EJ Henderson: A Leader On and Off the Field
Despite growing up on the East Coast, former NFL linebacker EJ Henderson has come to know Minnesota as home—both as a member of the Vikings and as an active member of the community.
Henderson played high school ball in Aberdeen, Maryland before accepting an athletic scholarship to play for the University of Maryland Terrapins. During his time there, Henderson notched three NCAA records: career unassisted tackles per game (8.8), season unassisted tackles (135 in 2002) and career total tackles per game (12.5).
As a junior, Henderson found himself named the 2001 ACC Player of the year, and in his final season with the Terrapins he was recognized as the nation’s No. 1 defensive player and the No. 1 linebacker.
Most Vikings fans will also know that Henderson’s younger brother Erin followed in EJ’s footsteps. Erin played both quarterback and linebacker at Aberdeen High School, and he redshirted at the University of Maryland.
Being six years apart, the Henderson brothers didn’t play on the same team together until they reached the NFL. “I pretty much played the older brother dynamic,” said EJ, “until probably [Erin’s] freshman or sophomore year in college.” At that point, the dynamic shifted to more of a friendship, as the brothers had so much in common and pursued the same goals. EJ continued to hold a “big brother” role in his leadership toward the pros, and Erin traveled the same path.
EJ’s journey to the NFL proved seamless. Starting his junior season at Maryland, Henderson grasped the reality that reaching the big leagues was a very real scenario for him. At that point, his recognition stretched nationwide. Henderson said he realized the potential “right around when the draft talks started to come out”—when he saw his name included in the lists.
The linebacker entered the 2003 NFL draft and was picked in Round 2 (No. 40 overall) by Minnesota. Henderson debuted for the Vikings that season, in which he played all 16 games and recorded 32 tackles as a rookie.
Although the first couple seasons didn’t make the record books, Henderson solidified himself as a part of the roster and worked his way up.
Number 56 quickly became a fan favorite in Minnesota, consistently coming up with big tackles and showing good speed on the field.
KFAN radio personality and Vikings play-by-play man Paul Allen weighed in on Henderson’s impact with the Vikes:
“EJ is one of my all-time favorites,” said Allen. “I appreciate him so much due to the fact his career started very slowly and he turned the corner and became a stud. Along the way he became more comfortable in his skin and a more open person with guys like me.”
Henderson played his entire nine-year career as a Viking, and he considers himself blessed to have done so.
His favorite memory? Scoring against the Lions.
On October 8, 2006, Detroit quarterback Jon Kitna passed on a 4th and 10 in the final quarter. Henderson intercepted the pass, then rumbled the ball 45 yards to the end zone. Minnesota went on to win the game, 26-17.
The TD was the only score of Henderson’s career, and he says the moment stands out as a definite highlight among many great memories with the Vikings. “That was probably one of my proudest moments in the Dome.”
The 2007-2008 season proved his best year, as he tallied an impressive 94 tackles and 4.5 sacks.
In 2008, Henderson was finally able to call his little brother a teammate when the Vikings signed Erin as an undrafted free agent. The brothers complimented each other as teammates, and they supported each other well both on the field and off.
On Dec. 6, 2009, Henderson suffered a gruesome leg injury against the Arizona Cardinals. Henderson made an attempt to tackle Tim Hightower in a full-speed play; in the process, he broke his left femur. Fans and teammates alike waited in nervous anticipation while Henderson was tended to, and it was a memorable moment when EJ was carted off the field with Erin by his side.
Although many critics certainly questioned whether Henderson would return to the field after such a major injury, Henderson had no doubts in his mind—he would be back.
“As soon as the doctor told me that it was a clean break, told me it wasn’t my knee […] I pretty much knew. I would back before that opener against New Orleans.”
Henderson kept his promise to himself and to his fans.
On September 10, 2010, the LB recorded eight tackles in the home opener against the Saints. “That was just a date I kept in my mind throughout the whole rehab process,” Henderson said. “The goal was to make it back for opener. […] I thought, ‘oh I’ll be ready.’”
Henderson played two more strong seasons that included a selection and trip to the 2011 Pro Bowl. Unfortunately, Minnesota opted not to re-sign him following the 2011 season, and Henderson officially retired from the NFL.
Ironically, it was Erin that replaced his older brother at the middle linebacker position. EJ called the situation “bittersweet,” stating the following:
“If I was going to have someone play in my place, it would have definitely been my little brother – so that was the sweet part. But the bitter part was obviously that it wasn’t me. […] I was having some success, playing well, and I was watching from home knowing that I still could help the Vikes win.”
Although he would have liked to remain in the league, EJ accepted the decision graciously, acknowledging that “decisions are made for a reason.”
Since retiring, Henderson has become heavily involved in two different programs he started: The EJ Henderson Youth Foundation and Youth Pro Fitness and Nutrition.
The EJ Henderson Youth Foundation has been operating since 2007 and is a non-profit organization that focuses on improving the health and fitness of urban youth. The program recently relocated to north Minneapolis where it runs a fitness center.
Henderson explains that the Foundation works specifically with high-school age students and provides a program every Tuesday and Thursday from 3:00 – 4:30. Students come in after school and get a life skills lesson, they work out, and they get a nutritious meal.
Growing up, Henderson knew a lot of students who had athletic talent similar to him and his brother but didn’t have the opportunity to succeed because of poor grades or behavioral issues. “If they would have had a program or mentor like myself to keep them on the right path that Erin and I took, they could have possibly ended up [in the NFL] or with a college degree.”
Watching friends and teammates alike miss opportunities due to a lacking support system, Henderson desired to provide support for a similar youth population in Minnesota:
“We help young, urban men and women try to reach their goal—whether that’s athletic or not—in overall health and fitness.”
More recently, Henderson created a second program that focuses on the health and fitness of kids ages 7–13.
Youth Pro Fitness and Nutrition (YoPro) partners with local community education and youth programs and is a mobile organization that travels to a location and uses its gym or field space to run the program. YoPro features two main programs: (1) a 60-minute structured fun fitness and (2) a kid-friendly nutritional curriculum.
YoPro currently partners with several organizations—including elementary schools in Eden Prairie, St. Hubert’s School (Chanhassen) and the Brooklyn Park Police Dept—to provide healthy instruction for kids.
“Any organization that wants to run a health and fitness program for their kids, we’ll provide,” said Henderson. “We’re mobile—we’ll come to you.”
In addition to running two programs and being involved with youth leadership, Henderson continues to closely follow his former team and looks forward to the upcoming season.
One thing difficult for Henderson—and probably most Vikings fans—to see was defensive tackle Jared Allen leaving Minnesota to join the Bears. Henderson said he was disappointed to see Allen leave, although it’s hard nowadays to be surprised by any transaction.
“It hits home, though,” he added, “when you see a guy like Jared who I’ve played with and played so many years here in Minnesota—now he’ll be playing with a division rival. Our tackles have their work cut out for them, but I think Phil [Loadholt] and Kalil will be fine.”
While it’s tough to see changes like this, some offseason adjustments are just what the Vikings need. Henderson expressed excitement about the new coaching staff, saying that Mike Zimmer’s reputation speaks for itself, specifically in regards to defense. “I’ve heard nothing but good things from former players of his […] he’s a tough guy, but definitely a player’s coach.”
Of the upcoming season, Henderson said the following:
“I’m looking forward to seeing improvement on that side of the ball first and foremost—getting back to being one of the top teams in the league for stopping the run, getting some turnovers. […]That’s what I’m expecting – that’s what I’m really excited about. Seeing the defensive side of the ball get back to playing good football.”
 All EJ Henderson quotes are taken from a personal interview, April 18, 2014.