- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2003

The tension and suspense before the NFL Draft can be unbearable for college players wondering if they'll be picked, or when and by whom, and if they should be pricing Escalades or Escorts. But Maryland middle linebacker E.J. Henderson knows the real meaning of high anxiety.
Henderson had surgery to remove bone spurs in his back last April. Although the operation was a success, the days before and the months afterward were filled with doubt and even fear. And there is little the 6-foot-1, 245-pound Henderson fears. He is a certified tough guy on the field.
"Everything had been looking so bright," he said. "I was even thinking of coming out [for the draft a year early]. Then I found out I had to get surgery, and everything was shattered. I didn't know if I'd be able to come back and play at the same level. Would I be all right? That was very nerve-wracking. It was probably the most nervous six months of my life."
Henderson rested, rehabilitated and recovered. He missed spring practice entirely. During the summer, running with teammates, he was frustrated by being slow, by "coming in last place or having to run with the linemen." He was in on 16 tackles during the Terrapins' 22-0 opening loss to Notre Dame, but it would take time to return to the form of his junior year, when he was considered perhaps the best defensive player in the nation.
"The first couple of games I was kind of shaky," he said. "I was kind of tentative. Can I do this or do that? After that, my feet, my footwork, my speed started coming back, about the fifth or sixth game. I wasn't too worried after that."
As with most surgeries, the main obstacle for Henderson was more mental than physical, "being so cautious, being so scared," he said. "If I get hurt again, I'm really screwed. It was just convincing my mind I could do it."
Eventually, Henderson said, he was "A-OK." He also was AA, as in All-American, for the second straight year. He got better with every game, tying a school record with 16 solo tackles against Wake Forest in the regular-season finale. In Maryland's 30-3 win against Tennessee in the Peach Bowl, Henderson had 12 unassisted tackles including four for losses and two sacks plus a forced fumble.
"I think he proved in that game he was the marquee middle linebacker in the country," Maryland defensive coordinator Gary Blackney said. "Having come back from back surgery, no spring practice to me, it was almost miraculous."
Despite his slow start, Henderson won the Bednarik Award as the nation's best defensive player and the Butkus Award as the best linebacker.
NFL scouts, however, disregard such honors when evaluating players for the draft. The pros like Henderson, to be sure, but there is some question as to how much. Draft projections have him going in the second half of the first round. Henderson's killer linebacker mentality, his instincts and playmaking abilities stand out. Most of the negatives focus on his speed he ran a 4.8 in the 40-yard dash, slower than many had hoped his pass coverage skills and his back.
Henderson said he has tried to ignore the draftniks, but sometimes he can't help himself. He knows what the buzz is.
"Somebody must know something I don't know about myself," he said, sounding not at all convinced. "I guess I can't argue with it. They've been doing it for years."
His speed?
"I think I'm fast enough."
Coverage?
"I think I can improve on it, definitely."
And the back? Henderson was thoroughly examined at the NFL combine in March, and he believes all the questions were answered.
"They took all these tests, X-rays and double X-rays and MRIs," he said. "They bent me and twisted me. Everything you can name, they did."
Henderson also was grilled about his DUI arrest two years ago. He said the charges were dropped.
"They realize it's a one-time mistake because it only happened once," he said. "I worked hard to put myself in the position I'm in now. My whole football career, I basically didn't have any challenges like injuries or personal problems. There were obstacles God put in my way, and I think I've overcome them."
Henderson has the strong endorsement of his coaches, and not just because they might be biased. At this point, they know him better than anyone in the NFL knows him.
Blackney believes some of the talk about Henderson's lack of speed might be posturing by those who would love to see him still on the board when their turn comes up.
"I think what E.J. possesses is game speed, or football speed," Blackney said. "I think he has faster football speed in uniform than in a hand-held 40 in shorts and running shoes. … He's a natural, no question about it. He's got things you can't coach in the NFL. He's got a nose for the ball, he's instinctive. He's like a center fielder who moves on the crack of the bat before he even sees the ball. That's what E.J. Henderson is all about."
Added coach Ralph Friedgen: "I don't care what they measure, he finds the football, makes the tackle and the guy goes backward. Now, if you want one of them on your team, then you draft E.J."
Staff writer Rick Snider contributed to this report.

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