Linebacker in exile: Ex-Jet Erin Henderson returns home to rebuild life

Henderson hoping for another opportunity in the NFL (0:57)

Former Jets LB Erin Henderson shares how coaching high school football has been rewarding for him as he works towards making it back to the NFL. (0:57)

ABERDEEN, Md. -- Erin Henderson pulled up in a silver 2000 Lincoln Navigator, his old high school ride -- a gift from his older brother, E.J., who bought it with his first NFL signing bonus in 2003. Henderson had just come from his day job as a substitute eighth-grade math teacher, and he was in a rush to make it to the next part of his day.

In the driver's seat, Henderson changed out of his buttoned-down blue Polo shirt, brown slacks and brown dress shoes. He slipped into his other work clothes -- a gray Under Armour T-shirt, baggy black shorts and sneakers. The car door flew open and he walked across the parking lot into Aberdeen High School, his alma mater. He joined the varsity football team in their film session, where coaches and players were breaking down last week's 35-10 win over Fallston.

Henderson's new team is his old team. He led the Aberdeen Eagles to their last state championship in 2004. And now he volunteers as an assistant coach, while he waits for an NFL team to call. He's a 31-year-old linebacker, young enough and good enough to be in the league, but his eight-year career veered into a dark alley last season. A bitter divorce from the New York Jets has ended up in the courts, and he's not sure when -- or if -- he'll get another chance to play. In the meantime, he's living at home with his father, a short walk from his old school.

"They know me here," Henderson told ESPN on Monday in his first interview in a year. "I either grew up with them or they watched me grow up. It's cool, man, to drive down the main street in Aberdeen, which isn't a very busy street at all, and all the people wave to you. It's a good feeling after feeling like you've been alienated."

By whom?

"You know who," he said tersely.

The Jets, he meant.

Jets left him 'very bitter'

After nearly 1½ seasons with the Jets, Henderson was mysteriously placed on the non-football injury list last Oct. 22, triggering a behind-the-scenes drama that ended with his attorney filing a lawsuit last week in New Jersey Superior Court. He's suing for wrongful termination and disability discrimination, claiming his bipolar disorder is the reason he was put on NFI and ultimately released when his 2017 option wasn't exercised. He's seeking to recoup $3.3 million in lost and unpaid salary, plus punitive damages.

On the advice of his attorney, Henderson declined to discuss the specifics of the case, but he's "very bitter," according to his agent, Jim Chapman.

"It's really sad, because he loved that 2015 team," Chapman said. "Now he feels like those guys totally turned their back on him."

As much as he enjoys teaching and coaching, Henderson believes he should be 170 miles to the north in Florham Park, New Jersey, the Jets' headquarters. On Monday, it would've been film work and conditioning after a Jets win. It was the same drill at his old high school, except he was instructing, not running. As players ran gassers up a steep hill near the football field, he shouted encouragement and good-natured razzing.

Henderson would like to get into full-time coaching, but he believes there's still football left in his body. In his final two games, he started at inside linebacker and led the team in tackles. Then, on the eve of a home game against the Baltimore Ravens, he was informed of his NFI designation. He didn't get an explanation from the team, his agent said.

Since becoming a free agent in February, Henderson hasn't worked out for any teams. The lawsuit claims the Jets impugned his reputation by refusing to disclose the reason for placing him on the NFI list. That, coupled with past alcohol issues (two DUI arrests and a league suspension in 2014), fueled false speculation and caused teams to shy away, according to the suit.

"I don't think I'm being blackballed; I think it's the fear of the unknown," Henderson said. "Nobody knows what happened, and I'm not going to tell everybody right now because it's not the right time and place. Everybody is like, 'I really don't know, so I don't want to go. I'm not going to touch him.'

"I mean, I get it, I understand it, but I just never felt like it was appropriate for me to go out and tell everybody what happened. It didn't make sense for me to do it. If a team wanted to see what I was capable of doing, they'd bring me in and we'd go from there. I never saw a reason to go on Twitter and start ranting. I was like, let me sit back and see how things play out."

Henderson was blindsided by the team's decision to put him on NFI, according to Chapman. The agent said Henderson missed "a few meetings" earlier in the 2016 season because side effects from his team-prescribed bipolar medication, Seroquel, made it difficult to get up in the morning. Henderson explained that to team officials, Chapman said. The lawsuit alleges he was "fired" because of bipolar disorder.

The Jets declined to comment.

