LIZTON — Jennifer Hendershot gave up on the living room years ago. Oh, there were pictures on the wall once. Family pictures. She and husband Jack have four boys. You can imagine the pictures on those walls.
And you can imagine why they’re gone.
These are the Hendershot boys. Know the name? For nearly a decade there’s been a Hendershot or two doing something special on the Tri-West football field. First Austin and then Jake and now Peyton, and next year Bryce. Four brothers. Big brothers.
Who has the strongest arm? The best hands? To this day, the Hendershot boys sit in the living room and fire footballs at each other. Those poor walls, patched up. Those poor pictures, smashed up.
“I had to take them down,” Jennifer Hendershot is saying with a smile. “Nothing’s hanging up there now.”
We’re sitting in the gym at Tri-West, Jennifer and Jack and Jake and Austin and another dozen or so members of the Hendershot clan, all crammed into one section to watch Peyton and the Bruins play Lebanon on Jan. 13. Peyton is a senior, a 6-4, 225-pound center. Or maybe he’s a point guard. He’s the most skilled player on the team, whatever he is, leading in rebounds, assists and blocks and second in scoring.
In the highest row of the Hendershots is Jake, two years older than Peyton, a sophomore at Illinois State home for semester break. All the Hendershot boys clash and compete, as brothers will do, but nobody goes at it like Jake and Peyton.
“They’re the most combustible of all of us,” the oldest brother, Austin, is telling me. “Jake and Peyton get going. Pretty sure there was blood the time …”
Well hold on, Austin. We’ll get to that story. But first, let’s get back to this one.
Lebanon is playing Tri-West and Jake is watching from the highest row and Lebanon kids are jostling his brother and officials are letting most of it go. Jake’s getting agitated. Doesn’t matter that the referees are doing a fine job; Jake is watching through the lens of love. Tri-West is losing and Peyton is struggling and Jake is not happy.
And then it happens. Final seconds of the first half. Peyton drives the lane and dunks on two Lebanon defenders, one of whom fouls him. The Hendershot family explodes. Above the din comes one voice, Jake screaming, “Let’s goooo!”
Sitting with the Hendershot family is new IU offensive coordinator Mike DeBord. He’s here to firm up Peyton’s commitment to play football for the Hoosiers, which wobbled after IU replaced coach Kevin Wilson. After Peyton’s explosive dunk, DeBord locks eyes with family members and breaks into a huge smile. The things he could do with a tight end like this …
Peyton misses the free throw but gets the long rebound and beats the halftime buzzer with a 3-pointer. He backpedals to the locker room, raising his arms for more noise.
Impossible. The Hendershot section can’t get any louder, and that includes Bryce, a 6-2 eighth-grader who already dunks and plays quarterback and receiver, and could be the best athlete of the bunch. Nobody is screaming like Jake, who stops and announces: “I need some water.”
Jennifer Hendershot digs into her purse for a $5 bill, then looks around at her family and puts it back. We’re going to need more water than that. She grabs a $20 and gives it to Jake, who bounces down the bleachers, the happiest Hendershot you’ve ever seen.
* * *
Two years ago Jake Hendershot was the Tri-West senior to Peyton the sophomore, the quarterback to Peyton the receiver, the BMOC to Peyton the little brother.
Two years later, Peyton is the BMOC. He’s the school’s best basketball player. Best football player, too. He’s coming off a senior season with 67 catches for 896 yards and nine touchdowns, named the state’s top tight end, in all classifications, by the Indiana Football Coaches Association. In some ways Peyton has become a bigger BMOC than either of his older brothers, the only Hendershot recruited by Big Ten schools.
Understand, Jake was a special quarterback. At Tri-West he produced more than 7,500 yards passing, 2,200 yards rushing and 100 touchdowns. See that 2014 state championship banner on the gym wall? Jake Hendershot helped put it there, throwing for 279 yards in the Class 3A title game against Andrean to cap an all-state season.
