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Jets LB Erin Henderson, clean and sober, aims for 'comeback player' award

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Erin Henderson's worst day was Jan. 1, 2014. It also was his best day.

He spent the night in a holding cell at the Carver County courthouse in suburban Minneapolis, where he was arrested on suspicion of DUI and marijuana possession following a single-car crash -- his second arrest in a six-week span. Happy bleeping New Year.

For years, Henderson controlled his drinking, winning a starting job in the Minnesota Vikings' linebacking corps even though he sometimes showed up for practice with a screaming hangover. But now, after another misstep, his career was in shambles. So was his life.

"I'd never been to prison before," he recalled last week. "I sat there that night ... you're in there by yourself and you have a lot of time to think about things and figure out which direction you want to go. Coach [Leslie] Frazier always used to tell us, 'Tell me your vision, and I'll show your future.'

"That night, I decided to change my vision."

Henderson was released the next day at 2 p.m. By 4, he was packing for a trip to the Hazelden rehab center in St. Paul, prepared to confront his demons. That second arrest, he said, was a life-changing blessing.

That was 17 months ago. Now he's a member of the New York Jets, trying to capitalize on a second chance -- maybe his last chance.

After a year out of football, Henderson signed a one-year, minimum-salary contract ($745,000) in April, with not a penny guaranteed. He's hardly a sure thing to make the Jets' 53-man roster, but his body feels refreshed and his mind is right -- so he believes. He's so confident in his recovery that his goal is to challenge for NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

"I have it in my mind to become one of the comeback players or at least be in the conversation," he said. "I think it's an interesting story and I think there are a lot of people out there who are suffering from similar things and maybe I can be an inspiration to them."

Henderson beat the odds once before, making the Vikings' roster as an undrafted free agent in 2008. He worked his way up to a starting job, but everything unraveled at the end of the 2013 season. After the second arrest, he was released by the Vikings. He received a four-game suspension by the league, which he served in 2014 as an unemployed linebacker.

"I waited until I was 27 years old to get into trouble," he said. "I was in a bad place mentally and I didn't necessarily know the best ways to handle it, so I went back to doing what I do best, the way I knew how to deal with it the best."

Drinking, he meant.

Henderson has described himself as a recovering alcoholic. He declined to get into specifics, but he painted a quick picture of his upbringing, saying, "I was taught at a very young age, that's how you handle your issues and your problems."

Clearly, that wasn't working, so he checked into rehab. One of his visitors was former Vikings teammate Greg Jennings, who became one of Henderson's biggest supporters. They engaged in brutally honest discussions in which Jennings shared personal feelings about his own fears and struggles. That transparency, he believes, may have helped Henderson unburden himself.

"When I saw him at his lowest was when I went to visit him the first time," Jennings said after a practice with his new team, the Miami Dolphins. "It was simply because you never expect anyone to see you in a state like that. You have to accept the fact that you're coping with an issue you couldn't overcome, you couldn't grab and take hold of. It was like he was exposing himself in a vulnerable state. A lot of men, specifically, have a hard time doing that."

After rehab, Henderson auditioned for the Cincinnati Bengals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he failed to land a contract for 2014. He stayed in shape, taking a hot yoga class, and filled his empty Sundays by engaging in an American pastime: He occupied his man cave, watching the NFL RedZone channel. He enjoyed the down time with his family, but he longed to resume his career.

"I knew I wasn't ready to walk away from the game," he said. "I was just hoping the game wasn't ready to be done with me."

The Jets offered him a contract after a thorough check into his background. Their conclusion: Henderson is a good man who lost his way for a couple of bad months. The Jets asked him what he saw in the mirror, and his answer went something like this: "I see someone who can do pretty much anything he wants to do in life if he just decides to get out of his own way."

Henderson didn't make any excuses for his transgressions.

"I've always found ways to hold myself back and to not allow my life to shine as bright as possible," he said. "I just got tired of it. I figured it was time to do something different and let people see who I really am and see the impact I can make on the world."

Henderson said he's clean and sober, insisting he has "the tools in my pocket" to maintain a healthy lifestyle. On the field, he's a "high IQ football player," according to Jennings. He's getting plenty of practice reps, trying to win a backup job.

Opening day is Sept. 13, when the Jets host the Cleveland Browns. If Henderson is there, it will be his new best day.