His mom makes $11.66 an hour cleaning houses. His dad, a proud man with a ninth-grade education, is a janitor. And his 12-year-old brother has what the doctors call "transposition of the great vessel," a med school way of saying his heart needs a pacemaker. And still, Tennessee defensive tackle John Henderson decided that he'd rather stay a Volunteer than go into the draft, that the NFL could keep its first-round dollars for one more year. The Hendersons have gone without money for so long, what's another nine months, right? "I can't miss what I never had," he told Mom.
Everybody made a big deal about Peyton Manning coming back to Knoxville for his senior season. Yeah, it was a nice gesture by Tweety Bird. But Manning's old man, Archie, didn't push a broom for a living, and his mom didn't scrub other people's toilets, and his brother's lips didn't turn blue after another heart episode. Manning didn't spend eight years in the worn, brown-brick projects of Nashville's Lewis Street with childhood friends who ended up crackheads, felons or just plain dead. He didn't cruise K-town in a 13-year-old Caddy and keep a Bible in the glove compartment. Psalm 23 seems to be the Henderson family creed: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." So when you see Henderson blowing up blockers for the Vols this fall, or hear Mel Kiper Jr. breathlessly proclaiming him as an early favorite for the No.1 NFL pick next spring, remember what he could have done with that NFL money.
College football's best defender is back for a third season, which isn't so bad considering his temper got him kicked out of the third grade. The young Henderson's outbursts -- and his outsized body -- had teachers convinced he was uncontrollable. The whipper of anybody who dared front him, he nearly ended up in an institution. He was angry at the world and surely at his reclusive dad, who stiffed him for years. "I made it out," he says. "It was a miracle. I call it a miracle."
Now look at Henderson. He's a "Yes, sir. No, sir," machine. He's a 6'7", 290-pound clean freak, washing that Caddy almost daily and hanging matching hand towels in his bathroom -- neatly folded, of course. He's a student, on pace to earn a psychology degree next spring. He's a mama's boy, saying prayers just like she asks, eating greens, sending little cards back home. He's his father's son again, growing closer to his once-estranged dad.
Henderson has taken the long way to get here and is now just beginning to feel comfortable with his considerable mass, with his immense talent and with the growing expectations that are draped on him like bunting. Truth is, Tennessee hasn't had a defensive lineman as drop-dead good since Reggie White. Even though he has little hope for the Heisman, Henderson may be the nation's best player. Of course, none of this registers with Henderson. Mr. Football History, he isn't.
A recent conversation:
"Do you know what the Groza Award is?"
Henderson: "Uh ... "
"How about the Lombardi Award?"
Henderson: "Lombardi? Is that for linebacker?"
"Jim Thorpe Award?"
Henderson: "Um ... I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize. Butkus Award?"
Henderson: "Uh ..."
Henderson: "I know the Outland Trophy."
He knows because he won the thing last season. But when first informed he was a finalist for the Outland, which goes to the nation's best interior lineman, Henderson looked like he was just told his cross-maginator was in code four shutdown.
Henderson is the anti-Me. He used to carry a rag to wipe the flop sweat from his brow during interviews. When Tennessee initially issued him jersey No.1, Henderson quietly requested a more conventional 98. He doesn't know individual awards because they don't matter to him. What does matter is an SEC championship trophy, and he'd really like one of those national championship rings, what with getting screwed out of one in 1998, thanks to an NCAA rule prohibiting partial academic qualifiers from receiving bowl-related goodies. Didn't matter that he never missed a practice.
He signs autographs, not because he likes to be noticed, but because it's the polite thing to do.
You can't help but notice Henderson. He's built like two stacked beer kegs and runs a 4.7 40. As a sophomore last season he recorded 12 sacks, the third-best season total in UT history. He also dropped into zone blitz coverage, and found himself at nose tackle when the Vols dabbled with a 3-4 and even at tight end during two games. This season, just to give nightmares to SEC quarterbacks, Vols coaches may stick him on the edge every so often.
