After bad break in '01, Mid eyes better things

College football: Ralph Henry, Navy's junior defensive end, is coming off a season cut short by a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee.

College Football

August 15, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

Ask Ralph Henry about the day his promising football career hit a major snag, and you'll hardly recognize the man who answers.

Navy's soft-spoken junior defensive end, usually so quick with a smile, will furrow his brow and shake his head, losing himself in deep thought before answering in a tone painted with frustration.

"That day," he says, "really burst my bubble."

A year ago, things could have hardly been better. A 1998 graduate of Eastern Tech High School, Henry looked full of promise coming into the 2001 season, his sophomore year.

During his freshman year, he had struggled to pass the physical conditioning test given to all plebes, and lost nearly 40 pounds. But his sophomore year, he finally gained it back and he'd added strength and quickness to a powerful 6-foot-1, 260-pound frame. When an older player was suspended for the first three games of the season for disciplinary reasons, Henry earned a spot in the starting lineup.

"I felt like I had worked hard and was finding my niche," Henry says. "I was just thrilled to be out there with a chance to contribute."

For the first seven games, Henry did all that and more. He started four games and provided a spark off the bench during others, notching 17 tackles, including four behind the line of scrimmage.

But the eighth game of the season, against Tulane, everything changed.

"The very first play, someone crashed into my [left] knee," Henry says. "I knew something wasn't right, but I kept playing for five more plays until I finally just said, `I've got to get this looked at.' I went to the sideline and they told me I'd torn my MCL [medial collateral ligament]. That was it. I was done for the year."

Henry missed the Mids' game against Notre Dame, and could only watch as his teammates lost to archival Army to cap a winless season.

Missing games wasn't just tough on Henry, it was tough on his fan base. His cousin, Courtney Brown, is a defensive end for the NFL's Cleveland Browns and former No. 1 pick in the draft. Another cousin, Joe Hamilton, plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Henry's best friend, Anthony Lawston, plays for Georgia Tech. Without a doubt, Henry grew up with serious NFL aspirations.

"When I was getting recruited in high school, my mom was always on me saying, `Football is not an issue; make sure you get an education,' " says Henry, an economics major. "At the time I was being recruited pretty hard by Maryland and Navy, and they were both coming off 5-6 seasons. I figured, well, there's no difference. I'll go where I know I can get a great education."

Almost no one could have guessed that three years later the Terps would be the defending Atlantic Coast Conference champions, but Henry says he has no regrets.

"If an NFL career isn't in the cards, I've got school to fall back on," Henry says. "I think I've really matured during my time here. I try to show the younger guys the ropes a little bit and maybe teach them what I've learned. It's different, but I like it."

Henry willingness to teach has roots, too. In high school, he was often the quiet kid who sat in back of the class and said little until he took Spanish from Eastern Tech teacher Joyce Gray. The two bonded, and soon he was raising his hand, laughing it up and at every opportunity and making a friend for life.

"She's really been like a second mother to me," Henry says. "At every sponsored event, be it a game or a banquet or whatever, she's there watching. It's like if I look up in the stands and I don't see her, then I figure something's wrong. She's influenced me many different ways."

On the field, Henry's situation is very similar to last season. He's not expected to start, but he'll see plenty of action. A heavy knee brace serves as a reminder that football is only so important. And though several publications are already picking Navy to be among the worst teams in Division I, Henry says it would be wise to take the wait and see approach.

"Teams are going to have some trouble with this new offense we've got," he says. "If you don't see it every day, it can bite you in the butt."

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