But time ticks on.
Jake is not a quarterback anymore. He’s a fullback. And while he’s atop the Illinois State depth chart entering 2017, he redshirted in 2015 and sat behind a senior in 2016. Peyton, meanwhile, is going to the Big Ten, to the family’s favorite school. To IU.
This could be delicate, you know? Little brothers are little brothers forever. Jake sure has been. He deferred to Austin even as he was taking his older brother’s job as the Tri-West quarterback.
You read that right. In 2011, Austin was a senior quarterback, Jake his freshman backup, when Tri-West coach Chris Coll made the move at midseason: Jake over Austin.
Look, that’s the way Austin wanted it. He knew Jake was better, and Austin knew he could contribute in other ways. He became an all-county receiver while his kid brother became quarterback. But always, Jake deferred.
“Jake’s the quietest of all of us,” Austin says.
And Peyton, well, he’s not. He’s that big rambunctious puppy nipping playfully at the older dogs. He always nips at Jake. And Jake, quiet as he may be, barks back.
Now then, Austin. Now it’s time for the story about the blood.
“They were in the car after a game,” says Austin, who is studying at IUPUI to become a teacher. “Peyton was in seventh or eighth grade, so Jake was a freshman or sophomore. They were arguing and Jake was in the front seat and he turned around and Peyton punched him in the face. Jake started choking him. Dad had to stop the car.”
Austin’s laughing, because it’s funny and it’s family, and anyway, here’s how close Peyton and Jake are:
“I’ll stand up for (Jake) no matter what,” Peyton says.
“I’m super proud of him,” Jake says of Peyton. “He’s always been more athletic than me.”
They don’t say this to each other, obviously. Only to me.
Brothers. You know how it is.
* * *
Things stay the same.
A backyard in Jamestown. Their grandparents live here, 5 miles up U.S. 136, and the whole family — a couple dozen folks bearing the surname Hendershot or Jobe — gather every Sunday. They come for dinner. They come for laughter.
They come for volleyball.
Oh, sure. You think all these Hendershots can get together without competing at something? When the weather’s good they head to the backyard for what’s unlike any family volleyball game you’ve ever seen. Balls are spiked. Trash is talked. Heads are bashed. There was the time a cousin, McKenzie Jobe, suffered a concussion after taking an elbow from Jake Hendershot. It wasn’t intentional, not for a second, but everyone’s competing and he’s approaching the net and Peyton’s been talking and Jake’s about to spike one down his throat …
“We used to hate each other,” Peyton says. “My dad used to say Jake and I’d be best friends when we’re older, and I said: ‘No way.’”
Peyton was in eighth grade when Jake Hendershot was a sophomore in 2012, already one of the best quarterbacks in the state, producing 30 TDs.
“He was all-state,” Peyton says, “and I was thinking I was never going to be where Jake was. Until I got my first couple of (scholarship) offers, I always looked at myself as a little brother.”
“My cousin Kenzie told me: ‘You won’t go higher than Jake,’” Peyton says. “I made a bet, I was so cocky with myself: I’m gonna go higher. Like, a bigger school. And sure enough, I did.”
But that’s football, and this is love. And they do love each other. They don’t say it out loud — “Only if it’s obvious we’re not being serious,” Peyton says — so listen closely:
Jake scored the final TD in that 3A title game in 2014, then found Peyton and jumped into his arms. Someone took a picture. Jake made it the wallpaper on his cell phone.
Peyton’s going to Indiana, he can’t turn that down and he knows it, but part of him pines for Illinois State — yeah, Jake’s school. He has an offer from Illinois State, the only school in America where Peyton Hendershot, big-shot tight end, would go back to being Jake’s little brother.
“It won’t happen,” Peyton says, “but when Illinois State offered I was thinking: I’m going to play with my brother, and it’s going to be the best thing ever.”
He hears you, Peyton. Jake hears. And he loves you too.