and a max value of $4 million. Davis went to the Browns. The Jets also drafted Ohio State's Darron Lee in the first round, and while they plan to play Lee in certain sub packages, Bowles has made it clear that Henderson would be starting next to Harris.

"Erin's been great since he's been here," said Harris, a ten-year veteran widely regarded as one of the Jets' leaders. "He works hard. He's hungry. Knowing the situation that he's been through, he doesn't want to take anything for granted. He just loves football and loves being out here."

Henderson's probation ended in May, which he said was "like the closing of a chapter." He said he feels more secure these days, now that his spot both on the roster and in the defensive rotation seems stable. He's grateful for the support he's had from Maleah and Lennox, and he can admit that he's happier. He's aware that he's been given a rare opportunity to continue his playing career.

Henderson will always be one drink or one toke from careening back into a bad place. He's also aware of that, even if he tries not to think much about it.

"Life is full of temptations," he said. "It's an ongoing battle. It's not something that I put a lot of time and thought and effort into. I just go through my daily life and my routine the best way that I know how. By sticking to that, I stay to my regimen and I'm able to maintain my level of clear-headedness."

During the spring, when the Jets held OTAs and minicamp, Henderson appeared to be a different person on the field. Where last year he was quiet and reserved as he was working his way back, he was this year approaching practice with a noticeable swagger. His voice could often be heard barking and booming across the field.

"I feel like we just clicked from Day One," Harris said of Henderson. "I just like his energy. He brings a lot of energy. He's a very physical linebacker; he doesn't shy away from contact, and he's vocal out there."

Henderson and teammates celebrate on the sidelines during the 2016 preseason. Photo by Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It's still not easy for Henderson to discuss are the problems at the root of his substance abuse. When I tried asking how far back his drinking and his depression went, he recoiled.

"My whole life," he said. "I've got a sister that's nine years older than me and a brother that's six years older than me. I got exposed to a lot of shit at a young age."

When it was clear that Henderson was no longer comfortable with where our conversation was headed, I changed the subject. After our interview ended, Henderson's mood softened, and he told me he's trying to live in the present, with an eye on the future. He still has a lot to prove, after all: His contract will pay him $1.25 million this year, and while he can make as much as $2.75 million in 2017, the Jets hold an option on whether to bring him back.

Someday, he assured me, it will be easy for him to bare his soul again, to share his vulnerabilities and his insecurities and the details of his past with the world. But right now he doesn't want any of that to interfere with the task at hand.

Henderson has a chance to continue with one of the NFL's best redemption stories. Jennings, his former teammate, is delighted to see it happening.

"I'm smiling now, because he's like a completely different person, and it's so great to see because it's nothing that I did," Jennings said. "It's all what he chose to do. You know what I'm saying? It's like sometimes we need a little push, and a little encouragement and someone to share an experience, to where it's like, 'You know what? I can do this.' And I just would share with him, the same way you attack, the same mindset that you put into this game, and how committed and dedicated and disciplined you are, that's how you have to be with your life. And he's done it."

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