CUTLER BAY, Fla. — C.J. Henderson was decided, in the moment at least. After an affirming official visit to Florida in late January, he was ready to be a Gator.
But it wouldn’t be that easy.
With more than a week until National Signing Day still, the decision weighed on him. He was choosing where he would spend the next several years of his life, where he would continue developing his football skills in the hopes of reaching the NFL. His future hinged on this choice. Everything hinged on this choice.
A few days later, Henderson had changed his mind. He would stay close to home and go to Miami. Or so he thought. By the end of the week, he was settled — he would be a Gator after all.
Finally, on National Signing Day, he made it official as the Florida coaches surely felt a sigh of relief, adding the 15th-ranked cornerback in the country to their recruiting haul. They weren’t the only ones, though.
“It took us on a roller coaster, too,” says Chris Henderson Sr., C.J.’s father. “Because every visit we went on was very nice. Every time he came back he really liked it where he was, and then he’d think about it for three or four days and break it down. One day, he was like, ‘Yeah, I think it’s going to be UM,’ and me and [his mom], we’re kind of planning out how it’s going to be. And then the next day or two, ‘Nah, I think it’s going to be Florida.’ And we’re thinking, ‘OK, now it’s this.’ So he had us going back and forth with him for the last few days, but I’m glad it went like that because I think it helped him decide where he wanted to go.”
Says Prudence Henderson, C.J.’s mother: “Going from Florida to UM, two days later going back to Florida, it was a lot.”
“Yeah, it was a lot,” his father agrees.
Florida formally announcing Henderson as part of its 2017 class was one of the biggest surprises on National Signing Day for those tracking Gators recruiting efforts.
Not to mention, one of the most significant additions for the program.
Florida had prioritized defensive backs in this class, looking to restock the secondary with the losses of star cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson, safety Marcus Maye, and with more departures to follow after next season. The Gators would land six defensive backs in the end, with Henderson the highest rated of the group.
And worth the wait.
‘Top 5 percent in the country’
Henderson realized he had a promising future as a college cornerback when his first scholarship offer came in before his junior year.
Nevermind that he was mostly a running back at the time.
“When I got my first offer at corner, that’s when I knew I was going to college to be a corner,” he says.
Coincidentally, it was new Florida defensive backs coach Corey Bell, then at Florida Atlantic, who extended that first offer. As other coaches evaluated the now 6-foot-1, speedy prospect, many came to the same conclusion that his future was in the secondary.
Chris Merritt, Henderson’s football coach at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, could understand why.
“A lot of places projected him higher at corner, but he had plenty of offers at any position he wanted to go,” Merritt says. “… I think his athletic ability puts him in the top 5 percent of any kid in the country, to be honest with you. His experience [at corner] isn’t as profound as some of the other kids who are regarded the same across the country because he hasn’t played a ton of it.”
But his potential is obvious.
Merritt asks to be forgiven for the comparison he is about to make, but he thinks back to how Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders would bait quarterbacks into thinking a wide receiver was open only to pounce on the throw as soon as it was released, using his elite speed to close in and make an interception.
“He did that a few times,” Merritt says of Henderson. “I know against [Miami] Southridge, on a crossing pattern down by the goal line the quarterback thought [the receiver] was open, C.J. just put it in gear and made the wide receiver look like he was standing still and cut him off and picked off the ball. He has deceptive speed. Because he’s so long, you don’t realize he’s going that fast.”
Henderson actually played cornerback throughout the youth leagues growing up, so it’s not that he is totally raw at the position. But his high school coaches liked his versatility and, as much as anything, wanted to get the most out of his talent, which meant working him some at safety and giving him the ball at running back to capitalize on that speed.
Auburn and West Virginia showed interest in Henderson as a running back, and he drew interest from other schools as a wide receiver. Merritt says he always knew cornerback was Henderson’s future.
And he says he wasn’t left with much choice himself after Henderson rolled his ankle at The Opening recruiting showcase heading into his senior year. Merritt took him out of the backfield to protect him early in the season and let him focus on cornerback.
“He’s blessed with both length and speed. I’ve been doing this for some time, going on my 17th season. I’ve had kids drafted at his position,” Merritt said, mentioning former Auburn standout Pat Lee and and former Miami defensive back Deon Bush. “And athletically at this point in his life I think he’s right there if not even an edge above with his top speed and his ability to get to that top speed quickly. … He was going to play that position in college regardless.”
He just had to decide which college.
Get to know Gators incoming cornerback C.J. Henderson. Send in questions!
Posted by Florida Gators Insiders on Sunday, March 12, 2017
Driven and determined
Sitting around their living room, Henderson and his parents discuss his path to this point and the ultimate decision to make Gainesville the next stop on the journey.
