Jaguars rookie defensive tackle John Henderson was pulled aside by head coach Tom Coughlin after practice a few weeks ago and was informed that he would finally be making his debut in the starting line-up along side fellow mammoth defensive tackle Marcus Stroud. The normal starter at defensive tackle, veteran Larry Smith, had suffered an ankle injury, so Henderson was thrust into the spotlight against one of the most dangerous teams and quarterbacks in the league in Philadelphia and Donovan McNabb.
Most rookies would have come down with a major case of the nerves and butterflies, but it's a good thing Henderson is not like most rookies. He responded to his first start by notching seven tackles and three sacks to tie a single-game club record.
"When coach told me I was probably going to get the opportunity to start, I felt great and confident," Henderson said. "All I could think about doing was going out there and performing to the best of my abilities. It was funny. I talked to Fred Taylor and he told me about his first start. He said he rushed for over a hundred yards. I talked to a few other guys, also, and they told me what they had done, so it helped me relax."
The performance was one the Eagles won't soon forget, either. The kid out of Nashville, Tenn., who had dreams of glory on the hardwood as a youngster — not on the football field — downright dominated the Eagles.
"Going against McNabb and getting three sacks made it real exciting and a day I will never forget," Henderson said.
He proved his performance against Philadelphia was no fluke by posting two solid outings at Tennessee and Baltimore, before registering a career-high 11 tackles, two tackles for loss and one sack versus the Houston Texans.
"I just have to keep working hard and improving each day," Henderson said. I know I still have a lot to learn."
Henderson didn't start playing football seriously until his junior year of high school. He was so wrapped up in basketball that he quit the football team his sophomore year to focus on basketball. That didn't last too long. One thing basketball couldn't offer to the kid known as "Baby Shaq" was the opportunity to hit people.
"I love to hit," Henderson said. "That's why I chose football over basketball, because of the physical part of the game. Playing football, I had the chance to take out all my pain and frustration and anger on the guy lined up across from me. I could hit him as hard as I wanted, and it was OK. It was legal. I love that."
Henderson led his Pearl-Cohn high school football team to two state championships before becoming one of the most sought-after high school recruits ever in the state of Tennessee. Hundreds of letters poured in weekly, and the phone calls from coaches never stopped. Recruiters tried every trick in the book to try to persuade the 6-7, 290-pound star athlete to come to their school.
"The Alabama coaches called me the night before signing day and begged me not to go to Tennessee. They wanted me to come visit their school with Eric Locke. It was unbelievable," Henderson said.
But, Rocky Top had his heart. His childhood friends were there, and the school was close enough to home where his family and friends could see him play.
At Tennessee, Henderson flourished. He became an All-America defensive tackle after tallying an amazing 12 sacks as a sophomore. He won the Outland Trophy, which goes to the best defensive lineman in the country, as a junior, which prompted many to wonder if he would leave school early and enter the NFL draft.
His mother had worked extremely hard for little pay to make sure John and his other siblings were well fed and taken care of. She was tough on Henderson and had sacrificed everything to make sure he would make it out of Nashville. She even grounded him one time for six straight months, not allowing him to step foot outside the house. Henderson promised himself once he made it big he would repay her by buying her a nice, big house.
"After everything she went through, she's going to be in a house that she can call her own," he said.
Draft guru Mel Kiper proclaimed Henderson the No. 1 pick in the draft and millions of dollars were waiting on his doorstep. All he had to do was open the door. But it wasn't time yet.
"I had unfinished business at Tennessee," Henderson said. "I felt like we could win another championship, and I wanted one so bad."
He was a member of the Volunteers' 1998 national championship team as a partial qualifier, meaning he was allowed to practice but could not dress for games. Also, because he was a partial qualifier under NCAA rules, he was not allowed to receive any postseason rewards, and that includes national championship rings.
"That hurt badly," Henderson said. "I won championships in high school, and I watched my teammates win one in college, so I wanted to win one on that level, also."
