Last April, Caleb Henderson was taking first-team reps in Maryland football’s spring practice, and the UNC transfer looked like he was ready for a starting opportunity.
But that chance never came. This is the story of why, and where he’s going from here.
Days before Maryland’s 2017 spring game, Terps head coach DJ Durkin announced Henderson had suffered a “minor ankle injury” in practice during the week and would be held out of the game as a precaution. Fans wouldn’t get to see the positional frontrunner in action that Saturday afternoon.
As it turned out, they would never see him on the field in College Park.
Henderson had actually suffered a stress fracture in his right foot, he learned from a doctor not affiliated with the team. He then sustained another one early in the summer and his foot went into a walking boot. However, he healed shockingly quickly, and was out of the boot six weeks ahead of schedule. At Maryland’s first open practice in August, Durkin said Henderson was “about 95 percent.” But it didn’t take long for Henderson to aggravate the injury, and he would be in and out of the boot from the second week of camp onward.
Henderson never told the team the severity of his injury, instead trying to play through it. While he was the projected starter all summer, he needed a productive camp to hold off sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome and freshman Kasim Hill. But the injury to his plant foot took away both his mobility and the crispness of his throws when it wasn’t sidelining him entirely.
Pigrome won the starting job out of camp but tore his ACL in a winning effort at Texas. Hill came in and completed 18 of 21 passes before tearing his ACL two games later against UCF. Max Bortenschlager was the next man in; Henderson simply didn’t have the practice reps to build up confidence—his own or the coaches’—for game situations. Because he was playing through injury, he was never ruled out of a game, but he was also never the team’s best option.
“I kept wanting to try and compete. I felt bad because we were down quarterbacks, me being the first and then Pig and Kasim went down, and we had two, three quarterbacks on the roster left. So I felt bad leaving Coach Durkin and the team in a spot like that,” Henderson told Testudo Times. “But at the end of the day, it probably hurt me more because I didn’t get the proper treatment for it.”
Henderson saw his first action in a Maryland uniform on Oct. 7 at Ohio State after Bortenschlager was banged up. His arm was throbbing. Maryland’s play distribution while he was in the game suggested some limitations; he threw one pass, scrambled five times and handed the ball off on every other snap. “Mentally I was ready,” he said. “Physically, I couldn’t get the job done.”
When Bortenschlager was forced out of action against Rutgers on Nov. 4, it was walk-on transfer Ryan Brand who took his place. Brand nearly led a game-tying touchdown drive, then started the following week against Michigan, going 16-of-35 with a touchdown and two interceptions. Bortenschlager returned for the final two games of the season, which Maryland lost to Michigan State and Penn State.
Henderson finished what would be his only season at Maryland with one pass thrown. Four years after being All-Met Player of the Year, he still didn’t have a college completion. The former four-star recruit redshirted one year, played sparingly the next, lost the spring QB battle to Mitch Trubisky (who was taken No. 2 in the NFL Draft a year later), transferred, sat out another year and was plagued by injuries when finally eligible again. He still believes he would have rivaled Pigrome and Hill if healthy, but no one really knows how good he could have been.
“It’s a hell of a sport,” said Eric Henderson, Caleb’s father and the current head coach at Hayfield Secondary School. “If you catch an opportunity just at the right time, you can catch fire, but there are times when you get hurt and somebody else steps in and then you’re fighting an uphill battle. That’s football.”
In December, while Henderson was gearing up at home for winter workouts, he saw a doctor who diagnosed him with a sprained UCL. That’s the elbow ligament that, when torn, prompts Tommy John surgery, which is increasingly common in baseball pitchers. Henderson had been overcompensating for his foot injury by throwing more with his arm, and that took its toll.
“The second I heard surgery and the second I heard nine-month recovery, I just was like, ‘It’s not worth it,’” Henderson said. As much as he loved football, he knew it was time to step away.
At first, Eric Henderson wanted his son to stick with it. He felt that Caleb’s injuries would merit a medical redshirt, and once he recovered, he’d have two more seasons to compete while working toward a Master’s degree. But he eventually realized Caleb’s mind was made up, and he grew to accept it. “When you wake up at 5:00 every morning for five years and you get no payoff and your body’s starting to break down, that’s a real tough thing to wrap your head around,” he said.
So he told Caleb to see Durkin in person and tell the head coach he was leaving the team; this would mean giving up his scholarship. The news of Henderson’s departure was first reported by The Washington Post on Feb. 9; when Testudo Times posted its own story on the subject, Henderson released his statement in our mentions.
Just want to set the record straight I have been hurt since I broke my foot at the end of spring until the end of my season with my elbow. I was not the same after my surgery. I have decided to step away from my playing days but am going to help Maryland football because I believ— Caleb Henderson (@C_Hendo6) February 9, 2018
e in coach Durkin and this program. We will be something as a program very soon. Thank you for all the support over the years I will always have love for the dmv. Thank you and go terps— Caleb Henderson (@C_Hendo6) February 9, 2018
After posting these tweets—and an identical double reply to me—a handful of colleges reached out to Henderson, gauging his interest in positions as a graduate assistant or even a position coach. Clarion University, a Division II program in northwest Pennsylvania, was the first to do so. Golden Eagles offensive coordinator Phil Hamilton had worked with Henderson at a quarterback clinic in Maryland years earlier, and one of the team’s offensive linemen played for his dad at Hayfield, so they were able to get in contact and interview him rather quickly.
“He’s smart in the game of football,” Hamilton said of Henderson, who will officially begin his tenure as Clarion’s quarterbacks coach on July 16. “He just relates to the kids very well. Being a young guy himself, it’s easy for him to still think like a player, but you can tell he also took the X’s and O’s part very seriously.”
Henderson spent his last semester at Maryland as a copies-and-coffee student assistant, and he graduated in May. The lease on his College Park house runs through August, so he’ll stay there until moving north. In the meantime, he’s working part-time with a friend’s moving company and training over a dozen quarterbacks in the area (which he’s now able to charge for since he’s no longer a student-athlete).
When Henderson first decided to step away, he thought about becoming a firefighter. But it’s hard to imagine him in a career other than the one he’s entering now.
During his redshirt season at Maryland, Henderson wasn’t with the Terps on Friday nights, so he’d help out his dad—who’s been coaching Northern Virginia high schools for nearly three decades and coached Chris Beatty at Chantilly a quarter-century ago—at Hayfield. The younger Henderson was at every game as a volunteer assistant coach, and by the end of the season he was calling plays. He was instrumental in the development of quarterback Jacob Keeney, who threw for over 3,700 yards in his lone year as Hayfield’s starter.
“His ability to, on a Sunday, sit down and watch film with one of my kids and to relate football-wise with what this kid needs to see and what he needs to do is invaluable,” Eric Henderson said.
As a player, Henderson was always the hard-working coach’s kid, even when he wasn’t able to produce on the field. It’s that same work ethic and energy that has impressed those who’ve seen him coach and makes them believe he can be a fast riser in the industry. His ultimate goal is to become a college head coach. That’ll probably take decades if it ever happens, but he’s wasting no time in starting his journey.
“I definitely think it’s been ingrained in my system ever since I was a kid. I just didn’t know it,” Henderson said. “It took me a little bit to realize that I needed to be a coach, but now I know.”