KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – From 1999-2001, John Henderson cast a long shadow on the defensive line for Tennessee. Sunday, the man and the shadow return to Neyland Stadium for the first time since his final run through the “T”.
Henderson will be honored before the Tennessee-Utah State game as the Legend of the Game, celebrating a decorated career at UT that saw the Nashville native pick up a long list of awards, including two All-American nods and multiple SEC honors.
He was the 2000 Outland Trophy winner from a season that saw him record 71 tackles and an eye-popping 12 sacks.
In his Tennessee career, Henderson racked up 165 tackles and 20.5 sacks. He was a semifinalist for the Lombardi Award as a senior, despite missing two games with injuries.
Henderson had to sit out his freshman season at UT in 1998 under the old partial qualifier rules, but used the year away from competition to grind away in practice, ready to make a contribution in 1999. He took over starting duties at defensive tackle in the fifth game of his sophomore season for an injured Billy Ratliff and never looked back. After making that initial start against Georgia in Neyland Stadium, Henderson would start every game he participated in for the remainder of his career.
The long shadow cast on opponents by Henderson led to one of the first interactive player features on the then-new video board at Neyland Stadium. After a sack or big play by Henderson, a few bars from the classic Jimmy Dean song "Big Bad John" would play with an animation of Henderson.
Henderson was a first round NFL Draft pick in 2002, going to the Jacksonville Jaguars with the ninth overall selection. He set his career high for sacks in his first season in Jacksonville with 6.5 to go with 53 tackles and a pair of fumble recoveries. In an NFL career that would span 10 seasons with the Jaguars and Oakland Raiders, Henderson recorded 489 tackles and 29 sacks. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 2004 and 2006.
Henderson retired from football following the 2011 season and will return to Neyland Stadium for the first time since he celebrated his Senior Day with a 38-0 shutout of Vanderbilt in 2001.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)