There is a plaque on one of the facility walls at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, home of the NFL Scouting Combine, and a litany of NFL superstars can find their names chiseled into the sleek gold-plated tags.
Bo Jackson. Randy Moss. Deion Sanders. Devin Hester. Reggie Bush.
Eric Henderson sits on the crippled makeshift bleachers overlooking the combine field’s northwest corner, and he knows each and every name. He knows them in order, and he knows the values associated with each one. He knows he can find his name among them, mounted in the lofty pole position among Indy’s greatest engines.
On the list of 40-yard dash times recorded at the NFL combine, no one has been able to match Henderson’s 1998 time.
It was the stuff of legends when the former cornerback from relatively unknown Sandusky State ran a 4.12. Yet, Henderson is here at the combine, watching the proceedings just as he has each of the last six years, wondering what could have been. Because as fast as Henderson was, his career torpedoed out of sight just as quickly.
“I think I’m probably the NFL’s fastest cautionary tale,” Hederson says. This is a line he has used many times before. And it fits him as snugly as the red Under Armour workout shirt he is wearing today.COLD DAY IN INDY
Henderson was a relative unknown at the 1998 combine, lost among the blue chippers from Miami, Michigan, Oklahoma and Tennessee. “Where was Sandusky State?” his fellow NFL hopefuls would ask, and he would give them their answer, knowing the answer would fall on deaf ears. It was just polite conversation, after all. These guys had their eyes set on the NFL since the day they stepped onto a football field, and no small-timer from Somewhere U. was going to register on the radar.
Cornerbacks were solid at the combine, and Henderson found himself brushing shoulders with future first-rounders R.W. McQuarters, Terry Fair and Duane Starks. Heisman winner Charles Woodson was also in attendance, yukking it up with Peyton Manning and no doubt postulating over which way the locals would go with the first overall pick – Leaf or Manning? Henderson was oblivious to that discussion. He was just hoping some team saw him and thought enough of him to use a late-round pick.
“I knew I could fly, and my senior year had been really solid,” Henderson said, shielding his eyes from the overhead lights to watch Arkansas running back Darren McFadden run Henderson’s featured event. “I just didn’t think anybody had seen me play at Sandusky. I mean, the game film I had was shot by handheld camcorders, man. We didn’t exactly get any face-time on the big networks.”
McFadden surges through the 40, and Henderson smiles. He’s impressed.
“He’s fast, boy. Not as fast as me, but he’s fast.”
It was a cold day when Henderson ran the same event in 1998, so much so that officials had considered moving the dash until later in the combine week, when bodies weren’t so rigid in the late-February chill. But the clocks were ready to register by 2 p.m. Henderson was somewhere in the middle of the pack, and when he heard his name called and stepped to the line, he had what he views as a near-religious experience.
“I could feel everyone who has ever supported me,” Henderson said. “I felt God, my mom, my brothers and sisters, my coaches, my third grade teacher, and old-man Jimmy Davis from down the street. I heard their voices and saw their faces. It was weird, man. I just knew something positive was going to happen. I don’t know if it was a religious awakening or anything like that, but I knew it was my time to shine.”
The pistol sounded with a bang, and Henderson was off.THE AFTERMATH
When he crossed the line, there was no loud cheer of celebration. Instead, there was silence.
“They had all been talking and waiting for their turn; I don’t think anybody was really paying attention,” Henderson said. “But then they saw the 4.12, and I think that made everybody stop for a second.”
When Henderson turned around to see the digital readout, he said he nearly felt his knees give out. He didn’t know the last time someone had timed him in the 40-yard dash – maybe high school – because he viewed it as superstitious to time himself in the weeks leading up to the event.
“I didn’t want to feel like I was chasing a clock,” Henderson said. “It’s like that guy who’s trying to lose weight and stands on the scale every day, and gets disappointed when he doesn’t lose a half-pound or even gains a pound. I knew I wasn’t going to get faster right away, so I kept training without that stopwatch restraint. I had no idea what I was going to run.”
Henderson said he never thought his NFL candidacy hinged so heavily on the 40-yard dash, or else he may have viewed it differently.
