MANKATO, Minn. -- This is how it happens sometimes when an NFL player suffers a serious injury.
Although healed from a medical standpoint, the player is robbed of the elite skills responsible for his original ascendance into the league. He's slower, maybe not flexible enough or runs with a hitch. Coaches recognize the slip immediately, but the player -- eternally hopeful or possibly in denial -- insists he is at full strength.
So the team puts the player back on the field and lets him see for himself what is evident to everyone else: He's done.
I must admit that scenario came to mind when the Minnesota Vikings cleared linebacker E.J. Henderson for training camp practices last month. As you recall, Henderson fractured his left femur last December in a gruesome injury that was reported to be career-threatening. Fractured femurs usually occur in car accidents and motorcycle rollovers, not football games.
It left Henderson riding a scooter around the team's practice facility last winter. Doctors implanted a permanent titanium rod in his leg. He spent six weeks in a wheelchair, used crutches for another six weeks and a cane for six weeks after that. That's no way for an NFL player to prepare for a season.
So I figured the Vikings were letting down Henderson easily. Instead of placing him on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, or waiving him injured, the Vikings were simply allowing him to discover football mortality on his own.
To this point, however, Henderson's return has proved to be no charade. No one is willing to say he will be the Vikings' starting middle linebacker Sept. 9 at New Orleans -- no one except Henderson, that is -- but here's what we can say with absolute certainty: Henderson has cut his original recovery timetable in half, and in the process surpassed every milestone set in front of him. His final hurdle will be a big one -- actual game experience -- but it's not out of the question that he could play in Saturday's preseason opener at St. Louis.
"I've pretty much known I would get back as soon as I was able to walk again," Henderson said. "Seeing the progress I made each and every week, I knew I would be ready to rock."
Initial reports suggested it would take up to a year for Henderson's leg to heal, but in their first meeting after the injury, Henderson told Vikings coach Brad Childress that he would "set a whole new protocol" for rehabilitating the injury. But despite his accelerated progress, the Vikings were giving strong consideration to placing Henderson on the PUP list when training camp began.
"My tendency is always to err on the side of caution," Childress said.
Henderson talked him out of it. He told Childress he had completed every bit of conditioning specified in the team's summer workout manual and said he needed to begin football activities. "Everything that we had asked players to do, he had done," Childress said. "So we've just been spoon-feeding him a little more each day."
This week, in fact, Henderson reached the point where he was taking all of the Vikings' first-team practice repetitions. I won't pretend to have the expertise to differentiate between Henderson pre- and post-injury. But to me, his increased repetitions are clear evidence of the Vikings' faith in his recovery. If they were worried, or at least wanted to hedge their bet, it's unlikely they would be taking away an increasing number of snaps from backup middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley.
What we're seeing is unprecedented in recent NFL history. How many professional football players have you heard of with titanium rods in their legs? One success story is Oakland Raiders running back Michael Bush, who had a similar instrument inserted into his right leg when he was 22. Bush returned to the field two years later.
Intuition, if nothing else, makes you question how Henderson could recover so much quicker, and at age 30. How could a titanium rod not slow him down?
Even Henderson admitted he briefly questioned his future when he found out about that detail.
"A little bit, yeah," he said. "But with modern medicine I don't have any worries. The doctors told me that I shouldn't feel it and that my leg would be stronger. And I really haven't felt it."
My sense is the Vikings will ride this wave for as long as it takes them but are not yet ready to declare total victory. There are too many unknowns and too much left to happen -- full, live contact among them -- before any conclusions can be drawn. But if Henderson has any doubts, he's not letting on.
"I'm on track," he said. "I don't know what the head coach or the trainers have in store for me, but I'm ready to rock [Saturday] if they want me to. We'll see how it goes. I think that's the last thing -- real, live bullets, bringing them down for real. It's going to be fine."