He wanted to leave last winter and play in the NFL. Was pretty sure he should leave. He wasn't going to get any better with another year in college, was he? But there was this nagging pain in E.J. Henderson's back, and then this tiny bit of uncertainty rattling around in his brain. So one of the best linebackers in college football chose to remain at Maryland for his senior year, and he was praised for it. College athletes are always praised when they Stay in School, as if they're keeping alive the fragile ideal of the student-athlete.
If only it were that simple. Declaring for the draft opens the door to potential instant wealth but also to the possibility that those riches could vanish with a poor showing at the NFL combine. Returning for a final college season means spending another year in the sheltered campus world, perhaps playing well enough to move up in the draft, yet also facing the risk of injury on every snap. So many people have a stake in the decision: family and friends, college teammates and coaches, agents and advisers. Henderson chose to stay, and this autumn he is in a sort of football purgatory, the best player on a rebuilding team, trying to carry a defense and prove to pro scouts and coaches that he's as good as ever.
Last season was a brilliant one for Henderson and the Terrapins. Under first-year coach Ralph Friedgen, Maryland, which hadn't won more than six games in a season since 1985, went 10-1 to win the Atlantic Coast Conference title and a BCS bowl invitation. Defensive coordinator Gary Blackney turned Henderson loose at the vortex of a hyperaggressive 3-4 defense, and the 6'2", 250-pound junior—an unheralded recruit whom the Terps had taken in large part because he was an in-state kid—became one of the most disruptive defensive players in the country. "If there was a play to be made, he was there," says Denver Broncos director of college scouting Jim Goodman.
Henderson's season was a collection of big plays, including a fumble recovery that he took 36 yards for a touchdown against Georgia Tech, and a crucial red-zone sack in that same game; a run-him-down tackle on slippery Clemson quarterback Woody Dantzler; and a lights-out backside pursuit sack on Florida State quarterback Chris Rix. "He was one of those guys who altered offensive game plans," says former Clemson guard Will Merritt, who played against Henderson. "He makes offensive coordinators dwell on him for a couple of days before the game."
When the regular season was finished, Henderson had 150 tackles, 103 of them unassisted and 28 of them for lost yardage, breaking Randy White's 27-year-old school record of 24. He might have won the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker, except that Oklahoma's Rocky Calmus benefited from residual familiarity after the Sooners' 2000 national title. Henderson was the ACC's defensive and overall player of the year. "The most complete linebacker I've ever coached," says Blackney, who handled Chris Spielman and Steve Tovar at Ohio State in the late 1980s. "He has an uncanny ability to get to the ball, to take the right angle, shed blockers and make the play."
In each of two consecutive November wins over Clemson and North Carolina State that clinched the conference title, Henderson had 13 solo tackles. "By the seventh or eighth week of the season I was completely in a zone," he says. "It was like I knew where the ball was going. I felt completely dominant. I've never played football like that in my life." Over the season's final weeks Henderson began to consider leaving Maryland. Already on track to receive his degree in criminology (which he did, in May), Henderson sought input about the NFL and received few dissenting opinions. "I said, 'E.J., if you're going to be a first-round draft choice, you should go,' " says Friedgen. "I mean, how many times in your life do you get a chance to make a million dollars?" Friedgen consulted NFL general managers, who projected Henderson as a mid-first-rounder.
At home in Aberdeen, Md., Henderson's mother, Quinette, who's divorced from E.J.'s father, pushed him to leave. "E.J., you're going to graduate," Quinette told her son. "You've done everything there is to do in college. You're ready to move on."
A decision was reached—but kept confidential—just after Maryland's regular-season finale on Nov. 17. Henderson would declare for the draft after the Orange Bowl, Maryland's first major bowl since 1977, the crowning event in an unexpected season.
Then, in December, Henderson's back started to hurt. The discomfort was subtle at first: a slight tightness in the lower back, some soreness in the hips. Football stuff, Henderson thought. A middle linebacker's body hurts in a thousand ways at the end of a long season. But the pain became steadily worse. He had sharp twinges in both thighs when he ran hard, chasing down ball-carriers. He didn't feel dominant anymore. After the Terrapins' 56-23 Orange Bowl loss to Florida, Henderson found his father, Eric, outside the locker room at Pro Player Stadium. "He said, 'Dad, I played terrible' " says Eric. "I told him he went 100 percent, and he should be proud. But he was sad. He felt real down."
E.J. was mystified and scared by the sudden intrusion of an injury that would be diagnosed in the spring as a stress fracture of the fifth lumbar vertebra, the lowest vertebra in the back. Turning pro began to look like more of a gamble. His projected draft position slipped to the top of the second round as numerous other under-classmen declared for the NFL, and what lay ahead was worrisome: Though his brilliance jumps off a video screen—"Everybody who came here and watched tape was very impressed," says Friedgen—in the vacuum of the private workout or the NFL combine, where stopwatches and clipboards rule, Henderson does not stand out. He barely breaks 4.8 seconds for the 40 (defensive tackles run faster), and his best bench press is only 375 pounds (cornerbacks lift more). There was potential for him to lose a lot of money at the combine, and with a tender back that potential was multiplied.