Three days after gutting out a 12-tackle Orange Bowl performance, Henderson announced that he would return to Maryland. The decision was greeted by the media and Terrapins fans as a sign of loyalty and academic dedication. In fact, Henderson was disconsolate. "I would have gone," he says. "I would have been in the draft and started my career. But I couldn't do it with my back. I couldn't risk running for [the scouts] that way."
On April 9 Henderson underwent surgery at Presbyterian Orthopedic Hospital in Charlotte, where orthopedic spine surgeon Craig Brigham performed a procedure to stimulate the healing of the fracture in Henderson's vertebra. Henderson awoke from anesthesia that day to a very different world. Different, because what had been described to him as minor surgery left him in agony. "What did y'all do to me?" he asked as he drifted out of his postsurgical fog. "My whole lower back is killing me! You said this was a small surgery." Henderson's father, who accompanied him to Charlotte, says, "E.J. has a very high resistance to pain and a very quiet demeanor. But that day it was almost like he was a little infant again. He was in a great deal of pain. I'm sure it was frightening to him. It was frightening to me."
The operation required Brigham to make a four-inch vertical incision along Henderson's spine, running north from the top of his buttocks. "I'm not surprised that E.J. was in pain afterward," says Brigham. "I was exhausted after doing the surgery, just from the effort of pulling the muscle off his spine. Athletes hurt more than you or me after an operation like this because they have twice the muscle mass to cut through. But it was a very common injury and a very routine procedure."
Though his recovery was slow at first, Henderson was back for the beginning of camp on Aug. 10. He knew he would have to prove all over again to bloodless NFL scouts that he deserves a big contract. "I want to say I'm going to ignore the pressure, come out relaxed and have a great year," Henderson said during the heat of the summer. "But it's hard to ignore the pressure when you've got it coming at you from every angle. On campus, people are saying, You're gonna be rich, you're gonna have this and that. Agents and insurance people calling me all the time, financial people calling me about investing money I ain't even got yet. It drives you crazy.
"I've got so much left to do, it's not even funny," Henderson said. "I was ready to go, then I had this fluke injury. Now there's no cruise control. I want to take care of my mom, help out my homeboys. What happens if I'm not as good this year?"
So far, so good. Even in Maryland's lethargic 22-0 loss to Notre Dame in the Aug. 31 Kickoff Classic—which dropped the Terrapins out of the Top 25—Henderson had 11 tackles. Last Saturday night he had four tackles, a sack and a pass interception in a 44-14 rout of Akron at College Park. He says he feels fine. But the road gets harder this Saturday, with fifth-ranked Florida State coming to town.
Nearly a year has passed since Henderson was convinced he would—should—be in the NFL by now. "I watched the exhibition games and saw all the guys I met last year at the college awards banquets," he says. On the field, teams are sending blockers at him on every down. It will be a longer, tougher year than 2001. "I've second-guessed myself a lot about my decision," Henderson said late Saturday night, "but I've got business here now. I've got to help this team get better and show that I'm the same player I was." There is a pause. "Time to move on," he said. "What's done is done."