From ‘dire prognosis' to ‘ready to rock'

In December, teammates and coaches were concerned that E.J. Henderson might not be ready to play football for another year, if ever again at a high level. On Friday, Henderson left little doubt about his intentions for training camp and the season opener.

It's still a sight that haunts Vikings fans – a case of friendly fire in the Arizona game that snapped linebacker E.J. Henderson's femur. The injury was among the most gruesome in-game injuries that has been suffered since the infamous Joe Theismann's snapped leg.

It marked the second straight year that Henderson has spent his entire offseason rehabbing a serious injury – in 2008 he suffered dislocated toes that ended his season prematurely. While it wasn't the way he had hoped it would be, the typical time for relaxation has been replaced by a time for rehabilitation.

"I definitely miss not being able to enjoy my offseason, but you've got to do what you've got to do to get back," Henderson said. "Hopefully next offseason I'll be able to enjoy it."

He said the frustration of missing out on two playoff runs has been difficult to manage. Knowing his teammates were fighting for a berth in the Super Bowl, he's been forced to watch from the sidelines. For a competitor like Henderson, that hasn't been easy.

"It's been tough, especially missing two years in a row – not being out there at the end of the season," Henderson said. "But it's part of the game. I know people that have had worse injuries that have missed more games than me. I really don't have a choice but to come back like before. That's what it is, that's about all I can do. Of course I'm disappointed about missing so many games the past two years, but I don't think it will happen anymore."

The process of coming back from the injury began with the surgery he needed following the injury. He said that, if anything, his leg may actually be stronger now than it was before the injury.

"They put a titanium rod in my leg, so it's not like it can re-break," Henderson said. "It's been seven months since the injury, so the fracture is pretty much healed up with new bone and new callous. It's not really like any other injury."

Henderson's struggle to get back on the field has had its share of ups and downs. The last couple of months have been the most encouraging, but the playoff loss to New Orleans was the worst of times – as his teammates got closer to a Super Bowl than they had previously during Henderson's career and he was helpless to do anything to contribute to accomplishing that goal.

"The low point was watching the boys play in the NFC Championship and being on the sidelines," Henderson said. "Minus the injury and the pain and all that, that was the toughest thing. (I was) proud of them for being out there, proud of them for fighting and making it without me. But of course any player that is worth his while is going to want to be out there. But that was probably the low point, being out there against New Orleans, that type of game, and not being able to play."

The fact that Henderson is even in a position to play is something of a miracle. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said that, in the immediate aftermath of the injury, the word going around was that not only was Henderson's 2009 season over, but that his NFL future may well be in jeopardy.

"He's got a great attitude and he's worked extremely hard all throughout this offseason," Frazier said. "I can still remember talking to the medical staff immediately after the injury. It was a dire prognosis for the future. And now to see the enthusiasm that he has and that his desire hasn't waned one bit and the fact he believes he can make it back, it encourages my heart. Obviously, we all are hoping that's the case."

While his rehab can't replicate the kind of physical beating taken in a game, Henderson said the current step in the process is running and trying to get his body back into the kind of shape it is during the season.

"I can run high speed, full speed," Henderson said. "It's just a matter of getting everything back into muscle memory shape, where I don't have to think about taking off, I don't have to think about sprinting. I think in the next two months I'll be accomplishing something."

While the coaching staff and medical personnel had their doubts about when or if Henderson would return, he said that prospect never crossed his mind. From the point he got off crutches, the process began and Henderson has refused to look back since.

"I was never unsure if I was going to make it back or not," Henderson said. "It's just a matter of how long I would have before camp to get fully ready and get into football shape and get my football mind right. At this point, I'm able to do that. This week, maybe the last week, is really the first week I was able to really step into those football workouts and do the football movements."

There is still debate as to whether Henderson will start training camp on the active roster or the physically unable to perform list. He said that, while he is targeting training camp for his return, he said his body will tell him when it's time to dial it up and return full steam ahead.

"My body knows itself," Henderson said. "I know how I'm feeling. I know how my legs are feeling. I think when it's time to turn it on – which will be soon – I'll be ready to turn it on. But, for right now, we're still in the process of getting everything back to 100 percent."

While Henderson hasn't been able to work out fully with his teammates during the OTA period, he has been a source of inspiration for his teammates, who have witnessed both Henderson and cornerback Cedric Griffin working overtime to get back into their accustomed starting spots in the Vikings defense.

"Given the severity of his injury, while we are all very encouraged with the progress he has made, we're all listening to the advice of the medical staff," Frazier said. "I can't have him back until he gets cleared by Sug (head trainer Eric Sugarman) and they're making sure they don't rush him back too soon. The last thing you want now is a setback and I believe that they're following all the protocols needed and won't let him go back full speed with the rest of the team until they're confident his body is ready. When we get him back, I expect him to be the same old E.J."

Henderson said the start of training camp is his target date for a full return. He said he won't push it too hard, but added that, with as much at stake as there is for the Vikings in 2010, he's finding it difficult not to dial up the steps of his rehab another notch.

"There's definitely a lot of excitement," Henderson said "We're trying to build on what we did last year and take it to the next level. I'm anxious to get back out there and help contribute. But I still know it's a process and I just have to be patient and take it one step at a time. I'm definitely excited."

Whether he makes it back for the start of training camp is up for debate, but he said there is no question in his mind that when the Vikings make their return to the bayou to play the Saints he's going to be in the middle of the action. When asked what he is looking forward to upon his return, he left little doubt – when the games count, he's going to be on the field instead of watching from the sidelines.

"For the rematch, I'll be out there, knock on wood, barring anything crazy happening," Henderson said. "I'll be there for there for the rematch in New Orleans. I'll be there for practice. What I do in practice – that's up to the coaches and training staff, but I'll be there in camp ready to rock."

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for 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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