From the time Bills rookie offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson has been a junior in high school he’s been told he’s the greatest football prospect around. It continued through his recruitment by a bounty of college programs. In college off the field issues compromised that lofty status as he fell to the seventh round of the 2014 NFL draft. Through it all Henderson’s commitment to improve his game no matter what anyone was telling him, good or bad, has him on a path to a successful NFL career with unlimited potential.
Big man on campus
It’s a Minnesota high school steeped in athletic tradition. Cretin-Durham Hall in St. Paul has produced athletes like baseball Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh, retired NFL center Matt Birk and current Arizona Cardinals WR Michael Floyd. Seantrel Henderson was seen as the next in line among the school’s premier athletic phenoms. The only difference was Henderson’s physical traits were beyond compare.
By his junior year Henderson, who was playing varsity football, basketball and track, appeared on the radar of the national high school rankings services. Rivals.com named him their Junior of the Year – as an offensive tackle. National high school recruiting analyst Tom Lemming didn’t compare him to one, but two NFL Pro Bowl tackles calling him “a cross between Jonathan Ogden and Orlando Pace.” Sports Illustrated labeled him “probably the most polished lineman of the decade.”
USA Today trumped them all naming him their Player of the Year in his senior season, after he was one of only two juniors the previous year to be named to the newspaper’s First Team. It was the first time a lineman had been bestowed the honor in the 28-year history of the award.
For Henderson all the attention was overwhelming.
“When I was a junior in high school I was ranked real high in football,” said Henderson. “I was the number one player and it shocked me. I met the guy who runs Rivals, he came up to the school. I was like, ‘Wow.’”
Henderson had only played two years of varsity football as a sophomore and junior. During that time current Cardinals WR Michael Floyd, also a student-athlete at Cretin-Derham was being heavily recruited. The recruiters saw Henderson and got to work on him quickly.
“When everyone was coming up to recruit Mike they saw me walking through the hall and started asking who I was,” Henderson said. “I had all these colleges coming at me and no one knew me because I didn’t go to any of the big football camps because I was playing basketball and doing track in the spring.”
After he helped lead his team to the 5A Minnesota state title the Associated Press named him the Minnesota State Player of the Year.
As good as Henderson looked on the football field, he was perhaps even more amazing to watch on a basketball court. Henderson’s immense size did not negatively impact his pure athleticism and led to a spot on a pre-eminent AAU basketball team in Minnesota, the Howard Pulley Panthers. His coach Rene Pulley is certain he could’ve been a star college player on the court.
“He could’ve been a Division-1 basketball player,” he said. “At 300-plus pounds he was nimble. He was just as fast as the guards. He just had quickness and agility that was beyond belief for somebody his size. As a basketball player he would’ve been a good one.”
“Once I went to AAU I was playing with the best guys in the state and we were going state to state playing against the best guys in the nation,” Henderson said. “So I got to play forward. I could handle the rock a little bit. I could shoot a little bit. I could still jump and rebound with the best of them.”
Pulley recalls one particular tournament in Georgia when Henderson’s Minnesota team was facing another talented squad from Baltimore.
“They had a great player who was about 6-7 and he could jump out of the gym,” Pulley said. “Seantrel set a blind pick on him and he ran into Seantrel and bam he just slid down Seantrel like Wile E. Coyote used to in the cartoons. After that the kid didn’t do anything. He was too busy turning his head the rest of the game looking for Seantrel. Seantrel changed the whole game with that one pick.”
Henderson’s team also had a very talented guard/forward by the name of Harrison Barnes, who currently plays for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. He and Henderson were roommates on the road. Their senior year they were both named the top player in the country, Henderson in football and Barnes in basketball.
Knowing Henderson was rated so highly in football, Pulley knew that would be his power forward’s path. Still, it was remarkable to watch the most massive player on the court beat guards down the floor in transition.
“Watching him play basketball at a high level was just amazing,” said Pulley. “When he was 15 he was 6-8 and 317 pounds, but he was such an athlete. When the shot would go up Seantrel would be up on the glass and get the rebound, but he could get up and down the floor because he was as fast as anybody in the gym.
“They didn’t have to worry about waiting for him to come down the floor. Heck he led the break sometimes. People would stop and stare and watch him play basketball. He has got to be the rarest talent I’ve ever had.”
Henderson had committed to playing football at the next level. He credits his coaches for helping him see how special he could be as an offensive lineman.
“I knew I was better at football and my coaches always kept it real with me,” he said. “They told me 6-8 guys come a dime a dozen in basketball. But 6-8 guys with the weight you have and the way that you can move on the football field people can’t find. So I went with that.”
