Little brother LB: Erin Henderson in line to start
EDEN PRAIRIE — For the last four years, Erin Henderson has mostly been known around the Minnesota Vikings as E.J. Henderson's little brother.
This might be the season Erin fully emerges from E.J.'s shadow.
From dabbling in local sports talk radio to ardently working out during the lockout to entering training camp with the chance to crack the starting lineup, right next to his older brother, Erin has begun to make a name — not just a familiar surname — for himself.
"I'm building a brand," he said after practice Wednesday. "A brand of Erin Henderson."
When Ben Leber, the starter for the last five seasons, became a free agent, Erin became the front runner to start at the weakside linebacker spot — known as the "Will" — with competition from Jasper Brinkley, rookie Ross Homan and Kenny Onatolu. Onatolu has been out with a stress fracture in his foot, creating even more space for Erin to audition.
"Not so much pressure, but you've got to be out there and make sure you're on your 'P's and 'Q's. You've got to make sure you're getting every play right and you're doing everything right," Erin said. "A little bit more studying at home at night and going over film and things like that. You pay attention a little bit differently."
The Henderson boys were raised in Maryland — they're from Aberdeen, hometown of baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. — and both played college ball for the home-state Terrapins. They're six years apart, now 31 and 25, so they weren't that tight as kids and were never teammates until the NFL.
E.J. was a second-round draft pick in 2003 who has been a starter for almost all of his time in Minnesota, steadily improving into a reliable, valuable middle linebacker and drawing raves from all around the league by the way he rehabilitated from a broken femur and returned to action last season.
After two solid seasons as a linebacker at Maryland, leading the Atlantic Coast Conference in tackles as a junior and declaring early for the draft, Erin was passed over by all 32 teams in 2008.
The consolation prize came quickly, when the Vikings called with a contract offer, but he has mostly been an anonymous special teams contributor best known for his relation to E.J. The biggest news he made was two years ago when he was suspended for four games under the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy. Erin said he didn't do anything wrong and blamed the positive test on a prescription product he took to remedy allergic reactions.
But lately Erin has been gaining more publicity. The former communications major with a goal to work in broadcasting when he's done playing has been on a morning sports talk show on KFAN with Vikings radio announcer Paul Allen, even guest hosting the program when Allen was off. When the lockout was temporarily lifted by court order the weekend of the draft, only to be put back in place hours later, Erin was the one player who showed up at Winter Park.
"I was excited to get back out there," Erin said.
That excitement has continued into training camp.
According to STATS LLC, the Hendersons would be only the fifth set of brothers to start a game for the same team together in the NFL in the last 20 years. The others were Doug and Dave Widell (Denver, 1991-92), Brian and Bennie Blades (Seattle, 1997), Kevin and Andre Dyson (Tennessee, 2001-02) and Boss and Champ Bailey (Denver, 2008). None of those pairs were both linebackers.
"I'm not the greatest athlete. I'm not the fastest guy. I'm not the strongest guy, but I understand offenses. I understand their concepts and what they're trying to get done," Erin said. "So I think me just understanding the game that much better has allowed me to play with my instincts and with my potential because I don't think about it a lot. I just react to what I see."
He had 10 tackles in the preseason game last week at Tennessee. Defensive coordinator Fred Pagac has kept his praise to a minimum so far, but Erin doesn't appear to have done anything to lose the spot.
"Doing a good job. He's a good football player," Pagac said.
E.J. is a lot quieter than Erin, and were it not for their last name and their facial features their relation would be nearly impossible to realize.
"Born leader," was how E.J. described Erin recently.
E.J. has taught Erin a lot, too, about professionalism and attitude.
"Comes to work every day, doesn't really say much to anybody, not really a big jokester," was how Erin spoke about his older brother. "He can be a team guy when he needs to be, but for the most part he's just taking care of his business and taking care of his work. That's something I took in and tried to work on. Because I'm kind of a loudmouth. I like to talk. I like to have fun. I like to mess around a little bit. But there's a place and a time for that, and a lot of times it's not here in the workplace. I think I understand that a little better now, thanks to him."