- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2009

On the surface, all seems wonderful in Robert Henson’s life.

Henson soon will receive a bonus of roughly $100,000 to sign with the Washington Redskins, who chose him in the sixth round of April’s draft. He’s just three hours shy of a degree in criminal justice from Texas Christian University. His wife, Sarah, the youngest daughter of renowned pastor T.D. Jakes, is expecting their first child in August.

But that’s just how things look on the surface, perhaps from a distance.

A closer look reveals a tattoo on his upper right arm, and a sadder story starts there. The name “Rudy” is inked there, the nickname of Henson’s younger brother, Nicholas, the driving force of his life.

It was St. Patrick’s Day 1997 when Henson, then 12, woke up at 5:30 a.m. in the small house on the wrong side of Longview, Texas, that he shared with his mother, Samantha; Nicholas, then 10; and his younger sister, Tiffany. Shortly after awakening, Henson heard an explosion that sounded like someone had kicked a door down: It was the start of a fire that would consume the house. Henson was able to get his mother and sister out, but by the time he returned to the front room where he and Nicholas had fallen asleep playing video games, the force of the flames and the smoke proved too much.

Firemen arrived quickly - Henson said “it felt like hours” - but they couldn’t get to Nicholas. The Henson brothers used to sit on the front porch and talk about the future, when they both would play in the NFL.

Now Robert will try to achieve that dream for them both.

“It was the worst feeling ever,” Henson said after a recent practice. “I felt like I let him down. I wasn’t able to protect him like a big brother should. We were very close. He wanted to be like me in every way. We dressed the same. He was small, but he loved to play football. Everybody counted him out, but he made plays. He’s pretty much the reason I kept playing football.”

The tragedy didn’t end there. Eight years later, Tiffany, then 14, was assaulted and shot nine times. She survived after 11 days in intensive care. And while he was at TCU, both of Henson’s maternal grandparents died.

“Robert had to grow up a little quicker than a lot of people,” linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti said. “He’s experienced more at a young age than a lot of us will have ever to experience, hopefully. Those things probably give him a different perspective. Football’s a release for him.”

He has channeled that into an aggressive style of play that fit his role on special teams with the Horned Frogs. He didn’t become a full-time starter at linebacker until his senior year, and he was named first-team All-Mountain West after making 73 tackles and intercepting two passes. In a 54-7 rout of Wyoming, Henson knocked two quarterbacks out of the game on fumble-forcing hits.

“Robert loves football, but I do worry about him hurting himself or someone else,” Samantha Henson said. “He has hit people so hard that he has given himself concussions.”

“Robert brings a punch,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said. “He can run and hit, and he plays special teams with reckless abandon. He was an emotional leader on our team.”

Longtime Redskins linebackers Marcus Washington and Khary Campbell won’t return this season, so the Redskins filled one of those vacancies in April’s draft when they took Brian Orakpo with the 13th selection. The Redskins also return three players who started last season: middle linebacker London Fletcher, weakside linebacker Rocky McIntosh and the versatile H.B. Blades.

If holdover Alfred Fincher sticks, that leaves well-traveled Robert Thomas, practice squad product Tyson Smith, fifth-round selection Cody Glenn, rookie free agent Darrel Young and Henson battling for one roster spot.

His special teams experience could go a long way toward helping him earn that spot, and it seems he was drafted by a franchise that won’t hold his height against him. At 6-foot and 242 pounds, Henson is shorter than most NFL linebackers, but he’s taller than Fletcher and Blades.

Expect to see his body flying around making plays when training camp starts late next month - because Henson doesn’t want to go home to East Texas with a pink slip.

“I’ve been fighting to be here my whole life,” he said. “Football has been my only escape from the hard upbringing and all the tragedy that I’ve had. I take out my aggression on the field. I’m very, very aggressive at the point of attack. I’m great against the run, and I’m fast to the ball.

“All you can ask for is a shot. I’m grateful for the opportunity. I just wanted to get my foot in the door. I plan on kicking it down.”

• David Elfin can be reached at delfin@washingtontimes.com.

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