There was a time when no praise was too strong for Seantrel Henderson.
Then there was a time when no scorn was too strong.
These days, Henderson gets little of either. And it might be the best thing for him.
People knew Henderson's name before he was old enough to drive. He got a scholarship offer to Notre Dame when he was in ninth grade. He was named Rivals' No. 1 prospect for 2010 while it was still 2008 and still finished at No. 2. He was 6-foot-8, 337 pounds at age 17.
He was strong enough to play in the NFL before he was old enough to play varsity football and he was agile enough to play prep hoops along with it. His high school position coach once said he could "dance on a light bulb." If there was one high school player in 2010 who was most likely to get his name announced on the first day of the 2014 NFL draft, it was Seantrel Henderson.
Then everything began to slowly unspool.
Henderson played well as a true freshman at Miami, but over the next three years he was suspended three times for violating team rules. He also got into a car accident while driving with an expired license and missed time with a concussion. Eventually he was moved out of the starting lineup altogether: the can't-miss kid missed badly. He admitted to NFL teams earlier this year that his suspensions were because of marijuana use. There were also questions about his desire.
"Being ranked so highly, so early in age," Henderson said by phone last week. "The expectations and what everybody expected of me – they expected to me to be perfect. It was pretty hard."
The pressure of being the next Jonathan Ogden had crushed Henderson, and so he spiraled to a place where there would be almost no pressure. He reportedly failed a drug test at the scouting combine. He quit on his pro day workout. He was lucky to be picked in the seventh round by the Bills.
"That was a big disappointment," he said. "I knew I was better than that. It was very motivating."
The expectations were gone. The star rookie in Buffalo was Sammy Watkins. The face of the team was E.J. Manuel. There was more attention on Bon Jovi's ownership bid than on the opening day roster. In Buffalo, Henderson could fail without fans even learning his name.
And then he didn't fail.
Henderson won a starting job at right tackle and he has kept it. He has not missed a snap all season – one of only four offensive players on the team who can say that. This is where Henderson should have been headed all along – a starting spot in the NFL – but the fact that he's such a low-round pick makes him one of the biggest steals of the draft.
He's managed his new role better than he did the hype of his younger years.
"I'm still far away from where I want to be," he said. "One week at a time. Getting better each week. Get more comfortable each time."
Henderson hasn't been superlative. He has allowed four sacks. He hasn't done much better at protecting Manuel or replacement Kyle Orton than the other linemen. But there have been flashes of greatness. There has been promise. In the Bills' signature win, on the road against the Detroit Lions, Henderson held his own against Ziggy Ansah and the rest of Detroit's ferocious front. He is believing in himself more.
"It was more me having the confidence in myself that I could do it," he said. "I always knew I could play. It was more mentally going out there and playing.
"I've gone against some of the best players in the league now. I've seen what they've done against other opponents. I just prepared and made sure I'm ready. I tell myself I'm ready."
Just as important, the Bills have had faith. Even before the season started, head coach Doug Marrone – himself a former offensive lineman – suggested Henderson could be a long-term answer at right tackle.
"He's been everything that people obviously didn't say about him when he was coming out," Marrone told a local radio station in August. "I think he understands that and there are periods in time when people can change and one of them is when you go from college into this league. We have to do everything we can to not only keep him progressing on the field, but off the field."
One of the blessings of a small-market team is the shelter it provides for someone like Henderson. "He has a new family here," said offensive line coach Pat Morris. "We can provide the support. Basically it boils down to him."
Henderson said he has been clean, and he's sensed the difference in his life. "It was better right away," he said. "Way better right away. I was taking care of my business on and off the field."
The best thing that can happen is the worst thing that can happen: more pressure and expectations. If Henderson keeps his job – and Marrone said this week there's no immediate sign he won't – he'll be expected to keep getting better. He'll be more of a name, and more vulnerable to blame. Then comes the true test of how he handles the kind of praise and scorn that landed on him before.
"He has a whole career to get better," Morris said.
And that is enough of a victory for now.