And here's the really scary part: He's getting better. Once a pure power player, Henderson pulled cut-up tapes and studied techniques and moves of the NFL's best, including his hero, Reggie White. Henderson now uses his hands more and stays low off the snap to gain leverage.
"To be honest, he just exploded," says Vols coach Phillip Fulmer. "It wasn't continued development. It was, 'I'm decent, now I'm outstanding.' He missed 'pretty good' and 'good.' Boom! All of a sudden, he's playing outstanding football."
Henderson's entire life has been a series of lurches and extremes. There is no in-between. He goes from average to All-America, partial qualifier to academic success, outcast to centerpiece.
His mom, Bridgett, knew something was different about her second child seven months into the pregnancy. So heavy was the kid that she couldn't walk. "Eleven pounds, 9 ounces," she says. "I'll never forget." John Nathan Jr. was born big and stayed big. His grandmother called him Joe-Joe. Friends and family shortened it to Joe, which is what Henderson still answers to these days.
He looked twice his age and became the kid most likely to be stared at. He was shy, a loner, an easy target. The fights started in third grade. So did the expulsions. "They picked with him all the time," says Bridgett, sitting in front of a town home wall full of photos of Joe-Joe and his brothers.
More of the frustration leaked out in fifth grade, and he was nearly expelled again for pushing a desk at a teacher, prompting more heartless teasing. It didn't take much to set him off. "I really don't know what caused it," Henderson says. "It was a blur to me. I'd fight all the time. I'd never lose, unless I was triple-teamed." Bridgett, who stressed manners and the difference between right and wrong, grounded him for a year. He could touch the front porch with his big toe, nothing more.
Still, there were more fights. His motto: "Make a peep, get a fist." It didn't help that his father had left when Henderson was 2. John Sr., whom everyone calls Spitball, did what he could. He sent money. He cared. But around the Metro Davidson Housing Authority projects, Henderson needed guidance, not a checkbook dad.
Then Maurice Fitzgerald walked into the local youth center.
Fitzgerald, the football coach at Pearl-Cohn High School, was there to referee a basketball game as a favor to a friend. Fitzgerald had been close to backing out of the commitment, but he figured a promise was a promise. "The first person I walked into was Joe," Fitzgerald says. "Fate."
Fitzgerald also ran a 12-and-under AAU team and was desperate for a center. Henderson, almost 12 and already 6'3", was desperate for a change.
"When I met him, he was so reclusive, but there was something special in his eyes," Fitzgerald says. "You could tell this kid wanted something better."
Fitzgerald took him home to meet the family. "I thought he was one of Dad's friends," says Buck Fitzgerald, now a senior safety at UT. "I thought he was a grown man."
Henderson didn't say much. But the more time he spent with Maurice, Buck and their cousin Andre Starlings, the more he talked about his past, his temper, his absent dad. Before long, the hands rarely curled into fists. You saw his smile.
Fitzgerald's team qualified for the national AAU tournament, and Henderson joined them on the road. But when it was time to leave the hotel for the gym, Henderson wasn't on the bus.
"Where's Joe-Joe?" Fitzgerald asked Buck.
The angry coach made a beeline to Henderson's room, only to find him making the beds per Mama's instructions. "I had a big lump in my throat," says Fitzgerald.
Henderson started seventh grade in the same Catholic middle school, St. Pius X, as Buck and Andre. He wore the uniform: blue pants, white shirt. And he became such a favorite of the nuns that in eighth grade he was asked to play Jesus in the annual passion play, just like Buck a year earlier. When it came time to raise Henderson on the cross, five kids had to push the 6'5", 250-pound eighth-grader into place. "That's the biggest Jesus we've seen," says Fitzgerald, laughing.
Henderson was slowly finding himself. And in a nice little twist, so was Spitball, who began spending time with his son. Spitball doesn't talk about it -- he doesn't do interviews -- but Henderson does.
"I learned," he says. "My mom taught me. My dad finally came and taught me. Coach Fitzgerald taught me. My whole personality changed. Nobody believed it, but it was the turning point of my life."
