Anthony Henry remembers the 1.5-hour walks well.
Who knows how much of his childhood was spent accompanying his mother, Mae Robinson, on her treks to work? Sure, she could’ve tried the car; but it broke down all the time, so why bother? Besides, many weeks, this was the only significant time Anthony and Mae got to spend together, considering the long hours and multiple jobs she had to work to keep the creditors at bay.
The walks were good for reflecting, at least for Mae. There was plenty to think about: life as a single parent, the surrounding crime that threatened to snatch her youngest boy, and her older children who had already been ensnared.
Anthony, though, didn’t mull such things. He was 11 and just happy to be with his mom. Whatever he did after they arrived, it was certainly better than the alternative of idle hours spent in the projects. He was away—for a few fleeting moments, at least—from the guns. Away from the dope-pushers. Away from the destructive maelstrom that swallowed up so many souls.
Yes, Anthony Henry remembers the walks well. They help him maintain perspective, 20 years later, in his current profession, where he runs for a living. He is running toward, not away from, his past now, using it to motivate others to run to Christ, just as he did 12 years ago.
And his profession? Well, considering where he has come from, being an elite cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys—that’s just gravy.
‘It had to be God’
For many, Fort Myers is a small slice of paradise. Located in southwest Florida, the City of Palms sways all year long in the tropical breezes from the Gulf of Mexico. But Michigan Links Court is no paradise. Anthony’s old stomping ground—a low-income neighborhood owned by the city’s housing authority—was a rough-and-tumble place.
“I’ve seen people get shot, I’ve seen people get stabbed, I’ve seen a lot of different drugs,” he said. “Growing up as a kid in the projects is tough, but it didn’t seem like it [at the time] because all of us were in it.”
He had an older brother (by three years) and sister (by 14 years), and eight other step-siblings on his father’s side. His father wasn’t around much, leaving Mae to work all manner of jobs to support her children. Some days, the only trace of her would be the $5 bill she left on the table for a Burger King dinner.
The pitfalls of inner-city life claimed many neighborhood kids, even his brother and sister. His brother was in and out of jail as Anthony grew up. He shared that both his siblings are still struggling today, and of his 10 brothers and sisters (including those from his father), he is the only one to graduate high school and not have any children.
What saved Anthony from a similar fate?
“It had to be God,” he said. “I still hung out with friends who did bad things. It’s not to say there weren’t some things I didn’t do, but God protected me. I guess I just never took an interest in doing drugs or selling drugs. Seeing what it did to some of my friends stuck out in my mind.”
Joe Hampton, Henry’s former coach at Estero High School in Fort Myers, watched as the boy rose above the ashes of depravity.
“You’d never know where he grew up,” Hampton said. “His mother did a wonderful job. What other kids did didn’t influence him. He’s what I call his own person. He did the right things.”
After a standout, three-sport career at Estero, Henry landed at the University of South Florida as a Prop 48 student whose SAT and ACT scores had scared off the state’s Big Three football powers— Florida, Florida State and Miami. His arrival at South Florida in 1997 coincided with the launch of the school’s new football program at the NCAA Division I-AA independent level.
The Bulls might have been relatively anonymous back then, but Henry was not. As a four-year starter at defensive back, he totaled 256 tackles, 10 interceptions, six fumble recoveries and 22 pass deflections. More importantly, South Florida was where his life changed spiritually. After benefiting from an upbringing by a Christian mother and the influence of Hampton, who picked him up on many occasions for church and FCA events, it all finally clicked early in his college career. After Bible study one night, team chaplain David Lane helped him understand his need for the Savior.
“Football was going well—I was playing well and staying healthy—but there was still something missing,” Henry said.
“After [the Bible study], we talked about life and Christ. It was a life-changing experience, and life has been different ever since. I attribute that not only to the Bible study that night, but also to the way my mom raised me.”
Henry’s remarkable journey from humble beginnings to national prominence became official on April 22, 2001, when the Cleveland Browns drafted him in the fourth round (97th overall). Later that year, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound rookie stunned the NFL with a 10- interception season that led the AFC and tied a Browns record.
After three more years with Cleveland, Henry arrived in Dallas as a free agent in 2005 and continued to excel. In his first two years, he combined for 31 pass deflections and five interceptions.
He started this season on a tear, totaling four interceptions in his first three games, including two picks and a 28-yard touchdown return against the Bears in Week 3 to earn NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. He sprained his ankle the following week against St. Louis, however, and missed the team’s next three games, including a 48-27 loss to New England on Oct. 14, which dropped Dallas from the ranks of the unbeaten.
#42 Anthony Henry
Height: 6-1 Weight: 205
College: University of South Florida
NFL Experience: 7 years
Still, the Cowboys—Henry included—have high aspirations as one of the NFC’s best.
“I’d love to go to the Super Bowl and to the Pro Bowl, as well,” said Henry, now 31. “The main thing I look at every year is that I want to play very well, consistently, to give us the opportunity to do that.”
Despite Henry’s great success and riches in the NFL, he remains surprisingly humble. He still keeps in touch with Hampton, who said Henry is “kind of like my son.” In fact, the two still chat on the phone a couple times a week. During the off-season, Henry will sometimes stay at Hampton’s house, and each June, he sends Hampton a Father’s Day card even though his relationship with his real father has dramatically improved over the years.
“He’s not looking for limelight,” Hampton said. “This is the most P.R. stuff he’s ever gotten. That’s just him. He’s not looking for things.”
It’s this kind of attitude and appeal that has made Henry a huge hit for FCA. The last two years, he has helped raise $23,000 for FCA Camp scholarships as the keynote speaker for the Southwest Florida chapter’s annual banquet in Fort Myers. Most of those funds have gone toward sending students to the Black Mountain camp (N.C.), which Henry attended in high school.
At both of the banquets he told his own story of redemption, appealing to adults to give back and imploring teenagers to stay on the straight and narrow. Afterward, he didn’t do the normal pro-athlete thing and bolt as soon as his speech was over, but rather spent quality time with the students. He paid his own airfare and, after the last banquet, even helped Gretchen Shelton, the FCA area representative in charge of the banquet, lug heavy equipment to her car.
“Just to see him interact with students, it blew me away,” Shelton said. “There’s nothing pretentious about him at all. He wants to love and to give.”
‘Keeping God first’
Will the Cowboys reach the Super Bowl? Will Henry finally get selected to the Pro Bowl? What’s the next charitable cause he will get involved with?
Amazing, isn’t it, the questions facing Henry now compared to those in his childhood? Twenty years ago, his main concerns were: Which of my buddies will get cuffed today? Will I see Mom tonight? Will I be alive tomorrow?
The stark contrast is not lost on him. He fully understands the blessed trajectory of his life. That’s where the humility comes from.
“The most important thing is keeping God first and understanding it’s not about me. It’s more than me in a team,” Henry said. “It’s understanding that everything can be taken away in the drop of a dime. You can’t control everything. Things can humble you. God is the head of my life rather than football.”
For Henry, it’s a realization that he is not God’s gift to the NFL, but that the NFL is God’s gift to him.
*For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Photos courtesy of James D. Smith/Dallas Cowboys