– By Wes Lilliman
“Choice is easy, ya know? Henne.”
Current Michigan Wolverines quarterback and Heisman hopeful Denard Robinson whips a pass in the general direction of a group of his receivers at practice, almost as quickly and as accurately as he answered the question regarding the best Michigan gunslinger of all-time. Robinson didn’t even need a list of candidates – the answer was nearly automatic.
“Chad came down when I first showed up on campus. It was, like, my second practice. I was sittin’ there on the bench, man, just nervous as hell. Then, I hear this voice from behind me go, ‘… you need any Gatorade or anything, man?'”
“I looked up, and it’s him. I froze. I couldn’t even speak. He was just standing there, surveyin’ the field and observin’ the practice. Icewater, man. Just all cool and calm, like Obama or something. I finally got the nerve up to just stick out my hand…”
Henne grabbed Robinson’s hand and, with a firm shake, said, “Chad Henne… nice to meet you. I’ve been there, kid… god damn, have I been there.”
After a spectacular junior year at Wilson Senior High School in West Lawn, Pennsylvania, Chad Henne had more than 40 scholarship offers from all of the big names. It was assumed, naturally, that there was a good chance that Henne might follow the lead of ex-Wilson High star, Kerry “Gun-KMC” Collins, and accept the offer tendered by the mighty Penn State University. Collins even encouraged the move, calling Henne on several occasions to rave about his time at PSU and the off-field benefits.
“He got in touch with me all the time. Sometimes, it was, like, 3:00 AM. I don’t even know how he got my number,” Henne recalls. “It was always the same. He’d go, ‘Chad, motherf*cker, I’m drinkin’ this vodka that I didn’t pay a dime for, man. And the women, Chad… they don’t call it Beaver Stadium ’cause there’s a bunch of god-damned dams around, you know what I mean?!’ He probably said that line to me over 80 times.”
(Note: Beaver Stadium is named for James A. Beaver, a former governor of Pennsylvania and president of the university’s board of trustees)
Eventually, Henne narrowed his scope down to four schools: Miami, Tennessee, Penn State, and Michigan. Jimmy Johnson and Michael Irvin both flew to Henne’s home and pitched the idea of playing as a Hurricane. The Mannings did the same, noting that they’d be willing to kick a sibling out of the family and make Chad an “honorary Manning.” Collins, of course, called with tales of “copious amounts of beaver and booze,” and would often send Henne notes from his personal journal, in which he attempted to convey his experiences and excessive partying (see below):
However, it was Michigan head coach, Lloyd Carr, who made the ultimate pitch.
“Michigan’s not in your hometown, boy,” Carr said. “We’re not gonna baby you. In fact, I got Matt (Gutierrez) and Clayton (Richard) ready to throw it and ready to take someone like you straight out of the picture before you even get into it. So, what do you got to say?”
Henne liked the challenge.
“Mr. Carr,” Henne said. “I’m coming to your school. Tell the music department to get rid of all the turntables…”
A puzzled Carr tilted his head and said, “Why?”
“… they won’t be able to use ’em – all the records will be broken.”
True to his word, Carr initially placed Chad Henne third on the QB depth chart. However, Gutierrez, the projected starter, tore his rotator cuff in a throwing contest with Henne just days before the season opener, and Richard, the backup, went missing. As a result, Henne became only the second true freshman to start an opening game at QB for Michigan (the other being the universally-acclaimed Rick Leach). The Wolverines defeated Miami (OH), 43-10, behind 142 yards and 2 touchdowns from Henne… who considered the performance to be disappointing, according to Carr.
“He said, ‘I can do better for all of us.’ I was just amazed that he played through a 104-degree temperature and a urinary tract infection with nobody being the wiser.”
Indeed, that game was the start of a historic career at Michigan. Henne took the nation by storm that year, leading the Wolverines to the Rose Bowl, where they would eventually lose to Texas (despite a historical 4 TD passes from Henne). Texas kicker, Dusty Magnum, booted a 37-yard field goal at the end of regulation to win the game. For his part, Henne had attempted to get onto the field as a part of the special teams unit, as he was known for the kick-blocking prowess that he established during Wolverine practices. Carr, however, didn’t allow it. After the game, star wide-receiver, Braylon Edwards, launched into a 7-minute long tirade.
“It was bullsh*t,” said Edwards. “Chad’s out there, makin’ motherf*ckers like me, Jason (Avant), Steve (Breaston)… and he’d have blocked that kick. He’d have blocked it. I know it.”
Edwards stormed out of the room and went straight to the NFL.
Unfazed, Henne continued his now legendary career with the Wolverines. When it was all said and done, he had tallied 828 completions, 9,715 yards, and 87 touchdowns – all of which remain school records. Of the numerous moments Henne provided throughout his tenure, many point to the 2008 Capital One Bowl as his finest. Henne was named MVP of the game, as he outclassed Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators to lead Michigan to a 41-35 victory.
Ask Henne, and he gives a different answer.
On October 25th, 2005, the Wolverines welcomed Penn State to Ann Arbor. The Nittany Lions were ranked at #8 in the nation, while Michigan was not in the top 25. Nevertheless, the game had it’s typical, passionate feel… which was complimented by the presence of Kerry Collins.
Collins was still dealing with the demons that had haunted him throughout the 90s and, despite putting up a good front as a member of the Oakland Raiders, he was hurting. As an act of kindness, Henne invited him to the game as an ode to Wilson High School, and also so that Collins could watch his talented alma mater in person. Throughout the game, Collins drunkenly heckled Henne from the Penn State sideline, calling him a “traitor” and a “disgrace to West Lawn” (the latter taunt being the most painfully ironic of them all). Henne, to his credit, laughed it off and dismissed the comments as the byproduct of the dangerous amount of alcohol that flowed through the system of his guest.
With 0:01 on the clock in the 4th quarter, Michigan had the ball on the PSU 10-yard line. Down by 4, they needed a touchdown. Before stepping in to take what would be the final snap, Henne quickly glanced back at the Penn State sideline, looked directly at Collins (who would be arrested for disorderly conduct just minutes later), and winked at him (this can be seen at 8:53 mark in the video posted at the bottom of the page)…
… he then threw a touchdown strike to Mario Manningham to win the game.
Henne’s career is highly regarded by fellow Wolverine quarterbacks, both past and present. Denard Robinson cites him as his inspiration. John Navarre and Elvis Grbac both called him “the greatest” (with Grbac adding, “… I ain’t into dudes or whatever, but, ya know, if I was, I would, ya know?”). When reached via e-mail, Tom Brady responded (in relation to Henne’s Michigan career) with one line of text:
“THE BLUEPRINT I WISH I COULD’VE WRITTEN.”
Clearly, Henne’s on-field accomplishments are both varied and grand. His personality, however, has even more layers and dimensions. He’s cool. He’s calm. And, most importantly, he has that groove…
– Check back next week for HENNE FOR YOUR THOUGHTS – CHAPTER IV: THE CRUNGE…