By David Fleming
Page 2

The comfy but cramped basement in Tonya Arnold's Carrollton, Ga., home is a living, breathing shrine to her son, Jets cornerback and special teams ace Jamie Henderson. His weights take up half the room. The walls are covered in framed photos of Jamie during each stage of his football career -- first in Carrollton, then at Georgia, and finally in New York after the Jets took him in the fourth round of the 2001 draft. There are painted game balls, trophies and plaques crammed in every corner. Scrapbooks cover the entire coffee table. And in front of the brown cloth couches there is a large-screen TV with a satellite hookup just for watching Jets games.

Yet, somehow, Henderson himself seems totally out of place down here.

On Sunday, when the Jets come on the tube, Henderson can barely sit still. He darts upstairs to sneak a taste of what his momma is cooking. He paces behind the weights. He heads outside to play with his pit bulls. And when he does finally sit to watch the game, he plops his lanky frame down in a folding chair behind everyone. Then he leans forward and rests his chin on top of the couch, as if hiding from his teammates on the TV.

At halftime, surrounded by friends and family, he finally says what's on everyone's mind.

"Man, all I want to do is get back and play some ball," he whispers. "I'm sitting here with you when I really should be in that locker room with them right now."

But he is. More than he'll ever know. In fact, if the Jets come out of their current tailspin and make the postseason, the most influential player on their roster might just be the guy living 900 miles away, watching the games from his mom's basement in Georgia -- the guy who nearly died eight months ago in a motorcycle crash on his way to McDonald's.

Jamie Henderson
Henderson was a key contributor to the Jets on special teams.

The bike skidded for nearly 200 feet. Henderson was unconscious and not breathing. He needed to be life-flighted to an Atlanta hospital, where a skull catheter could be inserted to relieve the pressure on his brain. He was in a coma for almost two weeks.

And when he finally woke up and began what has been a miraculous, nearly-full recovery, Jets coach Herm Edwards was there at his bedside to promise Henderson, who was not under contract to the team at the time of the accident, that his spot on the roster would be waiting for him when he returned.

In a cold-hearted, bottom-line business like the NFL, the Jets' rare and noble act of goodwill freaked Henderson's teammates and others around the game, to put it mildly. One agent I talked to said he hadn't seen anything close to this kind of gesture during his 20 years in the NFL.

"When justice is carried out, the people rejoice," is how Curtis Martin put it. "Justice in this case could have easily been, 'Hey, you got hurt away from football so you go your way and we'll go ours.' It was unheard of, what this team did by sticking by Jamie; and it spoke volumes to the players in this locker room."

The subsequent ESPN The Magazine story I wrote (Nov. 22, 2004) focused mainly on how the goodwill from Henderson's recovery has fueled the family atmosphere that Edwards has been trying to build with the Jets; and, in turn, how it helped power the best start in franchise history. But the tale I didn't get to tell in that story is just how much the Jets' gesture means to Henderson.

Anonymous players giving their all for the greater good of the team is the backbone of the NFL -- our national pastime. But how often do you hear about a team giving its all for the good of a player?

Uh, how about never.

Think about this for a second. In today's NFL, perfectly healthy, productive and loyal future Hall of Famers like Jerry Rice, Warren Sapp and Tim Brown get unceremoniously dumped to save cap space all the time. Henderson? The guy had played in 32 games for the Jets and registered all of 27 tackles.

Now, maybe that puts some perspective into the two-year contract the team gave to a guy who still had to relearn how to run. You want a reason to stick with the Jets? A reason to cheer for them or keep the faith during their recent swoon? There it is, right there.

"After the accident, Jamie was down in a slump, wondering what his life was going to be like, sliding into a depression," says Arnold, still dressed in her church clothes this Sunday. She's the kind of woman who speaks softly but never has any trouble being heard. "But when the Jets stood by Jamie ... the hope, it just shined from him. And everything started to change. It was like a whole new Jamie. I'm grateful to the Jets. What they did was give him a reason to get back to being Jamie again. They gave me my son back. Not the football players. The person. This wasn't about football; this was about life."

