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Henderson's impact was beyond words

December 30, 2002|by BOB PARASILITI

bobp@herald-mail.com

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - On a good day, E.J. Henderson can say it all without ever opening his mouth.

Listen closely when Maryland's senior linebacker is on the field. Sssssssssssss ... Pop!

Henderson plays a violent game of charades. His last turn will come Tuesday when the Terrapins face Tennessee in the Peach Bowl.

"Ssssssssss" is the sound of Henderson whistling past while chasing down opposing ball carriers. "Pop!" is the emphatic punctuation of the hit and tackle he makes to stop the runner in his tracks.

His actions speak much louder than his words.

"E.J. is an introverted guy," Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen said. "He's quiet. I have guys who voice their opinion on popular themes. When he speaks up, others listen and seem to change their opinions. It's his work ethic and his leadership."

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If the Aberdeen, Md., native had his way, the shine of television cameras and the collection of microphones and ball-point pens would disappear. Interview tables and public appearances for Henderson are a close second to a root canal.

But because of the way Henderson attacks his craft, media outlets and national award committees have no problem finding him.

Without uttering a syllable, Henderson states his case as one of the best defensive players in Maryland history, while proving himself as the best in the college game today.

He is the Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year and a first team All-American for two years running. Henderson was a finalist for the Butkus Award - signifying the best linebacker in the nation - the last two years, winning this year's honor. He also won this year's Bednarik Award as the best defensive lineman in the nation and was a finalist for the Lombardi and Nagurski awards.

He won his awards quietly and he would have preferred it to be that way, but ...

"For him to speak on national TV was a concern for him," Friedgen said. "I was sitting with him at the (Bednarik) Award and he looked at me and said, 'I hope I don't have to go up there.' I said. 'Then why am I sitting here.'

"He won and went up and made his speech and when he came back, ... he told me, 'My heart was pounding so hard, I thought it was going to leap out of my chest.' I've coached him through 25 games, and I don't think any of those scared him as much as that."

Henderson doesn't have to be a conversationalist because others sing the praises of the person, the player and the leader that helped the Terrapins re-establish the football program as a winner after 15 years of mediocrity.

And even they have trouble verbalizing what Henderson has meant to the Maryland program.

"Words can't be said to describe him as a player," Maryland tailback Chris Downs said. "But as a person, most everyone would have packed up and left (after the 2001 season). But E.J. stayed and it says a lot about him as a human being to come back and help us."

The 6-foot-3, 243-pounder had a huge bail of laurels to rest on after Maryland's turnaround season of 2001. The Terps had been the ACC's doormats for going on two decades until Friedgen signed on to lead them out of the darkness. Henderson carried the torch to light the way.

Henderson dueled with North Carolina's Julius Peppers for many of the postseason awards. The Tar Heels' lineman bolted for the NFL, while Henderson flirted with the idea but chose to stay in College Park for one more run.

"What E.J. has meant to this team is he has been the backbone of our defense game in and game out," Friedgen said. "One of the things he told me when he decided to come back was he wanted to win the Butkus Award. I said 'Now you have to be drafted No. 1 to make it all worth your while for you.' I hope it all works out for him."

Talk is cheap for Henderson, so he hasn't undersold his commodity to the Maryland program. He has played as hard at practice as he has at games.

His teammates have watched his example and his progress as closely as the national scouts.

"Every day in practice I look at E.J. and I'm amazed," Maryland receiver Steve Suter said. "Coaches are there telling me about what I can do to improve my routes and I'm sitting there watching E.J. I sit there and say, 'How can you guys be facing the best defensive player in the country and not be blocking him?' He just gets through the blocks ... it almost looks like no one is trying to stop him. He's magic.

"For whatever reason, he stuck around after last year. I know if it was me, I'd be out there saying 'Where's the money?' But he stayed and helped us out and helped rebuild the program and how the linebackers play."

It's a style that is dominating, yet goes unnoticed. Henderson is constantly near the ball. It's bigger news when he isn't there.

"E.J. can play at any level. One of the things he has is instinct," Friedgen said. "He is able to find the ball and get to the player and run it down. We made a film of all his hits and whenever he makes a tackle (to show before a practice). The runner never goes forward. Every time E.J. makes a hit, the running back is going backwards."

After Tuesday, E.J. Henderson will continue to move forward.

"I told him that this is a big game that will have a bearing on his future," Friedgen said. "If you are a Maryland fan, you will want to see (the Peach Bowl). He is one of the best all-time players in his last game as a Terp."

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