Oct. 22, 2010
MADISON, Wis. -- During the recruiting process, Aaron Henry booked his campus visits to Wisconsin and Iowa in late October and early November. One Saturday, he was in Madison watching the Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium. Two weeks later, he was in Iowa City watching the Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium.
The catch? Wisconsin was Iowa’s opponent on Nov. 11, 2006.
“The crazy thing was that I was hanging out with Jonathan Casillas, Allen Langford and Jack Ikegwuonu,” Henry said of his time on the UW campus and the company he was keeping with three starters on the Badger defense. “And a week later, I was on the Iowa sidelines and they were looking at me and it was like, ‘Weren’t you just at Wisconsin?’”
Henry definitely caught the eye of Badgers coach Bret Bielema. “The gear that I had packed for the trip wasn’t fitting for the weather, and it was very cold,” said Henry, a native of Immokalee, Fla. “Whether I was wearing Iowa or Wisconsin colors, it didn’t matter to me, because I was freezing.”
Mattered to Bielema. “I was in a huge winter jacket with Iowa on it,” Henry said. “I think I ended up texting him to make sure he knew I had some red and white colors underneath.”
What he didn’t text Bielema was that Immokalee’s colors were also red and white. Didn’t matter. Once Henry verbally committed to the Badgers, he was not going back on his word. Not even when Florida coach Urban Meyer and his assistant, Steve Addazio, made a strong, late push.
UW defensive coordinator Dave Doeren was in Immokalee the same day as Addazio. And Meyer was scheduled to show up the following day when Henry told his prep coach (John Weber) that “Wisconsin was the right fit for me” and “nothing was going to change my mind.”
Weber got on the phone with Meyer and informed him that Henry had made his decision and “he was going to stand by it.” Meyer canceled his trip. “I didn’t want to lead coaches on,” Henry said.
Nonetheless, he couldn’t resist the urge to have some fun with Bielema, who, unlike Doeren, was unaware that Henry’s verbal was still solid. So when they talked, Henry rhapsodized about staying home and becoming a Gator, forcing Bielema to come up with some counter arguments.
In other words, Henry cast his line into the water and reeled in Bielema before finally letting him off the hook. “Had me squirming for five minutes,” Bielema said.
As fate would have it, Henry’s first Big Ten game was against none other than the Iowa Hawkeyes at Camp Randall Stadium in 2007. It was also a breakthrough game for Henry, then a true freshman, who was credited with 2.5 sacks as a pass rusher in the nickel package.
“What stands out to me is that they were dialing up those blitzes,” said Henry, reflecting on a 17-13 win over the Hawks. “It was exciting, and it’s something that I will never forget.”
Pausing to reflect on all the things that have happened since then, Henry added, “It does seem like a long time ago. I had to go through the whole knee surgery (and recovery) thing and I sure didn’t think I was going to be a safety when all was said and done.”
But here he is today; a starting Big Ten safety packing for another trip to Iowa City. Only this time, he will be wearing the red and white on top, not underneath. “Your life experiences and what you go through definitely molds your character into what you’re going to be,” Henry said.
Such are the trials and tribulations of a special athlete whose strength is derived from his faith and his grandmother, Margaret Lee, who raised him. Nothing just happens. That’s his rallying point for the good or the bad, for the obvious or the subtle, for the expected or the unexpected.
“I wasn’t going to let a knee injury slow me down,” Henry said. “I wasn’t going to let people tell me that I couldn’t play safety slow me down. I chose to overcome my trials and tried to achieve greater and bigger things. Day-in and day-out.”
Aaron Henry met Ashley Thomas, a member of the UW women’s basketball team, during a summer school class prior to their freshman year and they made an immediate connection spiritually. “We became best friends right away,” said Thomas, a junior from Glenview, Ill.
Do they discuss their individual sports?
“Since Aaron was a pretty good basketball player in high school, I do talk to him about basketball,” she said. “He definitely does help me if I have a question. He’ll come to my games and he’ll say, ‘You need to look for this’ or ‘Do this more’ or “Work on this.’
“I don’t really know much about football, so I just usually try to encourage him through the injuries that he went through. I try to be there as a support system for him.”
Both are conscious of their responsibilities as student-athletes, which doesn’t allow much wiggle room in their schedules. Besides the challenge of balancing academics and athletics, there are physical and emotional demands inherent to each of their sports, all of which can take a toll on a relationship.
Thomas cited the example of sometimes needing to say, “Hey, hope you had a good day, but I’m tired” so call me tomorrow. Or it might be, “Hey, I need to study tonight. See you later,” she said.
One concession has been made to their structured lives. “This year, we’ve made a habit of our Thursday nights being our date night, and we’ll just hang out,” Thomas said.
Last summer, Henry and Thomas attended an Athletes in Action ultimate training camp in Fort Collins, Colo. This was the second such experience for Henry and the first for Thomas, who was accompanied by UW teammates Jade Davis, Tiera Stephen and Anya Covington.
“Nothing I’ve ever gone through in my life physically could compare to the 24-hour training event,” Henry said. “It was like, ‘Man, this makes football look like a cakewalk.’”
Thomas felt the same way about the intense training which mixed competitors from a wide variety of sports, male and female. “There would be football players, cheerleaders, cross country runners and golfers on the same team,” she said.
And they would be each pushed to their limits. “During the 24 hours, you have three hours that you get to sleep,” she said. “You go from one activity to the next and when you’re not actually competing in something, you’re on the sidelines doing exercises. It’s like a non-stop workout.”
She loved every minute, too. “It was crazy, definitely one of the most demanding things I’ve ever been through, but an awesome experience,” she said. “It gave me a new outlook which I brought back with me, and it gave me a new mentality to know that I can push my body to a higher limit.”
Henry’s resiliency in bouncing back from an ACL injury has been well-documented. “He’s pretty inspiring when he comes to that,” Thomas said. “He’s one of the most positive people I know.”
How so? “I tell him this all the time,” she said, “with all the injuries he has gone through, most people might have given up or asked, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ But he has pushed through and persevered. One quality I really admire in him is that I know that he’s never going to give up.”
Thomas and Henry grew up worlds apart. The former is from the northern suburbs of Chicago. The latter is from the fringe of the Everglades. The Immokalee exit is on Alligator Alley, which extends to Naples on one end and Weston on the other.
“I’ve got plenty of gator stories,” said Henry, who was not talking about Urban Meyer’s Gators, either. “There’s a lake by my town with more alligators than fish.”
An animated Henry talked about how a gator got within five feet of his little sister at a family picnic before his uncle grabbed an axe (not the Paul Bunyan Axe) and chopped its head off.
He also talked about chasing rabbits in Belle Glade, a small, impoverished town on the edge of Lake Okeechobee about 45 minutes from Immokalee. NFL players like Santonio Holmes and Fred Taylor grew up chasing the rabbits as youngsters – enhancing their speed and cutting agility.
“When they’d burn down the sugar cane fields, the rabbits would come out,” said Henry. “When I was in the seventh grade, I went there. And if you were on the outside looking in, you’d ask, ‘How do you catch a rabbit?’ You don’t realize the stamina and ability it takes to catch one.”
Did he catch any rabbits? “Caught about five or six,” he said.
What did he do with them? “You’d eat them, heck yeah,” he said.
Eat them? “Sometimes you’d let them go,” he said.
But you’d catch them, huh? “Had a ball of energy at that age,” he said, grinning.
The Badgers could use a rabbit’s foot Saturday in Iowa City. Nothing just happens, after all.
“Huge game,” he said.