Jerome Henderson Speaks At Valley Stream Central High School
The bar was set high for Jerome Henderson.
Valley Stream Central High School Principal Dr. Joseph Pompilio looked out at his 10th grade students this morning and said, "I know this will be the most important assembly of your lives." Then after a few more words, Pompilio introduced the Jets' defensive backs coach as the keynote speaker on VSCHS's second annual career day.
Henderson, who spent eight seasons playing DB in the NFL for four teams, including the Green & White in 1997-98, stepped up to the podium and admitted he actually felt "intimidated" the day before he addressed the sophomores.
"You can choose to listen to me or not because you have a choice, so I have to earn your respect and I have to earn your interest," he said.
It was a refreshingly honest approach from a man who traced back to his days as a 10th grader at West Iredel High in Statesville, N.C. Henderson's alarm clock went off when his football coach told him he had the ability to play college football.
"He said that 'You put yourself in a position that in the next two years, if you can do a few things, you can get a college scholarship,' " Henderson recalled. "And up to that point, I had never really thought of life after high school."
That changed. He saw the big picture and became determined to earn that scholarship.
"I began to do everything I could to obtain that goal," he said. "I paid attention in class and worked hard. Instead of floating along and getting a C, I got an A and really mastered the subject. I began to become the student I could have been all along. I began to be the athlete I could have been all along."
While he also lettered in baseball, basketball and track at West Iredel, Henderson got a number of scholarship offers to play football. There were some locals who suggested he become the large fish in a small pond rather than the small fish in a big pond.
"Sometimes even adults will put limitations on you," he told a captivated audience. "Don't allow them to do that. I'm glad I didn't allow them to do that and I chose Clemson University."
That meant Henderson, who said large crowds in high school meant 400 spectators, would play in front of 85,000 people on Saturday afternoons. He came to Death Valley as part of a nationally ranked recruiting class.
"Once I got there, I thought we're all basically the same," he said. "From this point on, we're all here and it's a matter of who wants it more. Who wants it more to get where they want to be?"
Henderson played four seasons for the Tigers and started the final 24 games of his collegiate career at LCB. The Patriots selected him in the second round of the 1991 draft and his pro career lasted twice the league average of four years. He appeared in 98 career games, collected nine interceptions and played in two Super Bowls. There were two stops with the Pats (1991-93, 1996) and one each with the Bills (1993-94), Eagles (1995) and Jets.
That movement meant plenty of defensive terminology to learn. Education came to the forefront for Henderson then as it does now for his secondary students.
"Probably 80 percent of our players' workday is in the classroom. Our players have homework, they do reports and they take tests," he said. "If a guy can't learn — no matter how talented he is — I can't get him on the field."
Before he reentered the NFL, Henderson served as vice president of the HomeBanc Mortgage Corp. in Raleigh, N.C. New head coach Eric Mangini then surprised him with an offer to join the Jets as the club's director of player development in 2006. Henderson accepted and was initially given a less than glamorous chore of holding the chain at practice.
"There come times in life when you have to be humble. I told myself I will do whatever it takes to go where I want to go, so I held the chain," he said. "The next year we had a defensive backs coach decide to no longer coach right before the start of training camp and I had the opportunity to help out there.
"Now I'm the secondary coach, which I'm very happy about."
And Henderson wrapped up his inspirational speech with a challenge. He asked the hundreds in attendance to stand out and refuse to be average.
"Choose — because it is a choice — to excel and to be special. Choose to be different," he said.
If those students take those words to heart, it very well could have been the most important assembly in their lives. The choice is theirs.
Another Jets Rep at Career Day
After Henderson got the day under way, 35 working professionals addressed the 10th graders in separate classroom discussions, all with unique stories to share. The Jets were also proudly represented in those talks by Maureen Dillon, the club's coordinator of player development.