Hoping to be reinstated, Henderson lived at his apartment in Union, New Jersey, for the remainder of the season. He tried several times to arrange a sit-down with the Jets, who finally granted a meeting after two postponements, Chapman said. Henderson met with general manager Mike Maccagnan and director of football administration Jacqueline Davidson. They mentioned the missed meetings, but Henderson didn't think it was a valid reason because he was "locked in" and playing well before the NFI decision, according to Chapman.

The lawsuit also alleges a "hostile work environment." When Henderson visited the facility later in the season, he was subjected to "potshots about alcohol" from trainers and low-level staffers, Chapman claimed. He also said some defensive coaches went drinking with players on Thursday nights -- "Thirsty Thursday," they called it -- and that didn't sit well with Henderson. Asked if that made his client uncomfortable, Chapman said, "Abso-freakin-lutely."

Adopting a new mindset

Sitting in the weight room in his old school, Henderson refused to bash the Jets. He has "no hard feelings, no ill will" toward New York coach Todd Bowles. "I don't have anything bad to say about him." Henderson also said he's "cool" with his former teammates. He didn't want to talk about management.

"I'm sure there were some guys who thought I talked too much," he said of his ex-mates. "But there are other guys who probably appreciated that I talked too much. Leo [Williams], I'd come in every morning and say, 'What's up?' to Leo with a big, ol' grin on my face. He'd say, 'What are you smiling about?' I'd say, 'Brother, look what we're doing for a living. Look at our job. Why not smile?'"

By his own admission, Henderson hasn't always been the life of the party. Battling mental illness and an alcohol problem that landed him in rehab in 2014, he was a loner who isolated himself from friends and family. He struggled to find a "safe haven," saying the only place he felt comfortable was on the field. The physical contact, he said, was a "stress release." During particularly dark periods, he didn't return calls or texts from friends.

Finally, he adopted a new mindset.

"I've been telling myself, 'Just show up,'" he said. "If you're going to do something, just show up. If you're going to be a friend, be a friend and show up. If you're going to be a coach, be a coach. If you're going to be a teacher, be a teacher. Show up and do it, and be present in every-day moments."

Henderson showed up at an Aberdeen football practice one day in August, telling coach Johnny Brooks he wanted to get involved. Henderson addressed the players, describing himself as an "imperfect man." Brooks wasn't sure if he'd see Henderson again, but the former Aberdeen star showed up the next day. He kept showing up. He hasn't missed a practice or a game, home or away. He recently drove two hours to a game in Frederick, Maryland.

"When the kids see him and he's talking football, telling them the right things to do, I can see the light go on," Brooks said. "The kids light up."

Henderson is a big deal at Aberdeen High, a school Cal Ripken Jr. once attended. A framed and autographed Minnesota Vikings jersey (Henderson's first NFL team) hangs in the weight room, and the state championship trophy is displayed in the gym lobby. After Aberdeen, Henderson played college ball at the University of Maryland and then made the Vikings as an undrafted rookie, defying the odds.

He said he's proud of his career, yet there was a hint of regret in his voice. He admitted he "messed up in my personal life."

With his wife and 6-year-old son living in Los Angeles, Henderson decided to move back to Aberdeen because he wanted to be in a familiar and comfortable environment. His substitute teaching job started two weeks ago. He works five days a week, 7:30 a.m. to 3:05 p.m., teaching algebra and geometry at the local middle school. He's starting to plan for his next career.

"I haven't closed the book on football," he said. "I'm just working on the next chapter in my life."

From work, Henderson races to football practice, passing through his old neighborhood and childhood haunts, including the Taco Bell where he worked as a kid. He seemed comfortable around the players. After the conditioning drills, he walked alone with junior linebacker Maurice Alviarez, giving advice and rehashing defensive calls from the previous game.

"You're talking about a dude from Aberdeen who made it to the league," Alviarez said. "I'm stepping on the same footprints he stepped on. That's pretty cool. In my opinion, it's a blessing to have him around."

The feeling is mutual, Henderson said. His days are structured, and he knows he can't drink because he's around kids for 10 hours a day.

"This has been helpful to me in that way," he said.

Henderson acknowledged he feels frustrated and "stagnant" because his playing career is in a holding pattern. There's also a sense of alienation, because he believes the Jets did him wrong.

But he's home, and that feels good.

"Here," he said, "I feel like I did accomplish something, I did do something positive, I did do something good. I don't get looked at like I'm crazy and I'm the bad guy. I'm embraced and, for a long time, I thought I wasn't."