William Henderson was afraid he'd stumble — literally — on his way to making the team.
From those humble roots come the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame's Class of 2011.
"I remember coming in and just hoping and praying I didn't trip over my feet and fall on my face," Henderson said before Saturday night's induction ceremony at Lambeau Field. "Literally, from the first practice to the last, every day was, ‘Please, just don't trip over the white line and fall on your face. Let them think that you're an athlete.'
"The Ring of Honor, I'd read the names time and time again. As a kid, you dream about flying, being able to soar with birds and eagles sometimes. That's flying. If you ever get a chance to be recognized in the same sentence with the Willie Davises, the Willie Woods, the Bart Starrs, the Ray Nitschkes — the list goes on and on as we went through the Hall of Fame and looked at the names of the great ones I used to watch on TV or the highlight films, the NFL Films greatest plays. Now my name hangs on the same wall. Are you kidding me? I'm still at a loss for words. I really don't know what happened. I was just trying to make the team and get enough money to go to grad school so I didn't go into debt."
Marco Rivera and William Henderson. Bill Huber photo
Henderson, a third-round pick in 1995, played 12 seasons for Green Bay. Along the way, he led the way for six of the top-11 individual rushing seasons in franchise history. He made the Pro Bowl and was voted All-Pro in 2004.
"If my head wasn't ringing and my body didn't go numb, something was wrong," Henderson said. "On that first hit, my head was ringing and my body was numb. That meant for the rest of the game, nobody could hurt me. The reason my head was ringing and my body was numb was because I tried to knock them out. Special teams, offense, defense, whatever, I was going to make contact with someone.
"Now, fullbacks run the ball. What is that? Yeah, I got a couple of passes in the latter part of my career and I jumped over some guys. My fun part was finding that linebacker who was in the paper the week before talking about how many tackles he was going to get and trying my best to make sure his backside had as many grass stains as possible. That's what I enjoyed doing."
Before games, Henderson recalled getting calls from quarterback Brett Favre to keep an eye out for pass rushers coming off the edge or a safety blitzing up the middle.
His goal was simple and the results were effective.
"Make him regret his decision," Henderson said. "Don't touch my quarterback. Don't touch my quarterback."
Not many defenders got past Rivera, either. A sixth-round pick in 1996, Rivera was inactive throughout the Super Bowl season and played only on special teams as the Packers returned to the Super Bowl in 1997. After a year playing for NFL Europe's Scottish Claymores, Rivera blossomed into a two-time All-Pro, three-time Pro Bowler and a lineman who rates "right up there with the very, very best" in franchise history, in the eyes of his presenter, former position coach Larry Beightol. Rivera was part of one of the top blocking units in franchise history, with the 2003 team featuring Ahman Green's 1,883 rushing yards.
"When the Green Bay Packers called me," Rivera recalled, "I was like, ‘Wow, the Green Bay Packers, these guys are primed for the Super Bowl. What the heck do they want with me?' So, I quickly got here and I saw the amount of talent. The first conversation I had with Ron Wolf, he said, ‘You're here. Now, it's up to you to stay here.' Ron doesn't say a lot of words so I kind of took that as he had some faith in me, so I don't want to let him down."
He also didn't want to let Favre down. After breaking into the starting lineup in 1998, he started 111 of a possible 112 regular-season games.
"You know, it's part of the game. There's not one player out there that doesn't have some kind of injury," said Rivera, who's had two back surgeries since retiring. "My commitment to the team was beyond the injuries. I just didn't want to give up. I felt like if I was injured, you know, just keep playing through. It's all mental toughness. It helped having a quarterback like Brett. He set the standard. How can you look him in the eye and say, ‘Oh, Brett, I've got a torn MCL. I think I'm going to take the game off.' God forbid you lose that game because the right guard doesn't play well. I didn't want that to happen. I wanted Brett to know that, ‘I'm going to be there for you; you're there for us.' I wanted to set the standard for the rest of the team. That stuff is contagious."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport.