E.J. Henderson hadn’t even settled into the restaurant booth when he posed a question that’s on the minds of many Vikings fans these days.
What do you think about my little brother playing middle linebacker?
It’s an interesting move, I say. Not sure it will work, though.
“I think he’s going to be a beast,” Henderson replied, his voice raised to emphasize that last word. “I definitely think he will thrive in that role.”
He’s a little biased, of course, but E.J.’s confidence in Erin’s ability to anchor the middle of the Vikings defense is notable because big brother handled that job for nine seasons, so he speaks with some authority on the matter. The true irony, though, is that E.J. figured he still would be playing middle linebacker for the Vikings if things had worked out the way he wanted. Instead, now it’s his brother’s turn.
“Got to move on,” E.J. said over lunch. “There is a finality to it.”
In the NFL, that finality often brings a cold, harsh reminder that this business doesn’t stop churning for any single individual. Few players get to script their own exit. Most just kind of fade away once their opportunities dry up, usually replaced by someone younger or cheaper, or healthier.
That’s how it went with E.J., a retired football player now, though he still has not filed his paperwork with the NFL to make it official.
“Maybe it is that little 5, 10 percent [that still wants to play],” he said. “I am retired from football, I can honestly say. I just haven’t signed the papers. I know it’s something I need to do.”
Henderson knows he had a good run. He started 105 games in nine seasons, all with the Vikings. Made a bunch of tackles, earned a Pro Bowl trip, overcame a horrific leg injury that initially looked career-ending.
Everybody in the locker room looked up to him, even veterans. He was captain of a defense filled with alpha personalities. He didn’t talk much and rarely showed anything except his serious side. He was strictly business, and everything about the guy was fueled by a quiet intensity.
“You want the respect of your teammates,” he said. “Play well and treat people with respect. I think players gravitate to that.”
He wanted to keep playing after his contract expired in 2011. Chronic knee pain slowed him that season, and he has a titanium rod in his left leg after suffering a broken femur in 2009. But he still viewed himself as a productive linebacker.
The Vikings offered a one-year deal for less money than he was willing to accept. A few teams offered the veteran’s minimum. He worked out for the Tennessee Titans before the start of last season, but nothing materialized. And that’s how a productive career fades into retirement.
“It was definitely a pride issue, but in my eyes it wasn’t false pride,” he said. “I know it’s not right to look at what someone else is making and compare them to you. But I know that me going into a locker room, looking at certain players making three, four, five times more than me, I wouldn’t be a happy camper and that wouldn’t be a good situation. Now productionwise, if they were four or five times better than me, that’s a different issue.”
His tone was not bitter. He’s content with his life and acknowledges now that the Vikings made him a “decent” offer. He traveled to four Vikings road games last season, sitting in the stands near their sideline. He refuses to critique his brother’s performances, only offering his insight if asked. He doesn’t dwell on his leg injury or the direction it took his career. His only regret is that he didn’t make it to 10 years because, he said, a double-digit career carries a certain status.
“If I could have played 10 years with the Vikings, I think I could have retired a little more easily,” he said. “But I only think about it for a second and then I move on. And I got the closest thing to me playing, minus having a son. My younger brother. That helps me move onto other ventures without being so obsessed with football.”
He’s found those pursuits here in his adoptive city. Henderson’s nonprofit runs a program at Minneapolis North High that provides kids fitness and life skills training after school. He works with Mayor R.T. Rybak on initiatives designed to curb youth violence, which include Henderson’s public service announcement on illegal guns. Hope United Community Development Corporation honored Henderson this week for his work in north Minneapolis.
Henderson also has partnered with former Vikings linebacker Ben Leber and elementary schools in the suburbs to launch a fitness and nutrition program called Youth Pro Fitness. The program provides kids a structured fitness and diet plan. They have summer camps scheduled in June, and Henderson wants to make this a national initiative.
“Child obesity is an animal,” he said. “Kids sitting around playing video games. We’re trying to combat that and fast food [addiction].”
Henderson also graduated this week from George Washington University’s STAR Executive MBA program, a specialized program geared toward professional athletes. He completed six modules over the past two years.
He has big plans for this next phase of life. The tug of football remains, though.
“I used to think it was a myth when I’d hear old retired players talk about missing the locker room the most,” he said. “In reality, that’s what it is. You miss the games and the locker room. Your friends, your teammates.”
And his little brother. Erin is the middle linebacker now, and E.J. is confident he can do the job.
That makes him happy.
Chip Scoggins can be reached at email@example.com.