Monday will mark the one-year anniversary of one the most gruesome-looking injuries in Vikings history.
On Dec. 6, 2009, E.J. Henderson was moving into position to make a tackle on running back Tim Hightower when safety Jamarca Sanford impacted Henderson's leg at the wrong place at the wrong time. Henderson's femur fractured and he spent the night in an Arizona hospital after having surgery to repair the potentially life-threatening injury.
Up until that point in the fourth quarter, it was just another strong performance from a player looking like he would be in consideration to make his first Pro Bowl. He had 10 tackles in the game and had 100 tackles on the season, but the only thing left for him to tackle after that injury was a long road to recovery.
"Not being a year away, sometimes it enters my mind … so sometimes I shock myself being where I am and not having a year off," he said. "It is what it is."
It is an impressive comeback story. He went from being carted off the field slowly with trainers walking beside him to stabilize the leg and keep the femoral artery operating properly. Teammates knelt for prayer, but then-head coach Brad Childress said Henderson quickly started talking about setting a new protocol to make a comeback from the injury not long after his arrival back in Minnesota.
A couple weeks later, Henderson was seen on the sidelines of practices riding around on a motorized scooter. After that it was crutches and then a cane. By March, he didn't need any assistance walking.
By mid-March, Henderson had agreed to speak publicly about the injury, but he didn't want to dwell on it. He was hesitant to elaborate too much on the injury itself or the mental struggles he dealt with trying to come back from a season-ending injury for the second straight offseason (he missed the end of the 2008 season with multiple dislocated toes).
"It's been pretty tough. I don't really want to get into that right now," he said in March. "I think you all know it's been a tough process, but nothing but uphill now. I think the work's behind me. I'm looking forward to this summer."
Every time the Vikings would gather for a new round of practices during the spring and summer, progress was being marked, although throughout the process both Henderson and Childress were careful to note that he hadn't starting doing football drills. Jogging on the sidelines isn't the same as playing in an NFL game.
Now, 360 days after he lay helpless on the field in front of a Sunday night national television audience, Henderson is back directing traffic on the Vikings defense like nothing ever happened. It sounds like a serious candidate for NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
"I've definitely thought about it, because it's been mentioned," he said. "It would be a nice award to get, but at 4-7 there's a lot of other things to think about, starting with the Bills this weekend."
Henderson says he has watched footage of the injury a few times since, but, really, it seems so long ago. The defense he's back to directing is climbing the rankings against the run once again and back in the top five in the league, and the linebackers are doing their part.
"This is definitely the standard. Not just for myself, but for the linebacking corps I think we set a standard," he said. "This is nothing new for us. We're playing well and I think we ought to be playing better, myself included. We're just going to try to peak these last few weeks."
When the Vikings beat the Arizona Cardinals last month to save Brad Childress' job, several veteran players said they won for themselves, not to keep Childress as the head coach. Childress was fired after a 31-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers two weeks later, and interim head coach Leslie Frazier led the Vikings to a 17-13 road win over the Washington Redskins a week later, their first road win since Nov. 1, 2009.
So did the players win for Frazier on Sunday?
"It was huge. We wanted to do it for each other. We wanted to do it for the organization and we definitely wanted to do it for the fans," receiver Sidney Rice said. "We owed them that win and they deserve for us to play hard like that every week. I think we have the right players, the right staff, to get that done."
Linebacker E.J. Henderson also said the players needed the win for themselves.
"The win was priceless, especially in a moment like this. To win one on the road, with Leslie's first gig, was important, but for the whole roster to get that win, for the Vikings organization, the Wilf family to get over that hump, hopefully it can push us farther," Henderson said.
Frazier emphasized the basics – turnovers, penalties and controlling the line of scrimmage – in order to win on the road, and the players responded by winning all of those aspects. Defensive end Brian Robison was asked if having a new voice at head coach helped.
"I think it just has to do with what we did on the field. We made the plays that we needed to make in order to win the game," he said. "That's what it comes down to is just being able to make plays to win games."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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