On Dec. 6, 2009, to all appearances, the NFL career of linebacker E.J. Henderson was just as likely to be over as not. After suffer a devastating leg injury as the result of friendly fire, Henderson's leg was snapped and the initial impressions on the sideline was that his career could very easily be finished.
On Aug. 6, 2010, eight months to the day that Henderson's leg crackled and required a titanium rod to be inserted to provide stability, he was flying around the practice field of training camp in Mankato. For those teammates who witnessed the injury, it is nothing short of miraculous how quickly he has recovered.
"I saw the replay on the Jumbotron because I didn't know what happened," linebacker Ben Leber said. "I saw it that one time. When it came to watching that game film, I didn't watch it. I just kind of skipped it because I didn't want to see it. Given the look of the injury at the time, everybody feared the worst. From that time until now, it's been remarkable what E.J. has done and he's become an inspiration to people that get injured that you can come back from something horrific."
While the rehabilitation of Henderson's leg is far from complete – he's still on a part-time basis with the first-team defense, there have been no setbacks or complaints of pain from Henderson. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said that he, too, is in awe of Henderson's recuperative powers and is just happy to see him back on the field doing what he does best.
"We're starting to get him a few more reps," Frazier said. "He was up to 20 reps (Friday) – from 16 (Thursday). We're gradually putting him into more situations and seeing how he responds. So far, so good."
Henderson said he has followed a strict regimen of rehabilitation, often requiring the team's medical staff to tell him to ease back a little bit. Being on the field for some reps is a big step, but he said he's looking forward to his first chance to lay a big lick on a player – so he can feel normal again.
"It feels good to be able to get that release," Henderson said. "I still haven't taken anybody fully down to the ground yet, so I'll be looking forward to that live contact. We're only in Day No. 8, so I keep trying to get better every day."
Improvement in such matters is often termed in baby steps. Four more reps Friday than he had on Thursday is an achievement. It's a positive sign. It's a step forward. But Henderson is the first to admit that getting more action on the field when wearing shorts is much different than being in full pads and laying a big hit on an opponent. He's making progress, but isn't there quite yet.
"It's starting to get better," Henderson said. "You'll never be in football shape – coming out here with your helmet on and your pads on – after not working out for so long. I feel it's starting to come back. The more reps I get, the easier it is. Hopefully, in a couple of weeks, I'll be there."
Henderson said coming back has been his focus, but reliving the injury – which he has refused to watch replays of – still weighs on his mind. He has tried to put the injury in the past, but the time it takes him to get ready for the rigors of working out or practicing serve as a constant reminder of what happened in Arizona in December.
"It's not really out of mind," Henderson said of the injury. "(The muscles in his leg are) still cold, so I've got to warm it up. So, of course, I'm thinking about it. But as far as when I'm out there playing, it's all football and no thoughts of injuries."
What motivates Henderson is the knowledge that, prior to his injury, the Vikings had a good thing going at the linebacker position. He, Leber and Chad Greenway had become a cohesive unit that had a playing shorthand with one another. That went away for the second straight year when Henderson was lost to injury. But, as he attempts to get back to 100 percent, the knowledge that his job is there waiting for him helps to keep the fire burning.
"If E.J. is back to his old self, he'll be our starting middle linebacker," Frazier said. "Jasper is doing a great job for us. He has really come along. The time that he played at the end of last season really made a difference for him. He's playing with so much more confidence – reacting a lot better – but we'll have to play it by ear. Nobody really knows what's going to happen with E.J. It's unchartered territory."
The familiarity the Vikings starting linebackers have is rare in the NFL. Players come, players go. They leave via free agency. They are traded. Teams rarely look as similar from one year to the next as the Vikings look to be in 2010. That familiarity has made Henderson comfortable that, when his body obliges, the linebacker corps will be putting the band back together.
"We've been together for a while – going on 3-4 years," Henderson said. "I think we're a great unit together. We pretty much know how each other plays. We know our strengths and try to play to each other's weaknesses. This year I hope we can be on the field all together, make 16-plus games and be one of the best units in the league."
Leber echoed those words, saying that he is almost as familiar with Henderson's assignments as he is with his own and vice versa. He said that once the three linebackers earned a level of trust with each other that they would do their assignments correctly, good things started to happen.
"So much of the game is about trust," Leber said. "When you have guys that have played together for a number of years, usually those teams are successful. On offense, a quarterback knows where a wide receiver is going to be. It's the same with linebackers. The trust factor is huge and we have a lot of that with our defense and with our linebackers. We know where each other is going to be. We have such good communication that we don't need a lot of communicating anymore. We just know."
As much as the players want to see things "back to normal," Frazier may want it even more. The Vikings offense made the headlines last year, but the Vikings defense did more than its share of carrying the load. The linebackers were a big part of that and Frazier believes, if they are reunited, it will feel so good.
"If we can get all three of them back on the field together, it would really help our defense and help our team," Frazier said. "We are without question at our best when all three are on the field. Arguably, in my opinion, they are the three best in the National Football League as a trio. We'll just see what happens with E.J., but it would be great to get all three on the field."
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.
Henderson's healing and making a difference
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