Facing 'Noles gives Henderson, Terps shot to `shock world'

Inside linebacker shares past, possible NFL future with Florida State's Polley

College Football

September 26, 2000|By Bill Free | Bill Free,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - E. J. Henderson is more than psyched up for a second meeting on the football field with Tommy Polley and his defending national champion Florida State teammates.

"I'm going to be so wired up by game time that I'll probably want to go out there and knock somebody's head off," Maryland's inside linebacker from Aberdeen said. "This is showtime. I want to get on `SportsCenter' and there's no better way than to go out and shock the world against the defending national champions on national television."

Adding a lot of significance to Thursday night's 8 o'clock ESPN game for Henderson is the fact that Polley, a senior All-America candidate, will be on the other side of the field playing outside linebacker.

"I don't know how many people know this, but Tommy Polley grew up in Aberdeen and then moved to the city [Baltimore] when he was 11 or 12 years old," Henderson said. "Tell him I said not to forget his roots. He was from a little neighborhood known as Perryman. I never really associated that much with him. All I remember is he was a small, skinny, tall kid."

Henderson, a redshirt sophomore, will never forget his first meeting with Polley and the Seminoles last year in Tallahassee.

That was the first game Henderson started for the Terps, at 80,000-seat Doak Campbell Stadium. The 6-foot-2, 229-pound Henderson made 11 tackles in his starting debut - a 49-10 loss for the Terps - and spoke to Polley.

"He was on the punt return team and I was on the punt team and I had a chance to talk to him a little," Henderson said.

Although Polley left Aberdeen at a young age while Henderson remained in the small-town atmosphere, the two outstanding athletes now seem to be closing in on the same dream - a career in the National Football League.

The 6-foot-5 Polley is being projected by some national publications as a first-round NFL pick next April, and Henderson is also regarded as a future NFL talent.

"Everybody is saying I'll play at the next level someday," said Henderson, who leads Maryland with 33 tackles. "But I want to conquer the Atlantic Coast Conference first. If we want to have a chance to beat Florida State this year, we can't have any mental lapses, no penalties and get some turnovers on defense."

Maryland coach Ron Vanderlinden said of Henderson, "E.J. is very instinctual. He has an ability to diagnose things quickly to get to the football. [At] inside [linebacker], so many things happen so quickly that you can get blocked by any number of people. What I found is some guys can see that and respond quicker than others."

Vanderlinden said Henderson plays "faster than he actually is [4.7 speed in 40], and that is a real tribute to him."

While Vanderlinden has said Henderson's quick rise to the top of the Maryland tackling charts has been a surprise to him, the Aberdeen star said, "I believed I could do this all along. I don't want to step on anybody's toes or anything like that, but I know I should have been starting last year from the beginning of the season. But K.B. [Kevin Bishop] beat me out."

When Bishop was slowed by a recurring knee injury in preseason camp this year, Henderson moved into the starting lineup and is being backed up by Bishop. Henderson's level of enthusiasm the day he was given the starting spot was such that there was no way Vanderlinden could remove him from the starting lineup when Bishop became healthy.

"I guess I got my ability from the father [Eric Sr.], who played defensive end and receiver in high school in Texas," Henderson said. "Both of my parents are from Texas, and I guess they passed the genes along to me. My dad never played in college, but he had a junior college tryout."

Henderson said he gets asked all the time about Cal Ripken, and he tells people he never met the Orioles' third baseman.

"But if he lived in Aberdeen, I couldn't be more than 10 minutes away from him because it's such a small town," Henderson said. "Cal Ripken and Aberdeen Proving Grounds. That's all there is in Aberdeen."

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