When the Vikings first signed Erin Henderson as an undrafted free agent linebacker in 2008, many believed it was little more than a case of professional nepotism – the Vikings had caught lightning in a bottle with his brother E.J. and maybe, just maybe, they were hoping that signing a player with the same impressive bloodline would pan out.
Three years later, Henderson will make his first career start when the Vikings player San Diego Sunday. It's been a long time coming – his role prior to this season was as a special-teams player who had just five career tackles on defense heading into Sunday's game. After spending three years wondering if his career would sustain, running out on the field as a starter will be a thrill he will remember the rest of his life.
"I think it's going to be the ultimate high for me," Henderson said. "I think it will be an adrenaline rush like I've never felt before. I remember my first start in college and my first start in high school. I think this one is going to be a little different, playing at the highest level of competition with the best of the best in the world. I'm just excited to get out there and show what I got."
He said that his preparation has allowed him to visualize in his mind where he will be on given plays, what his role will be and how he would react once the ball is snapped. It's been something akin to watching a Madden game scroll through his mind, inserting himself into various lineups to attack the Chargers offense.
"It's playing over and over and over again," Henderson said. "I've watched the film and I put myself out there against their offense and see the different things they do – the schemes they like to run – and I try to put myself in the same situations with the defense that is out there at the time."
Henderson said he has been working hard since the lockout ended to reward the confidence of his coaches and has been trying to build up to Sunday's crescendo from where he was at the start of training camp to get to this point.
"Sixteen games is a grind," Henderson said. "It's tough physically and mentally. That's what we're working so hard for. I'm trying to practice as hard as I can when I'm out there so when I get into the games, I don't feel overwhelmed."
He will line up for the first time in his career next to his brother, who played at Maryland before Erin became a Terp. They have had brief moments on the field as teammates, but he said that being brothers is for off the field. When they're between the white lines, they are teammates like everyone else and there won't be any preferential treatment by E.J. to his little brother.
"He has his own job and responsibility on every play," Henderson said. "He's the one responsible for calling the defense and setting the front. I've got to be out there and be on my P's and Q's and know my stuff. I can't rely on my brother to look out for me – or anyone else for that matter. I don't think my brother will put any effort into helping me. He has his own job."
Henderson is slated to fill the role vacated by Ben Leber. As such, he will likely be a two-down linebacker who comes off the field when offenses are in three- and four-receiver sets. He said he isn't so much concerned about not being able to get into a rhythm and flow of the game. Instead, the problem is going to be having to leave the field and come back on the fly so often.
"It's tough," Henderson said. "Actually, it's kind of hard running off the field. Running on and off the field isn't much fun. It gets you a little more tired, because you're not standing in the huddle catching your breath. You're out there screaming trying to get everybody else on the same page, but you have to figure a way to make it work. You can't really say anything about a rhythm, you've just got to go out there when your number is called, be prepared and take care of your part."
The Vikings are in the process of re-tooling a defense that was the standard-bearer for the teams that led them to NFC North titles in 2008 and 2009. Pat Williams, Ray Edwards and Leber are gone and, for the first two games, the Vikings will be without Kevin Williams. Henderson said he's excited about the prospects of the new-look Vikings defense and said that there's no reason to try to talk up the defense – until they prove that they can thrive without the three starters that were such big contributors to their past success, the point is moot.
"I think that's yet to be seen," Henderson said. "We can do all the talking, give you all the lip service and tell you we're the greatest defense to ever play in the NFL. But none of that matters when we get out there on Sunday and go out and prove it to everybody else."
Henderson said the hours leading up to the game will certainly have him amped up, but he's convinced he will be able to keep a lid on his emotions until he gets on the field and making plays. Once that happens, all bets are off.
"I'm trying to contain myself and trying to hold it down, but you're going to see a madman out there on Sunday," Henderson said.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Erin Henderson preparing to be a ‘madman'
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