By Larry Harris
But what was unique was the identity of the rangy guy playing alongside him as the weak side or "Will" backer. He was Erin Henderson, E.J.'s little brother, who isn't so little anymore, and it marked the first time in NFL history that two siblings had started the same game as linebackers.
Oh, there have been other brother pairs, but none at the same position. 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) also make the list, according to figures from the last 20 years. There were other brother combos during earlier seasons.
"It's a very special thing," said E.J., 31, who is six years senior to Erin. "Our family is very excited, very thrilled to see this happen."
That family, still maintaining its roots in Aberdeen, consists of mom Quinette, dad Eric Sr. and little sister Kamryn, a junior high student. Both E.J. and Erin are frequent visitors.
In football time, eight years is an eon and it is easy to forget the outstanding marks that the Henderson boys, especially E.J., left during their respective careers at College Park. While on his way to racking up NCAA records for tackles, E.J. won both the Dick Butkus and the Chuck Bednarik awards in 2002. He was twice a consensus first-team All-American, the ACC Player of the Year in 2001 and the MVP of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Minnesota drafted him during the second round in 2003.Erin Henderson, on the other hand, came out of Aberdeen High School as a quarterback who led the Eagles to their first state championship. Maryland moved him to defense and after some early injuries, he led the ACC in tackles and helped the Terrapins to two bowl games before opting for the NFL draft after his junior season. He wasn't chosen and signed a free-agent deal with Minnesota in 2008.
Since he joined the Vikes, Erin has maintained a roster spot with effort on special teams while watching his older brother bolster the middle of the Vikings defense with a dependability that borders on the eerie. Unfortunately, he could only watch that dark day when E.J. was involved in a level of sensational that was totally unsought and to this day is one of the most grotesque plays ever recorded in the NFL.
Late during the 2009 season, E.J. moved swiftly to cut off an off-tackle run against the Arizona Cardinals and collided freakishly with the ball carrier and a teammate. The brutal impact snapped his left femur like a twig and as he flew through the air, E.J.'s leg flopped frighteningly as if it were not even a part of his body.
Erin, not on the active roster and dressed in street clothes, held his brother's hand as he was carted from the field and there were few who held any hope that E.J. Henderson would ever walk again, much less play football. Doctors in Phoenix performed emergency surgery before moving him back to Minnesota, where he started on the long road of rehabilitation.
Thus it was a total shock when E.J. showed up for training camp during the summer of 2010, leg healed and ready to assume his usual position. Not only was he ready to play, he started all 16 games, recorded 106 tackles and was selected to his first Pro Bowl. He was a mortal lock to win the Vikings' Ed Block Courage Award.
"It was a tough time, but a slow time," E.J. said just before this season's opener. "I never lost hope, though. I went from bed to crutches to cane and seeing my progress increase every couple of weeks helped me stay optimistic."
The Vikings' stability in their 4-3 defensive scheme probably aided E.J. in his improbable comeback. He wears that middle plugger position like a comfortable old shoe and now in addition to having Erin alongside, has another incentive to play well. This season marks the end of E.J.'s present contract and another good showing would probably lead to one more lucrative deal, even though 31 is a ripe old age for NFL linebackers. The team's third starting linebacker, strong sider Chad Greenway, recently signed a contract worth some $20 million in guaranteed money.
"That's definitely a goal to shoot for," he said. "A final contract, playing well and going out as a Viking would be ideal. I'm healthy and prepared."
Also prepared is Erin, who at 6-foot-3 is two inches taller and the same 245 pounds as older brother. But while E.J.'s career may be reaching the twilight stage, Erin hopes his time to shine is just beginning.
"I have to get stronger at the point of attack," Erin told the Vikings' team Web site. "I have a lot of things to work on, but it is nice to know all the hard work hasn't gone unnoticed."
Erin's strength is his athleticism in space and Vikings coaches are banking that his speed and versatility will be a complement to E.J.'s reliability and the strength of Greenway.
Erin, who admits to being a kind of loudmouth, said E.J. had been a big brother in more ways than one.
"He has helped me out with many different things on many different occasions throughout my entire life, regardless of whether it's football-related or life-related," he told the Minnesota Star-Tribune. "He has always been there for me and always been a role model."
A communications major at Maryland, Erin is doing regular radio work in Minneapolis and hopes to carry it on. The quieter E.J. plans to continue being that role model when his playing days are done, working with youngsters in his already well-established E.J. Henderson Youth Foundation.
And, oh yeah, E.J., what about those U. of Maryland uniforms that raised such a national ruckus when the Terps defeated Miami?
"Well, they were definitely eye-catching," he laughed. "I have to admit they grew on me as the game progressed."
More Front Row:
Henderson Guys: Backing The Line -- And Each Other
Long Bike Ride Unveils Unexpected Generosity
Burger Fans Rejoice: Gino's Giant Is Back
Some Old Faithfuls Depart Blast Roster
From The Cheap Seats
Issue 165: September 2011