By Neil Patrick Healy
On a bleak and snowy November afternoon at Falcon Stadium, Nevada wide receiver Hasaan Henderson was seen lying motionless on the cold and desolate turf against the Air Force Falcons. As he was attended to for several minutes, there was an eerie silence throughout the stadium as the spectators waited for a sign of movement from Henderson until he was taken off the field on a stretcher.
Fast-forward five months and Henderson is participating in spring practice at the same high level athletically, but with a fresh perspective for the game he loves. For a brief period in that Colorado Springs hospital, there was doubt that he would be able to walk onto a football field ever again.
“When I got to the hospital, I kept wondering if I would ever play again,” Henderson said. “I couldn’t move my legs and I kept wondering what my future would be. There were a lot of tears, because I was scared I wouldn’t be able to play the game I love anymore.”
After a routine tackle, the hit Henderson absorbed resulted in a spontaneous state of quadriplegia. This means he temporarily experienced the effects of being paralyzed. Associate Director of Sports Medicine Ben Anguish explained how Henderson was put into this temporary state of paralysis.
“The impact to the spinal cord forced everything to shut down like he was paralyzed, but there was no true damage to the spinal cord,” Anguish said. “We found that out with MRI’s and CT scans. At the time of the injury he had Transient Quadriplegia, where it just shoots through you and then stops.”
Henderson spent that Saturday night through Monday morning in the hospital before being released. He had to prove to the doctors that he had feeling in his legs and was able to walk before he was cleared to return home. Although Henderson’s spinal cord was not damaged, to sustain this type of injury again would put his playing future in serious doubt.
“If he were to sustain this injury again, it would probably be the end of his football career,” Anguish said. “This isn’t something that you want to keep risking, because over time you could have a bad enough injury to the spinal cord that it will actually damage it and he could become quadriplegic.”
As Henderson would lay awake at night in constant pain, the thought of quitting football would cross his mind. He pushed through the pain and self-doubt through an excruciating rehab regiment. While he was away, Henderson admitted that he had garnered a newfound appreciation of the game he took for granted.
“Football has a higher level of respect from me now,” Henderson said. “My mindset before was that I was good at it and I’ll play to get through college. Now I enjoy more of the smiles and even coach Polian’s yelling. It has a lot more respect from me.”
Henderson comes into the spring as a key piece for this Nevada offense. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound receiver recorded 45 catches for 579 yards and four touchdowns in nine games of his sophomore season before sustaining injury. Henderson will have a larger role next season, as he will be the main target for whoever is named the starting quarterback. According to assistant head coach and wide receiver coach Jim Hofher, Henderson has started to take on a new leadership role among the wide receivers since he sustained his injury.
“There is zero doubt in my mind that his biggest amount of improvement has been the leadership he has taken on his shoulders,” Hofher said. “With no prompting or direction, he’s the guy who pulls the receivers in and makes the end of the day leadership comments, and he has never been that guy before.”
Whatever next season and beyond holds for him, coach Hofher believes Henderson’s injury has helped shape him off the field as much as it has on the field.
“Time will tell if [the injury] will help him as a football player, but I think it has helped him as a young man,” Hofher said. “Whatever his own particular perspective is on life has probably changed from what it had been before this injury.”
The days from that frigid, snow-filled November day to now have been a hard earned learning experience for Henderson. He has learned one of life’s greatest lessons, which is you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. For those long, agonizing hours in that hospital bed, football was slipping through this wide receiver’s fingers. Unlike most people in similar situations, Henderson got lucky and gets to catch touchdown passes on Saturdays. He’ll be looked to do that more often than not next fall.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NP_Healy.