FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – One of the newest members of the New York Jets, signed during the offseason and brimming with endless potential but also owning many question marks, Erin Henderson just wants to play football.
Henderson did not play football last year, the fallout from a second DUI that scared away some teams despite a career that seemed pointed in the right direction – that is until his car was pulled over last February. In 2013, the last time he stepped on the field, he played in 14 games with 12 starts and was second on the Minnesota Vikings with 112 tackles along with four sacks and two interceptions. At 28-years-old he has plenty left in the tank, especially considering that he didn't play at all last year.
An aggressive middle linebacker, Henderson has good instincts and a good motor. Not only does he provide instant depth at the position but he could contend for a starting job under first-year head coach Todd Bowles.
He wanted to participate in the inaugural NFL Veterans Combine this past March but the league wouldn't let him register for the event. It was a blow to a player who is desperate to get back onto the field, desperate to put the past 13 months behind him. Desperate to show who he was and perhaps more importantly, who he wasn't.
“They said I was too well known of a commodity. People knew who I was, what I was,” Henderson told Metro New York last week during voluntary veterans minicamp. “It was a tough situation, an interesting situation. We tried to do something with the Jets out there and it didn't work out. But they flew me out here, liked what they saw, had a pretty good workout. Had a good feel, a good vibe when I was out here so I signed.
“I'm not sure how it happened but I sort of was on coach Bowles' radar a little bit when he was defensive coordinator in Arizona and maybe there was a little bit of interest there at different times," he added. "My agents did a good job of keeping in contact with people, letting me know I was out there and getting onto a roster.”
At first glance, he passes the eyeball test and he's the kind of player you want stepping off the bus first. He is thickly built with broad shoulders and has the kind of handshake that leaves an impression several minutes into an interview. His eyes never waver when he talks and instead of meandering with his thoughts he chooses his words deliberately and punctuates each syllable with clarity. He's successful on the field, well-spoken and comes across as a great guy.
But he also has been twice arrested in a three-month span on suspicion of DUI, making this talented player who was an undrafted free agent following the 2008 NFL Draft, a bit of a pariah. There was even a report that he showed up to practice hungover one time. In today's NFL, teams will shy away when they see character concerns, especially when that concern is getting behind the wheel of a car under the influence and putting others in harm's way. That's bad press. That's a liability.
That's not the man he is anymore, he says.
The past year without football has been “a time to get away from the game and focus on who I want to be.” He says that he doesn't want to be just a leader, he wants to be a good teammate, a better husband and father and a better human being. Here with the Jets he believes he can be all those things which led him to sign a one-year contract with the team this offseason.
“I'm probably a better person now that I have been my entire life. I've been able to sit down and look at myself in the mirror. I was able to look at myself and evaluate who I am, who I want to be. Be open and honest about myself who I am. I am a redefined version of myself,” Henderson says candidly.
“We had some ups and downs, the person that I had before. I didn't dislike me but I didn't take time to change things that I wanted. I'm happy with who I am, what my priorities are and where I'm going.
“The cool thing about being in this situation now is that I don't think I have to prove anything to anybody. I've dealt with what I've had to deal with. I'm on the other side of those things, I'm a better man for it. Now it's about going out there, enjoying life, working hard and being in the locker room. I'm going out there, day by day wanting to do my best and be my best. I don't have anything to prove to anybody.”
In 2013, after playing the fourth most snaps in Minnesota, Henderson signed a two-year deal with the team after he cemented themselves into their starting lineup. He comes to a Jets team that last year had little depth at middle linebacker after starters Demario Davis and David Harris.