E.J. Henderson

University of Maryland

E.J. Henderson had a great career at the University of Maryland, becoming the first player in school history to earn consensus All-American honors in both his junior and senior seasons. But he may have saved his best performance for last as he almost single-handedly dismantled Tennessee in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve.

Henderson had three sacks and four tackles behind the line of scrimmage while breaking up four passes and forcing a fumble in Maryland’s 30-3 rout of the Volunteers. It was the Terps first bowl victory in 17 years and Henderson, a fifth-year senior, was voted the game’s Outstanding Defensive Player.

“I knew I had to pull my end of the rope,” Henderson said. “It’s a great feeling to go out the way I did.”

Henderson concludes his college career tonight by accepting the Maxwell Club’s eighth annual Chuck Bednarik Award as Defensive Player of the Year in college football. He received 209 votes to finish ahead of Terrell Suggs of Arizona State (199) and Tommie Harris of Oklahoma (157).

“This is a tremendous honor, especially when you consider the type of players I was up against for the award,” Henderson said. “It ranks right up there as one of the highlights of my career.”

Henderson’s play sparked the Terrapins, who recovered from a 1-2 start to win 10 of their last 11 games, including the Peach Bowl, and complete the school’s first 11-win season since 1976. The Maryland defense returned only five starters in 2002, but Henderson’s leadership helped boost the Terps back into the national rankings.

The 6-2, 250-pound Henderson, who received his degree in criminal justice last spring, recovered from major back surgery to play his final season. “I had a lot of doubts and a lot of fear that I wouldn’t be able to come back and be the player I was,” Henderson said. “I had a lot of doubt if I could even come back at all. It was the worst pain I ever had in my life.”

But Henderson came back as the same destructive force that won Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year honors as a junior. In 2002, Henderson had 163 tackles, 15 tackles behind the line and six and one-half sacks. He finished the regular season by matching his career high of 19 tackles in consecutive games against Virginia and Wake Forest.

“Henderson is a big, strong, disruptive inside linebacker who times his blitzes very well,” wrote Joel Buchsbaum in Pro Football Weekly, ranking Henderson as the top linebacker prospect in the 2003 NFL draft. “He is a physical player with a great motor who is relentless and will not stayed blocked. He’s an instinctive player who can read, react and get to the football.”

“He is a passionate player, a good soldier and a warrior.”