By the time he was a rosary-wearing freshman at Pearl-Cohn (he kept the beads at his side the whole year), college basketball recruiters already knew about him, and the football recruiters weren't far behind. Still, there were times that tested him, like when he walked into a child development class only to have several tots take one look at him and start crying in fear. "Mom," he said later, "I wish I wasn't this big." So self-conscious was he about his size that Henderson would try to wait out the gawkers. One night when he was 14, Fitzgerald and his star player were at a local basketball game when he noticed Henderson fidgeting in his seat.
"Coach, I've got to use the restroom."
"Well, go on then," said Fitzgerald.
"I don't want to. They'll look at me."
Henderson became the center of attention on the AAU team, earning a rep against the likes of Shane Battier and a new nickname: Baby Shaq. Football was an afterthought, and Henderson quit the sport with two games left in his sophomore season. He had bought into Baby Shaq and worried what an injury might do to his hoops career.
"Let nature tell you what to do," Fitzgerald told him. "If you grow to 6'11", then nature wanted you to play basketball. If not ... "
Henderson kept playing basketball but returned to football, leading Pearl-Cohn to two state football titles. Henderson's No. 4 was retired, but he didn't care about publicity. Teammates loved him. He could do a dead-on Martin Lawrence imitation. Eating was fun. He'd eat a whole loaf of bread at a single sitting and wash down meals with a gallon of fruit punch. He was a teenage wonder who'd eat like an offensive line and run like a receiver.
Henderson became one of Nashville's most sought-after recruits ever, but UT was the easy choice -- Buck was already at Tennessee, and high school hoops teammate Ron Slay would soon follow. And Starlings, his best friend, was at nearby Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City.
Henderson had friends, but as an ineligible freshman, he still suffered through loneliness. Game day Saturdays were the worst, especially as the Vols made their way to the Fiesta Bowl and the 1998 national title. And thanks to that NCAA rule prohibiting postseason rewards for partial academic qualifiers, Henderson didn't get that ring.
"It still sticks with me," Henderson says. "It hurt. I tried not to let it show."
"I wouldn't wear my ring around him," says Buck.
Henderson played intramural hoops that year, terrorizing the frat rats. He thought about asking to play hoops for the Vols, but never did. Too bad, says Slay, a third-team All-SEC pick. "He'd be the second-best center in the league, behind [Florida's] Udonis Haslem," Slay says. "And he'd kill [North Carolina's] Julius Peppers."
Instead, Henderson concentrated on football. He started eight games his first season and all 12 last year. NFL scouts came to Neyland Stadium and left drool marks on their rosters. "He's unbelievable," says one personnel director. "Wow! Wow! He jumped off the tape. I'm surprised he came back."
Henderson never wanted to leave. But there was family. There was the risk of injury. There was money. He was a mess. He grew silent. His complexion changed. He was irritable, even mean.
Spitball couldn't care less if Joe-Joe went. Money wouldn't change their time together lifting weights or sharing a pizza. Bridgett said nothing, other than to tell him to follow his heart. Fulmer did his part, calling NFL scouts and then presenting him with his likely draft status: mid-first round.
Bridgett was cleaning a house when her cell phone rang. Joe-Joe was on the line.
"Joe, you okay?" she asked, pausing before asking again. "Joe?"
"Mom, I'm not ready to go."
Bridgett couldn't help herself. "Thank you, Jesus!" she yelled.
Henderson wanted to be a kid as long as he could. He figures he owes himself that much. "My mind is not ready for business right now," he says.
"If he'd gone pro, he probably would have lasted a year," says Fitzgerald. "He would've been 80 percent unhappy, 10 percent curious, and 10 percent wondering why he did it."
A grateful Volunteer Nation can't wait for his final season. Henderson has two years of eligibility, but nobody is kidding himself. A $3 million insurance policy is in place, and barring injury, he'll make some NFL GM very proud next April. As for the rest of them -- Bridgett, Spitball, Maurice and Buck, Stallings, Slay, Fulmer, the nuns at St. Pius -- Joe-Joe doesn't have to worry. He made them proud years ago.
This article appears in the August 20 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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