Pursued by every major college program in the country Henderson verbally committed to USC and later signed a letter of intent. However, after the NCAA slapped the Trojans with scholarship reductions and banned them from postseason play for two years Henderson requested to be let out of his commitment. USC granted the request and Henderson went with his second choice, the University of Miami.
Despite all the awards and accolades coming out of high school Henderson’s college coach Randy Shannon was still impressed when he saw his star recruit out on the field.
“His feet were unbelievable for a big man,” said Shannon. “His quickness for his size as well. It was all just very impressive.”
Henderson started as a freshman at right tackle appearing in 12 games with nine starts and the awards kept coming as he earned numerous All-Freshman team nods. All the praise and press that Henderson received never seemed to have an impact on the talented tackle. He never got a big head and never got complacent when it came to practice habits or game performance.
“He was smart,” said Shannon. “His freshman year he was unbelievable. He was very competitive and never had any problems out of him when he first got there. He was unbelievable for a freshman to come in with so much, but he continued to learn and grow.”
Unfortunately after Henderson’s first year, Shannon and most of his staff were let go following a 7-6 campaign. In came new head coach Al Golden and a world of changes.
“We had to learn a whole new system and a bunch of new rules that a lot of guys weren’t used to,” said Henderson. “So I just decided we’ve got to learn this and we’ve got to go by his rules. It was hard for a lot of people who were set in their ways. Everything was a lot different, but we had to buckle down and adjust and get right for the next few years.”
The plan was to have Henderson flip to the left side following Orlando Franklin’s move to the NFL, but in spring practice Henderson was struggling with back issues.
“I had a nerve problem on my left side that shot all the way down to my foot and messed with my nerves,” said Henderson. “So I couldn’t kick slide or anything. It didn’t feel right. I had no feeling over there.”
Offseason back surgery was the course of action taken and it limited Henderson to just eight games and two starts.
His junior and senior seasons were overshadowed by three separate violations of team rules, but he still earned honorable mention All-Atlantic Conference honors in each of his final two seasons. He was subsequently invited to the Senior Bowl where he was up front with all the NFL clubs about his team violations.
"I'm just being honest with every (NFL) team and letting them know exactly what the situations were, and that I'm putting all the negative things behind me moving on to the next level," he told the Florida Sun-Sentinel in Mobile. "I want to be a starter and play in the NFL."
The newest chapter
As a seventh-round pick of the Bills not much was expected of Henderson. There were two other linemen drafted by the Bills including another offensive tackle. But once Cordy Glenn’s illness first surfaced it thrust Henderson into the left tackle role before June minicamp closed.
Henderson leaned on Glenn to show him the ropes having played right tackle for the better part of the last four years.
“Cordy Glenn, he and I really clicked so he helps me with a lot of things,” said Henderson. “He’d tell me how to place my feet and how to shoot my hips and it just started getting easier. I’m more of a visual learner so watching him take his sets and make his lateral movements I tried to mirror that. He’s a good guy to look at and he’s been doing a good job since he’s been here. So that’s my guy.”
“With Seantrel I try to just have him watch what I do and take from it and add to his game,” said Glenn.
Henderson would then write down what he learned each and every day from Glenn and the other linemen to instill them in his memory.
“It improves my game,” he said. “It’s a good situation.”
Despite pushing veteran Erik Pears inside to right guard to take his former position at right tackle, Pears has coached up Henderson on the field without hesitation.
“He’s got a lot of natural ability that’s obvious anyone can see that,” said Pears. “I’m going to help him with anything I can possibly help him with whether it’s in the classroom, pre-snap, on the field and make sure we’re on the same page.”
“It makes my job easier knowing that if I forget a play, because it happens, I can just turn to Pears and ask him what I’ve got and he’ll tell me,” said Henderson. “Just knowing I’ve got Pears there who can help me at any point in time on or off the field makes me feel a lot better about doing my job.”
Henderson has been told he’s a special talent from the time he was 16-years old, but it’s never convinced him that he has maximized his skill set. Some might think his missteps in college are what put him on a straight and narrow path, but those who have known him the longest maintain that he’s always been a worker.
As rare as it may be to find a physical talent like Henderson, finding one with a blue-collar attitude like the Bills rookie might be even more uncommon. Perhaps that’s why he clicked with Glenn so quickly, the lineman who has also been seen as a rare athletic specimen himself.
“Knowing that you do have some strengths we both just try to stay humble and keep working in order to get better,” said Glenn of he and Henderson. “He’s a real good player, but we don’t just want to rely on our potential or the physical advantages we might have.”
Awards and accolades have always come easy for Henderson, but for him they’ve never seemed to carry much weight. Now he’s playing on a level where there’s talent that’s comparable to his own. Fortunately what has always accompanied his vast skill is a commitment to making the most of his talent.
“I just keep playing.”