Football is king in Longview, Texas, where the biggest cultural highlights besides Lobos games on Friday night are the Great Texas Balloon Race and the Turnip Green Festival.
Longview High School turns out several Division I players each year, so when lanky freshman receiver Malcolm Kelly showed up for spring tryouts wearing a knee brace, sophomore linebacker Robert Henson and his buddies snickered.
"We was like, 'Who's this dude?' " Henson said. "He didn't look the part, but when he got out there and started catching passes - the rest is history."
Kelly soon became the Lobos' star and went on to a standout career at Oklahoma. Henson didn't start at either Longview or TCU until his senior seasons.
Today, they're teammates again, dressing just seven stalls apart in the Washington Redskins' locker room.
"It's kind of a wild deal that they're on the same team," Lobos coach John King said. "Robert always had a motor. He played so hard. When he was on JV, I was watching the game with a coach I knew, and Robert was making tackle after tackle. The other coach said, 'If that's your JV linebacker, I don't want to see your varsity linebacker.'
"Malcolm made an impression right away. He was 6-3 and had those great ball skills. He made a lot of big plays and won a lot of games for us."
Kelly was drafted by the Redskins in the second round last year. Henson, a linebacker, was chosen in the sixth round this year.
"The chance of somebody making it to the league from any high school team is pretty low. And then to have two of us on the same team, it's crazy," Kelly said. "It's just like being back in the locker room at Longview again."
Kelly and Henson were friends in high school even though they attended different elementary and middle schools, were a grade apart, lived on different sides of town and played different sides of the ball.
"Everybody on the team was close," Kelly said. "You go to the movies. You go to the bowling alley. You hang out. That's about it. Longview's not a city. It's a big town. When you turn 18, people start going down to Tyler because that's where all the clubs are. Longview's got no clubs."
Henson and Kelly both left Longview for college, but they came home during the summer. They also reunited when TCU played Oklahoma in 2005.
"We beat 'em, and Malcolm wouldn't say nothing to me coming off the field because I'd been trash-talking all summer," Henson said with a smile.
Their relationship has deepened with the Redskins. Kelly offered to let Henson stay with him when the rookie arrived and then showed him around the D.C. area. They sometimes get together to play video games after practice.
"People see the flashy player, but they don't know what a good person Malcolm is," Henson said.
Kelly, who has yet to prove himself in part because of a balky knee, is a bachelor who lives in rural Lucketts, Va. Henson lives with his wife and their infant daughter in Leesburg, Va. One of the final players to make the roster, Henson has played in just two games.
"Robert's the same dude he was in high school," Kelly said. "He's very serious. If he doesn't like something, he'll let you know. He played the same way he does now on scout team and the way he did in preseason, always flying around. I knew when he first got to camp [last summer], if he picked up the system fast enough, he was going to make the team because he plays full speed all the time."
Henson also had to endure the death of his brother in a fire that consumed their home when he was 12 and the rape and shooting four years ago of his sister, who survived. One of the perpetrators was a childhood friend of Kelly's.
"Robert had to overcome so much off the field to get where he is," King said. "Malcolm's a class act. He's always been very mature. He comes from a great family. We're very proud of both of them."
To repay that pride, Henson and Kelly plan to start a youth football camp this summer back in Longview, home of the Lobos.
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