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Friday, February 7, 2014
Erin Henderson's release a cautionary tale

By Ben Goessling

MINNEAPOLIS -- On Friday afternoon, with a couple lines of agate type in a news release, the Minnesota Vikings announced they'd parted ways with linebacker Erin Henderson, ending a six-year relationship with the linebacker and marking the first time since 2003 they didn't have either Erin or his brother E.J. on their roster.

Erin Henderson
On Friday, Minnesota released linebacker Erin Henderson, who played 64 total games over his six-year career for the Vikings.
It was a move that had seemed inevitable since New Year's Day, when Henderson got in a one-car accident in the Minneapolis suburb of Chanhassen and was arrested for the second time in six weeks on suspicion of drunken driving and possession of a small amount of marijuana. But it probably wasn't as clean and seamless as the transaction wire would indicate.

Since last April, when coaches first told Erin Henderson he should prepare to play middle linebacker in the event the Vikings didn't find a more proven option, the younger Henderson seemed to take extra pride in the idea of moving from weak-side linebacker, becoming the quarterback of the Vikings' defense and taking over the spot where his brother had become a Pro Bowler. He announced the move to reporters last May, fired back at doubters later that month and curtly replied, "I'm playing the 'Mike,'" when asked about the possibility of the Vikings signing former Green Bay Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop last June.

The pressure of holding onto something he wanted so badly seemed to get to Henderson; he admitted after his first arrest in November that he'd been struggling with the "the stress and pressure of playing in the NFL -- coming in here and fighting for your job day and day out and what goes with that." And on Dec. 30, as he cleaned out his locker and thanked former coach Leslie Frazier for his guidance, Henderson sounded like he'd done some more soul-searching toward the end of the season.

"I think I grew leaps and bounds as a player and as a person as well," he said that day. "You start to learn a lot about yourself when things can go wrong or bad, if you’re willing to try to learn, if you’re willing to look in the mirror and figure things out and I think I was able to do that. Not just as a player, but as a person as well. Started watching the film honestly, looking at tape and seeing stuff I can improve on and what I can do better. As opposed to, 'I’m here, I’m already the greatest ever.' That allowed me to progress and get better as the season went on."

This is not to say that Henderson -- or any NFL player -- is unique in his struggle to process the stress of keeping a job in a competitive industry, or that he's not responsible for his two arrests. He put his employment on the line by getting himself in trouble, and he'll have to deal with the consequences, legal and otherwise.

But Henderson's situation -- and his introspection in a couple of interviews about it -- does provide a glimpse into the darker side of the NFL, a game where young men are handed exorbitant sums of money at a tender age, put their bodies on the line to keep the cash coming in and are expected to navigate the churning waters at the confluence of wealth and physical toil.

As it is for many young American men, alcohol is often an accomplice when things go wrong; just over a quarter of the players polled in ESPN's NFL Nation Confidential survey this season said alcohol is a problem in the NFL. There's a reason teams invest so much time into educating rookies about the temptations of being a professional athlete -- as a safeguard against personal missteps that can range from the unfortunate to the tragic -- and a year after getting a two-year contract from the Vikings, Henderson is looking for a job not because of what happened on the field in 2013, but because of what happened off of it.

Did he make mistakes? Yes. Are the Vikings within their rights to cut ties with him for those mistakes? Yes. But Henderson seemed like he was battling some deep-seeded issues this season, and his release is a reminder that for players in the NFL, there is often shaky and treacherous ground to walk on the way from inexperience to success.