Chris Henderson praises his son’s determination and drive to stay focused on his goals and avoid the pratfalls to which he’s seen other kids in the area succumb. He mentions a random shooting at a house party attended by some kids C.J. knows, the kind of setting C.J. had managed to avoid.
“I give him a lot of praise for sticking with it. … A lot of those same friends that were playing with him for all those years, a few of them are in jail now for certain things, for different stuff, making that wrong decision at the wrong time. I give him a lot of praise,” he says.
C.J. adds that he’s been motivated by “seeing the people that I used to hang out with, seeing them just growing up to not be what they could have been.”
That’s a common theme for the top prospects from Miami. Several of Florida’s other recruits from the area discussed avoiding those same distractions, losing friends and loved ones along the way while seeing others veer in the wrong direction.
The Hendersons have a nice-looking home in a melting-pot neighborhood, though C.J.’s parents say they’ve endured a couple break-ins and that some of the rougher areas are closer than it may seem.
“Miami can be like that. It can look decent on the outside during the daytime, but at night it’s a lot of stuff going on,” Chris Henderson says.
But, again, C.J. hasn’t let that interrupt his path. His goals never have changed, going all the way back to writing in his kindergarten journal about how he wanted to play in the NFL, as his father recalls.
As he now moves one giant step closer to that dream, Henderson says he sees himself in the mold of Arizona Cardinals Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson, who attended high school in nearby Pompano Beach, Fla.
First, he likes that Peterson is a role model in his community and wants to emulate that. And on the field, he likes that the former LSU star isn’t a big trash talker. Henderson says he would describe himself as a “silent assassin” in the secondary.
He may be soft-spoken, but there is a quiet confidence about him.
The fact that Florida was bringing in a stacked class of defensive backs isn’t intimidating to him. He appreciates the school’s reputation for developing defensive backs, and he knows that competition within the roster is a part of that process.
“I feel like it will keep all of us on our toes to compete against each other because a lot of the great DBs that went [there] they all competed and went on to be first-round DBs,” Henderson says. ” … We’ve all got a lot to prove, big shoes [to fill].”
On that note, Henderson says now that Florida was his “dream offer,” and his father adds that’s where C.J. “truly wanted to go” from the beginning.
It just proved tougher than expected to make that final decision.
It’s nearly 45 minutes into the discussion in the living room and Prudence Henderson says the conversation has only “brushed around” how wild that final week and a half was before National Signing Day.
“We left Florida, when? Saturday?” she says.
“For the official [visit], and he basically said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be a Gator,’ ” Chris Henderson adds, continuing the story.
“Celebration, the whole thing. Everybody hugging in the office,” Prudence says. “Monday, Tuesday, he’s at the USA Games in Orlando, and I get a call and he’s flipped. I’m like, ‘What?’ ”
“He was thinking, ‘Yeah, I think it’s better to be home,’ this and that and this and that. So he was with UM for maybe like two days, and then it flipped back,” his father says.
“No, it wasn’t that easy,” his mom follows. “We planned with UM for Sunday to get together and do something, just finalize everything, and before he even got back it was [back to Florida].”
This was all in the week before National Signing Day. That whole final stretch had been eventful, for that matter, with Alabama coach Nick Saban visiting the house, Florida coach Jim McElwain, defensive coordinator Randy Shannon and former defensive backs coach Torrian Gray paying a final visit, Miami coach Mark Richt coming by as well and Baylor trying to jump into the fray with a late offer.
“It got a little crazy in the end,” Chris Henderson says.
For C.J., the allure of Miami was the bond he had with the coaching staff, particularly cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph, and the appeal of playing with some of his high school teammates close to home.
But then he also considered how he would feel about each school if the coaching staffs changed, if the personal connection was taken out of the equation.
“I just had to focus where I could see myself staying at for the next four years,” he says.
He loved Florida’s campus and the experience he had watching a Florida-Florida State game in The Swamp, how loud it got after every big play.
“When I got chills in the stadium, that’s when I knew,” he says.
Meanwhile, Prudence Henderson could tell the Miami appeal was more for convenience, for family and friends. “But it wasn’t a heart decision,” she says.
In the end, the very end, Henderson would trust his heart.
“I decided probably two days before Signing Day where I really wanted to go. First, I was Miami, then after a while I ended up [leaning toward] Florida, then Miami again, then I felt like Florida [was the right decision],” he says, summing up the process.
And now that it’s over, he’s just ready to get on campus and play football. To make his mark and be one of the reasons the cheers reverberate through The Swamp these next few years.
“I feel like I’m ready,” he says.