Henderson flips roles, stereotypes

Updated: June 14, 2013, 12:37 PM ET
By Andrea Adelson | ESPN.com

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- The conversation was loud enough for FAU coach Carl Pelini to overhear on the bus ride to the airport during a football road trip last season.

Cheerleading coach Heather Henderson was on the phone, rattling off a list of things she had to do for her athletes at her cheerleading gym. As the owner, Henderson was in charge of day-to-day operations, planning trips, dealing with athletes and parents, and coordinating schedules all while making sure the gym ran smoothly and efficiently.

As Pelini listened, he realized he needed somebody with that exact skill set to help him with on-campus recruiting. So he turned to Henderson and asked whether she would be interested in working with the football program as the director of football operations.

Henderson was floored.

And quite interested.

She went home and talked it over with her husband, Andy. They agreed to have dinner with Pelini to find out more about the job. The more Henderson heard, the more she wanted in. She had been looking for a change. After nine years owning her cheerleading gym, Henderson was ready to do something else. She had plans to sell her gym, so the timing seemed perfect.

Henderson began helping with on-campus recruiting, setting up visits, meeting with parents and players, arranging everything the way it needed to be arranged. Pelini asked her to interview for the open director of football operations position because she impressed him with her performance.

[+] EnlargeHeather Henderson
Andrea Adelson Heather Henderson, who was a South Carolina cheerleader, uses her experience running a cheer gym in her football operations job.

She did. In April, she got the position, becoming one of a handful of women across all football levels to hold the job.

And it all happened because of an overheard phone call.

"You never know what can happen in life," Henderson said. "People are always watching and always listening. There could be an opportunity. That's what I try to tell my cheerleaders and my girls. There's always opportunities and always be ready for them. When a door opens, you jump at it. Whether you get it or not, at least you tried."

Henderson has always been passionate about football. Growing up in South Carolina, she would either watch Gamecocks games at home with her father or go to games most Saturdays. She began cheering at an early age and eventually fulfilled her lifelong dream -- spending three years on the South Carolina cheerleading team.

The hardest part? Holding her emotions in check. Because she was such a die-hard fan, she had to learn to control her reactions to plays on the field. Henderson ended up graduating from Mars Hill College in North Carolina and took a job with the Home Builders Association of Greater Columbia, S.C., as the sales and marketing director.

At the time, she and her husband were not married. They had been dating for almost eight years. He had moved to Boca Raton and wanted her to come with him. Henderson said she would if they got engaged. He began planning. Meanwhile, she made plans to attend the South Carolina season opener on Labor Day weekend. He told her he was going on a fishing trip.

At halftime, Henderson's phone rang. It was Andy.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

Annoyed, Henderson replied, "I'm at the football game! I gotta go!"

She hung up.

He called again.

"Stand up and wave," he said.

"I can't hear you!" she said and hung up.

He called again.

"Stand up and wave!" he said.

Everybody was seated around her. Henderson slowly stood up and started waving. Andy spotted her, but he was on the wrong side of the stadium.

At the end of the third quarter, he called again.

"Stand up," Andy said.

"Now turn around."

Andy was standing at the top of the stairs. He walked down the steps, got down on one knee and proposed.

Henderson moved to Florida a month later. In rapid succession, she opened the cheer gym, became FAU cheer coach and got married.

"She started that business from scratch, with no investors and no outside money," Andy said. "She started with one cheerleading mat and grew it from there. That says a ton about how much of a hard worker she is, how creative she is. You have to have a vision to take something the way she took it and grow it the way she grew it."

She grew the FAU cheer program too, going from bare bones to 45-50 athletes and top 10 finishes at national competitions on a shoestring budget. That position was only part time, but Henderson poured herself into it because she loved it so much.

Now it is time to tackle a new challenge. Henderson sold her cheer gym and gave up her cheerleading coach position to focus on the director of football operations job. Considering she has never worked in a football office, a slew of challenges await.

Being a woman in a male-dominated job is simply not one of them. Henderson is essentially in charge of the organizational side of the program. Everything she is being asked to do she already did with her cheer gym and her cheerleaders.

Planning trips? Check.

Talking to prospective athletes? Check.

Dealing with parents? Check.

Organizing events? Check.

Henderson is so organized that she already has every football road trip planned for the season. She has two computer screens on her desk and a personal laptop right next to them. At the end of each day, she leaves herself a note on her iPad with everything she has to get done the following day.

"My intention was to get a good productive worker in there and get the best person I could for that side of the job," Pelini said. "I don't think I would ever look at male/female. Just look at skills and what they're able to do and do they fit the job?"

Yet when FAU announced Henderson's appointment, there were snickers on message boards, on Twitter and across the Internet. A woman? In the football department? It almost felt like the clock had been turned back 60 years to a time when women were not CEOs of major corporations, Supreme Court justices or secretaries of state.

"I know I'm going to do a good job," Henderson said. "I'm going to work hard. There are people that aren't happy that I'm in this position, but there are a lot of people that are very happy that I'm in this position. It's more the people who don't think I'll do a good job that fuels the fire for me to do it even better."

Henderson attended an operations conference in Fort Worth, Texas, at the end of May. There were women there. Not many, but some. And the men welcomed them and encouraged Henderson to speak at the conference next year, not about being a woman in the role but about the challenges and experiences she faced in her first year on the job.

"There's still a perception out there that position has to be someone who knows the X's and O's of football," Pelini said. "That's not the case, not even close to being the case. That's the miscommunication; that's the misperception. Why did you hire a female to be something that requires a football guy? That job has very little to do with football. It's all the other things that keep a program running outside the football aspect."

Henderson has her own challenges to worry about. First and foremost, dealing with the unexpected. Henderson likes to plan and be prepared, but she has never gone through a football season in this job. What happens when something inevitably goes wrong? How will she handle it? How will she deal with the mounting pressures and stress each season brings as the weeks go on?

She will be facing everything for the first time. But Henderson has dealt with pressure, stress and deadlines for her entire professional life. She knows what she is doing.

Pelini just needed to hear a 10-minute conversation on a bus ride to realize that.