E.J. Henderson is working to make an impact off the field as much as he impacts opponents on the field.
Henderson was named the Vikings 2009 Community Man of the Year for his efforts with inner-city youth. In June 2007, after volunteering with several other local efforts, he established the E.J. Henderson Youth Foundation to benefit underserved Twin Cities youth.
"I saw the effect not living an academic lifestyle or the right lifestyle can have on middle school or high school athletes," Henderson said. "I seen a lot of guys in my neighborhood (in Aberdeen, Md.) that were probably better than me in basketball or football that didn't make it due to grades, due to other things off the field, off the court."
That's why Henderson's efforts don't just focus on athletics. He uses his workout and training facility to gain some of the youth athletes' attention, but his training with kids focus on athletics, academics and life skills.
Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier saw the impact of Henderson's methods first-hand. Frazier's son, Corey, attended Henderson's program and it had a positive effect.
"You can't just get caught in being a great athlete – whether it be basketball, football, baseball. You really have to pay attention to education," Leslie Frazier said. "The fact that E.J. has computers set up, a classroom, he has tutors for the kids, that really struck my son, along with some of his friends that, wow, I can't just work on my 40. Although as his dad, I'm saying these things all the time, but it just makes more sense when it's E.J. or some other pro athlete saying it."
Henderson has brought kids from his program to training camp practices and even practices at the Vikings' headquarters in Eden Prairie. That gives them more incentive to keep working hard when they have a chance to meet other professional athletes that help reinforce the message of academics and hard work.
"He does great things in the community. You guys don't ever see the groups that we have come over on Saturday mornings, but E.J. is an involved guy and gives back, and he's intentional about it. It's not just a name on a foundation. He's amongst them."
Around 2006 and 2007, Henderson started to see the effect he was having on kids.
"We saw the response that we got with the little group of kids that we did have and it kind of caught on. The word spread in North Minneapolis and we got a lot more volunteers and a lot more schools signed on with our Urban Youth Outreach program. It just kind of snowballed," Henderson said.
Signing a five-year contract extension in 2007 also helped. It allowed him to establish roots in the community and invest in something more long-term. A few months after that extension, he made a personal donation of $100,000 to the program as seed money and has continued to put his money into the effort ever since then.
"I still probably one-man fund it. We've got some grants coming in, some seed grants, some things in the works," Henderson said. "Of course, we did some big events, but didn't really make a lot of money. Like any non-profit, especially starting out, we're going into our third year, most organizations and most donors want to see you in the three years plus before they start giving you big money."
The program has even added a couple of girls groups more recently.
"It's educational, yet it's sports-oriented, which you would expect it to be. But (it) really has a heavy emphasis on the SAT or ACT tests, which really struck me because most athletes that put together programs that are outreach programs to kids tend to weigh heavy to athletics, and naturally so," Frazier said. "To combine education along with athletics is unique when you talk about athletes. E.J. is not a guy that beats his chest and says, ‘Hey, look what I'm doing.' It's just very appropriate that he was named man of the year because he does so much for so many in the inner city of Minneapolis as well as the suburban families as well. Just a sharp guy who has a great desire to help others and give back to our community. Kudos to E.J."
Brad Madson, the Vikings director of community relations, has seen Henderson's efforts in other areas as well. In the past, Henderson has volunteered with the United Way, Police Athletic League, Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, Arc Greater Twin Cities, and Boys & Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities.
"I'm blessed to witness first-hand the impact E.J. is making with the local urban youth, as far as providing education, fitness and life-skills opportunities," Madson said.
And it doesn't sound like a short-term venture for Henderson.
"This is something I'd like to do when I do retire, basically run the youth center," he said. "My dad worked at a youth center for 20 years and still works there. It's fun, it's something I like to do."
"The urban community is what I specialize in."
DT Fred Evans was back at practice on Thursday after missing Wednesday due to illness. CB Karl Paymah was added to the injury report, being limited Thursday with an ankle injury. WR Bernard Berrian (hamstring), CB Benny Sapp (groin), FB Naufahu Tahi (ankle), QB Brett Favre (hip/groin), and CB Antoine Winfield (foot) were limited. LB E.J. Henderson remained a full participant despite battling a knee injury that limited him last week.
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said he saw some of Henderson's old explosiveness after returning from the bye week to play Detroit last Sunday.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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