Rob Henry could easily have grown discouraged about his chances of ever starting at quarterback for Purdue again.
Henry tore his ACL the week before the 2011 season opener. Last year, he finished third in a three-man quarterback competition before wandering around at receiver and running back. He was pushed by two hotshot rookies this offseason and had to impress a new coaching staff with no loyalty to him.
But Henry persevered, and on Saturday the fifth-year senior will jog onto the field at Cincinnati as the Boilermakers’ No. 1 quarterback for the first time since 2010. You have to know Henry to understand how he got back here.
He is so committed to playing quarterback that he moved to a different state for his last two years of high school just to get better coaching and exposure. He is so confident in himself that he ran for vice president of Purdue’s student government last year and once spearheaded a players' petition asking the NCAA for a cut of its TV money.
“Rob’s kind of his own person,” his father, Robert “Wayne” Henry II said. “He sets goals and he doesn’t look for anything else. He just works hard to achieve them.”
Henry showed promise while starting the final seven games of the 2010 season and had won the job again in the following training camp before his season-ending knee injury. Last year, he couldn’t overtake Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve on the depth chart and instead used his athleticism to catch six passes for 77 yards as a receiver and run 38 times for 74 yards. He made some brief appearances at quarterback but never knew exactly what his role would be from game to game or even play to play.
“I had no clue most of the time, and I just had to kind of roll with the punches,” Henry said. “It was a lot of fun getting to play different things every week, but it was a challenge.”
Still one of the team’s fastest players, Henry resisted any notion of a full-time position change. New coach Darrell Hazell brought in a big-time quarterback recruit in true freshman Danny Etling, who ran neck and neck with Henry in the spring. Redshirt freshman Austin Appleby made a push in fall camp. In the end, though, the veteran did too much right for Hazell to go with a youth movement.
“He’s a very mature guy who took care of the ball for us,” Hazell said. “He’s got an uncommon ability to get us in the right plays and out of bad situations.”
Hazell also praised Henry’s toughness for sticking it out through the ups and downs. It wasn’t always easy. Henry wondered why he wasn’t getting much of a chance at quarterback last year when the team struggled. But he credits his parents for instilling the mindset of working harder when things don't go your way. That's a message often reinforced as he talks to his mom and dad on the phone every night. He got used to a long-distance relationship with them at a young age.
Before his junior year of high school, Henry decided to leave his hometown of Corinth, Miss., and move to Ocala, Fla., so he could play for powerhouse program Trinity Catholic. Henry figured Trinity Catholic’s coaches would make him a better quarterback, give him more exposure to college recruiters and allow him to train year-round in Florida’s competitive 7-on-7 circuits. But that also meant leaving home at 16 and moving into an apartment with his grandfather who volunteered to accompany him to Ocala.
“It was like sending him off to college a couple of years early,” Henry’s father said. “We talked long and hard about it. But it was something he really wanted. He said, ‘If I’m going to take this step, I’m not going to turn back. I’m going to make it work.’”
Henry soon got a crash course in dealing with adversity. The coach he wanted to play for at Trinity Catholic, former Florida quarterback Kerwin Bell, took a college job shortly after Henry arrived in Ocala. Ricky Nattiel coached Henry’s junior year but was fired after a disappointing season. Trinity Catholic then hired John Brantley, who had been Bell’s offensive coordinator two years earlier.
“One of the biggest reasons I came back was because of Rob Henry,” Brantley said. “Here’s a guy who made a sacrifice to leave his family and everything behind and go to a place where he did not know one single person. But he was sharp enough to understand that this was his dream.”
Under Brantley's coaching, Henry led Trinity Catholic to within 55 seconds of a state title his senior year, and his move paid off with a Purdue scholarship.
Brantley and Henry have stayed close, and during trying times in West Lafayette, Brantley would relay stories about his own son’s up-and-down college career. Once one of the nation’s top recruits, John Brantley IV sat behind Tim Tebow at Florida, dealt with injuries and never lived up to sky-high expectations.
“It was tough at times to see what Rob was going through,” the elder Brantley said. “But football is a small period of time, and regardless of where his career takes him, he’ll be highly successful because of that adversity. That’s what I kept telling him, and I was able to use a lot of my son's experience to help him keep his head up. And I think that’s why he’s in the position he’s in this year.”
Things aren’t guaranteed to go smoothly this year.
Henry is still adjusting to a new offensive system, one that calls for him to be under center most snaps. He never threw a single pass from a straight drop under Danny Hope, who relied mostly on the shotgun, so he's had to learn the proper footwork and timing. A career 53.5 percent passer, Henry must prove that he can throw the ball downfield effectively and not just use his legs. He’ll also have to lead the team through a brutally tough schedule early, beginning on the road this weekend at Cincinnati.
And don’t forget rust, as this is his first start in almost three years. Will nerves kick in?
“Nah, I’m ready,” Henry said. “I’ve been in this situation before and I’ve played in a lot of crazy places. It’s been a while, but I’m ready to go.”