University of Michigan head football coach Brady Hoke noticed a walk-on player working especially hard at practice this fall and decided to give the guy an opportunity.
The player was Hopewell Junction’s Bobby Henderson. The former John Jay High School standout is now a redshirt freshman for the Wolverines, and earned his way into playing on special teams by the work ethic he showed in practice.
“Even on special teams, on the scout kickoff team, we kept noticing his effort and toughness,” said Mark Smith, Michigan’s inside linebackers coach. “The one who wanted to get him the ball was Coach Hoke. He said, ‘Let’s see if we can find something for Bobby to do. The kid goes 100 miles per hour and gives everything he’s got.'”
Henderson, a 2012 graduate of Wiccopee’s John Jay High School, has played in three games this season, all on special teams, and is a part of the kickoff and punt teams.
“It’s great, it’s a lot of fun and it’s quite an honor,” Henderson said of donning the Maize and Blue.
Smith said Michigan is expecting Henderson to be a part of Saturday’s game when Michigan faces Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.
“He’s right now in our two-deep and he might be a one on the kickoff team,” Smith said of the Wolverines’ depth chart. “He’s not going to go down there to eat oranges. He’s a guy we’re counting on to get on the field and help us win the game.”
The road from John Jay to Michigan for Henderson was one that involved something he’s built his whole career on — hard work. The now 5-foot-11, 227-pound player is listed as a linebacker on Michigan’s roster, switching from fullback, which he played in high school.
“I was in Michigan when I was younger. My dad went to graduate school here and my grandfather and my uncle also went here,” Henderson said. “When I was going through the recruiting process in high school, playing at Michigan was always in the back of my mind.”
When Henderson reached the end of his recruitment process, he made contact with Michigan and they offered him a spot as a preferred walk-on.
“Once that came about,” Henderson said, “I had to take it.”
Instead of playing in his first year as a Michigan student, Henderson worked, watched and learned as a redshirt.
“A lot of the freshmen who come in, they want to give you a redshirt year to mature and get bigger and stronger,” Henderson said. “Some see it as a good opportunity and I did as well. I was trying to impress the coaches. It gives you time to develop as a player, but just as important, you’re helping guys out on the scout team.
“I came in and it took me a while to get used to it. It’s definitely a different competition level. After last year, I got my redshirt year out of the way and basically earned my way on to the field.”
Smith said Henderson’s position switched because Michigan decided it needed more depth at linebacker. He said when the Wolverines were short-handed on fullback-type bodies in practice, they could call on Henderson. If they needed a linebacker against the offense, they could use Henderson. He could even be a running back against the defense.
“That young man has a passion to play football. It’s important to him,” Smith said. “Whatever you ask Bobby Henderson to do, he doesn’t even bat an eyelash.”
Signs of Henderson’s potential were in full view in his scholastic career as a Patriot. As a senior, Henderson was the 2011 Poughkeepsie Journal Defensive Player of the Year, helping John Jay hold its opponents under 10 points all but three times. On offense that year, he rushed for 1,200 yards, had 150 receiving yards, 19 touchdowns and was named his league’s Back of the Year.
“Bobby was a tremendous kid to coach,” John Jay coach Tom O’Hare said. “He had such a thirst for knowledge and such a high football IQ that allowed you to coach him in such a special way. He was a workhorse for us.”
O’Hare said Henderson watched so much game film that he often took it home with him.
“He’d come back to us with things,” O’Hare said. “Sometimes they were things we had seen and sometimes he’d say, ‘Hey did you see this?’ and we’d go, ‘Wow, the kid’s right.'”
Henderson’s work ethic and versatility are what led him to be noticed at Michigan, but they come as no surprise to anyone who followed him locally. In high school, he played football, but also logged significant minutes as a defenseman for the John Jay club ice hockey team. He played lacrosse early in his high school career. In his senior year, he made the varsity basketball team.
“He took a tremendous amount of pride in anything you asked him to do,” O’Hare said. “He had values instilled in him from a young age, coming from a good family, and took pride and ownership in everything he did. I’m not surprised that he got himself noticed.”
Henderson described exactly what he does on Michigan’s special teams unit.
“On kickoffs, I’m one of the outside guys on the unit,” Henderson said. “I fly down the field, stay in my lane and make a play. On punt returns, it depends on what you’re doing from week to week, but you’ve got to stay with your guy.”
He made his collegiate debut in front of 76,306 people in the battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy at No. 24 Michigan State’s Spartan Stadium.
“One of our rivalry games,” Henderson reflected of his first time on the Wolverines’ travel roster. “I was actually more nervous on the ride to the stadium. Once I stepped on the field, everything kind of faded away and I focused on my role. It was like any day back at John Jay. I just do my job and execute.”
Michigan lost that game, 29-6. Since then, Henderson played in Michigan’s 17-13 home loss to Nebraska on Nov. 9 and in a 42-41 home loss to No. 3 Ohio State.
“This season didn’t go as many of us envisioned it would,” Henderson said. “We want to finish with a big win for our seniors. I’m looking forward to finishing the season strong.”
After the season, Henderson said, he’ll continue to work.
“I’m definitely working hard in the classroom and I look forward to getting a great degree from a great university,” Henderson said. “I’m hoping to secure my spot on special teams and at fullback or linebacker. I’ll fill in where the coaches need me at those two positions. I’ll play hard and move forward. I want to be well-rounded. I tell the coaches they can play me wherever they need me.”