Herm Edwards
Herm Edwards inspired his team when he stuck by their fallen teammate.

On track now to rejoin his teammates for their off-season conditioning program, Henderson has re-enrolled at UGA to finish up his degree. He keeps in touch with several of the Jets daily by phone.

"Jamie's back to being his old self," says linebacker Jason Glenn, who calls his buddy 'Satellite Dish Ears.' "He had trouble with a test a while back; and when I asked him how he did, he said he got a Curtis Martin ... a 28."

And besides talking a dozen or so players into giving up their motorcycles, Henderson is constantly reminding them not to feel sorry for themselves, or take one second of this for granted.

During the game, I catch Henderson in the basement, glancing through a Jets scrapbook on the coffee table in front of him -- the one next to the signed, framed photo of Edwards. He quickly turns past the pages full of clips at the beginning of the book, and lingers instead on the empty, blank pages in the back of the book, the ones waiting for their highlights.

"I want the guys to learn from me, from my mistakes," he says, his eyes misting over. "I don't let guys complain. I tell them, 'Whatever you're going through, trust me, it can't be that bad.' Man, when I come back, I'm gonna be even more devoted to this team and this game. All the little things guys hate, like watching film or fighting through a tough week ... I can't wait to do that."

Conversations like these, I imagine, help keep things like a loss to the Ravens in proper perspective. Henderson still loses his balance once in a while, and questions that test his memory can still flummox him. But the guy refuses to give up his quest to rejoin the Jets. Suddenly, a 6-3 record doesn't seem so bad.

"Jamie could be in a coffin right now," says Martin. "It makes you realize things can always be a lot worse."

I know. I know. Buuuuut Flem, the J-E-T-S are in a two-game swoon. They've lost three of their last four. They can't get past the Pats. They can't win without Chad Pennington. Herm can't manage the clock. They're sloppy. Can't convert on third downs. Have you seen their schedule in the final month of the season? Ugh. And all you want to talk about is some sappy story about some injured scrub the team wasted precious cap space on.

But the two are connected. Trust me. Maybe we're all just too blinded by salary caps, fantasy stats and TD tap dances to see it. Edwards gets it. Anyone who has ever spoken to the guy for five minutes knows that. Life and death? Football and family? Trust and winning? They're all connected.

In fact, the more the talent level in the league evens out -- and I swear we're headed for a 32-team tie for first and last place, with everyone at 8-8 -- the more valuable stuff like team chemistry becomes. As far as I can tell, only one constant remains true in the era of the salary cap: Every year, at least one team catches an emotional wave and rides it all the way to the Super Bowl. Which means even in a multi-billion dollar business like the NFL, it's refreshing to know that money still can't buy the No. 1 ingredient to winning: chemistry.

Jamie Henderson
Henderson can't wait to get back on the field and celebrate with his teammates.

And so whatever small amount of coin the Jets invested in Henderson, I believe they're about to get it back 10-fold inside that locker room.

"I really think we made our players stop and go 'Wow' when we signed Jamie," a seemingly prescient Edwards said earlier in the season. "And I believe there is a direct correlation between that and how the players perform. You treat people well, and when something goes bad or something is close and you ask for a little more out of them, they're gonna give you the benefit of the doubt."

That's why the Jets will be fine. They'll survive this. They'll stay together and fight through this. Why? Because gazillionare players turn off bullies like Bill Parcells. They tune out draconian dictators like Tom Coughlin. But they'll run through a brick wall for someone like Edwards, someone who looked after one of their own.

Someone like Jamie Henderson.

And at crunch time of the season, that can transcend just about any obstacle -- even poor clock management.

If only Henderson could bear to watch it all unfold.

David Fleming is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Noah's Rainbow," a father's emotional journey from the death of his son to the birth of his daughter, will be published in 2005 by Baywood. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.




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