“Absolutely, everyone’s eyes opened when that reading came out,” said one official who declined to be identified. “You can’t just find 4.12 guys on trees. I mean, show me that tree. I think it’s safe to say his stock rose faster than anyone I’ve ever seen, and you better believe that pun is intended. It’s just too bad how it all turned out.”
Suddenly, Eric Henderson’s name was gracing the lips of every NFL team official on hand. The Miami Dolphins wanted him to fly in for a workout after the Combine. The San Francisco 49ers wanted to get in touch with his college coordinators. The New York Jets wanted a copy of game film. Henderson was the Combine’s rising star – the kid nobody had seen coming. Not even Mel Kiper.
Mock drafts began projecting Henderson as a late first-rounder before the end of the day. He had gone from the anonymity of Sandusky State to the heavily-saturated world of NFL Draft coverage in 4.12 seconds. Interview requests started pouring in. Autograph requests intensified. “Hey, you’re the fastest guy out there,” one 10-year-old boy had said while offering Henderson his Nerf football and a black Sharpee.
“It felt so good to be wanted,” Henderson said. “It was a dream come true, and it was all because of just 40 small yards. Can you believe that?”THE MISTAKE
Three days later, Eric Henderson received a phone call in his Indy hotel room.
He was hoping it was Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf, who had contacted Henderson the day before and was interested in bringing him to the Midwest for a second workout. The Lions and Bears were also interested, and he had begun scouting potential cities with his fiancée, Denise. She liked the big city of Chicago, but he was hoping for someplace more subtle, like St. Louis or Cincinnati.
“When I picked up the phone, I remember exactly how I answered it,” Henderson said. “I said 'hello' real excitedly, just like they do in the movies when everything’s going great just before they’re about to hear some bad news on the other end of the line. It was one of those moments when literally everything going on around me was an incredible dream come true, and I was about to wake up.”
And with that, the wake-up call came clanging into Henderson's room. Metaphorically, at least.
The call was from a Combine official, and he said there had been a malfunction with the timing equipment. It seemed there was a chance the readouts could have been inaccurate for athletes whose last names began with G-J, and they were asking that the dash be re-timed. The 40-yard dash time, they said, was by far the most important aspect of the NFL scouting process, and was the entire basis for some team's draft boards. NFL general managers knew that one-tenth of a second over 120 feet could easily mean the difference between a Super Bowl win and missing the playoffs entirely.
Henderson was devastated. On one hand, why should someone who can run 4.12 seconds be afraid of the results? He didn’t want people to think it was a fluke, and he knew he had no proof otherwise unless he re-ran the event. But he had a suspicion this was going to be a big deal. He had a sneaking, awful suspicion that he never ran 4.12 seconds at all.
“They weren’t totally sure the results were inaccurate, so my name is still up on that plaque and everything,” Henderson notes, pointing in the direction of the hallowed piece of memorabilia. “I guess we’ll never really know. I want to show people that I can run that time and be that guy, but I just haven’t been able to make it happen since. Do I feel in my heart that I’m a 4.12 guy? Yes, I do.”
But, tragically, he didn’t feel it in his feet. He ran no faster than 4.54 in several attempts when he returned to the Indy facility.
“It’s like that scene in a gladiator movie, where everyone is cheering but then the gladiator loses or does something wrong, and everyone in the whole place turns their backs to him,” said former college teammate Jerry Wisdom, who added Henderson was the most devastating shutdown corner he had ever seen. “All the attention he’d been getting just went away. I felt for him, big time.”
The calls stopped pouring in. The interest waned. Henderson had been a literal flash in the pan, and mock drafts stopped mentioning his name. It became apparent that Henderson was going to go undrafted, and when the big day rolled around, the proud third son of a fireman was left off everyone’s draft board. He was just a cornerback with average speed from a school nobody had heard of, and he was quickly lost in the shuffle.
“It was a dream I wanted so badly, and I felt like I had been cheated,” Henderson said. “It wasn’t like I lied on my resume or anything. I really was the fastest guy in camp. And the funny thing is, nobody believes me."
Labels: Heartfelt features