Henderson returns, feels natural

On Dec. 6, E.J. Henderson suffered a gruesome fractured femur. Instantly, it was season-ending and potentially career-threatening. But Henderson has attacked the rehabilitation and made his 2010 practice debut Friday. He talked about his mental and physical state and his return to action.

E.J. Henderson is confident he will be ready to start the regular season, just like he was confident he would be ready to practice by the start of training camp.

In June, Henderson predicted his return to the training-camp practice fields when he said he would be "ready to rock." On Friday, he looked as steady as a rock during the Vikings' initial practice.

The middle linebacker was back in his natural element – in the middle of the quick-moving action, calling out the defensive checks and running to the ball. The Vikings' first practice of training camp didn't involve pads, so that part of Henderson's comeback from a fractured femur suffered against the Arizona Cardinals in December is still an unknown.

Vikings coach Brad Childress said Henderson "doesn't need to be in a whole lot of knock-down, drag-outs to start with." But, as far as his return for the first practice of training camp, Friday had to be considered a success.

"These are drills I've been doing. These are guys I've been playing with a long time. I've been playing football for a long time. It's a matter of getting back out there, getting my sea legs with me and getting back in running shape," Henderson said after practice.

"I know I can start the regular season right now. It's a matter of just building it up, getting to that level, not going out there too soar – just not do too much too soon. I think that's the method we're going to take right now."

That was the plan, anyway. Vikings coach Brad Childress said before practice that Henderson would start with the individual drills and work his way into seven-on-seven drills and then into more full-team work. Little did we know that most all of that would be accomplished in the initial hour-plus practice of training camp.

"Between the medical people and the trainer and the athlete, once they tell you that things are good, then it's time to progress. He's healed, and he's healed well with a titanium rod in there. That leg may be stronger than the other leg," Childress said. "He feels like, and we feel like, he's lifted enough weights and run enough straight-line conditioning. … He did all of the offseason conditioning manual that we sent home with our guys. He did every rep in that thing, so logically the next step is to get him out there and do some football type of movements."

So there he was in the middle of the action with the first-team defense during seven-on-seven drills and splitting time with Jasper Brinkley on the first-team defense throughout the practice.

From the outset, Henderson has attacked the injury and rehabilitation with a determination to return to action.

"From the first day he told me, ‘I'm going to change the protocol with the way this injury is rehabilitated.' I thought, wow, there is a mouthful," Childress said. "He has his jaw locked right from the beginning. Obviously it is a painful injury. He has been religious about his rehab, almost to the point where you have to hold him back. We will continue to hold him back until he gets out there and does football type of movements. He is right where he needs to be at with his complete health. To say that he is going to go out there and play professional football, that is what he has on his mind."

Henderson said he only noticed the injury when he was warming it up. His bigger concern seems to be conditioning himself back into football shape, and he is trying not to concern himself with the injury suffered on Dec. 6.

"I think football is so fast you don't really have time to be intrepid or scared or to think about maybe a hit to the leg or something coming like that," Henderson said. "It happens so fast that if you want to be the player that you want to be, you've got to be aggressive. You've got to put that out of your mind."

Unfortunately for him, he has had more than his fair share of practice at putting past injuries out of his mind and moving on. In 2008, he missed the final 12 games of the season with dislocated toes. In 2005, he had a high ankle sprain that caused him to miss only one game. In 2004, it was a knee injury that put him out of action for two games.

"It's been frustrating, but you just keep going and do the work that it takes to get back," he said. "I think that's what all professional athletes do. That's why they're at this level. Just do what you do to get back. Put in all the work that you can and see how the chips fall."

So far, they are falling in a big pot that has strong odds on him fulfilling his optimistic timeline. Friday was just the first step.

"It definitely felt natural. I've been playing for a long time, been playing middle linebacker for a long time. I know all of these guys, minus a couple of rookies," he said. "It's nothing new and it felt good to be back out there."

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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