For as incredible as it is for a fan-turned-quasi-journalist to get to cruise the practice-field sidelines at training camp, it eventually occurred to me that I was there to work. Part of the charm of all that nifty access at training camp is the access you have to talk to players. This, however, was a little bit of a problem for me-I'm shy.
Despite my shyness, I arrived in Mankato armed with a wish list of players I wanted to talk to on the off chance that I actually had the chance to talk to players. I realize that everyone in Viking Land wants to hear what the big name players like Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen, or Percy Harvin have to say (all swell guys), but at the top of my list was linebacker Erin Henderson, a guy vying for the job of starting weak-side linebacker.
As a fan of E.J. Henderson, I was intrigued when his younger brother Erin entered the league in 2008 as a rookie free agent out of Maryland and signed with the Minnesota Vikings. That Henderson wasn't drafted was a surprise to many because he was considered one of the top ten outside linebackers in the 2008 draft class. But Henderson made the 2008 Vikings' roster as a special teams player and, for the past three seasons has been working to win a starting spot on the defense. Now, with Ben Leber gone there's an opening for a starting weak-side linebacker, Henderson is "penciled in" to start and I wanted to talk to him.
Since I'm shy I didn't know if I would be able to pluck up the courage to approach Henderson on my own like that seasoned reporter Ted Glover would have, but I got lucky. During the afternoon practice I struck up a conversation with a Vikings staff member and he offered to bring Henderson over to talk to me after the practice. The staff guy was true to his word and, just a few minutes after the afternoon practice let out I was blinking up at 6'3" Erin Henderson and fumbling with my digital recorder. Yeah, I'm smooth.
The past three seasons have been a growing experience for Henderson as he's shared not only in the Vikings' alternately meteoric rise (2009) and chaotic fall (2010), but also more personal struggles like being there for his brother after E.J. suffered a broken left femur during the 2009 season. In the NFL players either learn fast or washout, I asked Henderson how he felt his game had changed this year.
"A little bit smarter, you know, understanding what the defense is a little better. Understanding the system that much better. Learning to slow down a bit to be able to play faster-kind of slowing the game down. If you can slow it down mentally it allows you to play that much faster physically." It was the mental step, he said, of "understanding my role better" and "making my plays as they come to me."
But the changes he's experienced heading into this camp haven't been solely mental. Henderson says he feels good about his body heading into this season and that he thinks he's reclaimed some of the explosion that he felt has been lacking in his game the last couple seasons so he focused on it this off-season. Like teammate Percy Harvin, Henderson said he added yoga into his off-season training regimen and he "really enjoyed" it. Henderson credits his yoga warrior sculpt class with both increasing his flexibility and helping him regain his explosion.
Having watched Henderson tear up the field during Friday afternoon's practice, it looked like all that work on his explosion has paid off. Erin Henderson is a nice guy and I hope he has a great season.