So Henderson decided to return to Knoxville for his senior year, looking for a storybook ending to an already magnificent career. However, it didn't quite work out that way. In the fourth game of the year against Syracuse, Henderson had some exchanges with a Syracuse offensive lineman. The lineman told Henderson that he was going to put him out of the game, and he followed through with his promise. Henderson ended up with a high ankle sprain that pretty much forced him to play on one leg the rest of the season.
"It was crazy because the guy actually told me he was going to do it. He dove at my ankle and rolled me up. It was a pretty big deal at the time, but eventually I had to let it go and focus on football."
Although risking that his draft stock would fall because of a drop of production on the field, Henderson continued to play through his senior year with the extremely painful high ankle sprain to give his team the best chance to win.
"Nothing was going to get me off the field," he said. "I wanted that championship badly."
Jaguars head coach Tom Coughlin said Henderson's desire, toughness, and willingness to play through that pain was one of the reasons the team chose him with the ninth pick in 2002 draft.
"John Henderson had 70 percent playing time with a severe high ankle sprain. I take my hat off to his toughness," Coughlin said.
Tennessee's season ended in the SEC championship game with a loss to Louisiana State, which marked the ending of one chapter and the beginning of a new one in Henderson's career. The NFL draft brought a plethora of new questions, some of which Henderson had no answers for. NFL scouts were concerned about rumors that his ankle sprain wasn't the only reason his production was down his senior year. They heard he might have some back problems, even though doctors who examined him at the combines said his back was fine.
"The whole back thing was a little frustrating because there is nothing wrong with my back," Henderson said. "It's like when any muscle tightens up, you have to stretch it out and that's all I did. My back is fine. It was blown way out of proportion."
Also, in an ironic twist Henderson's teammate on the defensive line at Tennessee, Albert Haynesworth, announced he would take the opposite path that Henderson took. Haynesworth skipped his senior season to enter the draft, which immediately struck up comparisons and debates about which of the two tackles was the best.
"I knew as soon as I heard that Albert was coming out that everyone would immediately start comparing us," Henderson said. "But there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. All the talk got old really quick, but the best thing about it was that every scout and coach in the league had film on both Albert and me, so they could see for themselves who the best really was."
The Jaguars looked at the film and it was obvious to them and everyone else that Big John was the best, so they drafted him with the ninth pick.
"It was a nerve-racking day," he said. "I had about 45 people at my mom's house in Nashville, and they all went crazy when my name was called. I could barely hear coach Coughlin when he called because my family was so loud."
Coughlin said Henderson displayed everything they were looking for in a first-round pick.
"He's a character guy," Coughlin said. "He was spoken so highly of by (Tennessee head coach) Phil Fulmer and the people at Tennessee. We recognized his toughness, how hard he plays, what he did in the locker room, his leadership. Certainly Haynesworth is a very gifted athlete, but we felt that Henderson, for our situation, was the pick we needed to make."
The Jaguars had a big present waiting for Henderson when he arrived in Jacksonville — it was 6-6 and weighed 320 pounds and was named Marcus Stroud.
Stroud was the team's first-round pick in 2001, and he was there to show Henderson the ropes and let him know what it takes to play on this level.
"We talk a lot," Stroud said. "I want to do everything I can to make sure he doesn't make the same mistakes I made last season. We're two big, tall, young guys who are coming along. Once we get our game where it needs to be, we could be the two premier defensive tackles in the league."
Henderson and Stroud have formed a dynamic duo on the interior of the Jaguars' defensive line, one that could easily evolve into one of the most feared in the league with time.
"Marcus makes the game fun for me. We feed off each other and it spreads throughout the team. We even have Marco Coleman getting excited. He's dancing doing the 'shake.' When Marcus gets excited, I get excited. When I get excited, Stroud gets excited. It's been great having him here," Henderson said.
While Henderson has definitely made his presence known his first few months in the NFL, he understands he has a lot more to learn before he can take that next step.
"I still have a lot to work on, like staying low and getting good leverage. I need to get better with my footwork and technique, but I'm learning more and more every day," he said. "My goal is to help my team go to the playoffs. I want to go the playoffs and win a championship. Since I didn't win one in college, I'm not going to stop working until I get one here. I want to be the best defensive lineman out there while having fun. This game is all about having fun, so that's what I plan to do."