UW football: Injuries slowed but didn't halt Henry's plan for success

2010-12-15T05:00:00Z 2010-12-17T14:28:19Z UW football: Injuries slowed but didn't halt Henry's plan for successTOM MULHERN | tmulhern@madison.com | 608-252-6169 madison.com

No one would have batted an eye at the start of the football season if it'd been suggested a University of Wisconsin safety would earn All-Big Ten Conference recognition.

But no one would've picked junior free safety Aaron Henry as the one.

Fifth-year senior Jay Valai is a three-year starter at strong safety and was named to the all-conference second team each of the previous two seasons.

Henry was a new starter at a new position, having switched from cornerback — and still trying to find his way after suffering a torn anterior cruciate knee ligament in 2007.

"Everybody's eyes were on Jay Valai and his ability," Henry said. "For me coming in (this season), I really didn't have anything to lose."

While Valai was limited at times by injuries, Henry was put on the All-Big Ten ballot by his coaches and earned a place on the coaches' second team.

"The way he played all year, I was hoping he was going to get first team," UW coach Bret Bielema said. "I still think on that vote a little bit of preseason (reputation) happens."

Henry was one of the biggest question marks on defense going into the season, but he emerged as one of its top playmakers.

He scored three defensive touchdowns — on a fumble return against UNLV and interception returns against Indiana and Northwestern.

"I always tell my coaches, I wish I would have moved him (to safety) as a freshman, like I wanted to," Bielema said. "I listened to the (former) DB coach (Kerry Cooks)."

Henry is fifth on the defense with 53 total tackles and first with three fumble recoveries. He has broken up six passes, to go with the two interceptions.

"From the first time I came here, I always knew I could make plays," Henry said.

Some players might have lost faith after all he endured, but Henry is deeply religious and has an unwavering belief.

"He's so strong mentally," Bielema said. "I really do believe in good karma. Aaron Henry is one of the greatest kids in our program. Good things happen to good people."

Henry underwent three surgeries on his right knee, which was injured during bowl practices after a promising true freshman season. He tried to come back in 2008 but needed more surgery and was redshirted.

He had high hopes going into 2009 but did not have confidence in the knee. He started the first two games at cornerback, lost his spot, then fell out of the rotation and switched positions.

Despite what he has overcome, Henry doesn't view the All-Big Ten recognition as vindication. That's not his style. After getting it, he called two of the most important people in his life — his grandmother and a youth minister in his hometown of Immokalee, Fla. — but waited a week to do it.

The two coaches who gave him the news — graduate assistant Ben Strickland and quality control coach Kevin Kane — were more excited than he was, Henry said.

"It wasn't that big of a deal to me," Henry said. "I was excited when it happened, but I didn't carry on for two weeks. It was back to the film room, getting ready for TCU."

Henry's muted reaction says more about the player he wants to be, than the one he has become.

"I just look at it as a step in the right direction," he said. "I definitely think if I can take a couple more steps in that direction, I can elevate my level of play (even higher)."

Coming into the season, he was determined to play with the abandon he played with in the past..

"My motto at the beginning of the season was just fly around," he said.

Henry believes things happen for a reason. It's what helped him stay positive.

"A lot of people think the knee injury set me back," he said. "It was always a learning experience for me. Every day was a new challenge. Every day was something different I had to overcome."

Prior to the 2008 Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., only eight days removed from the initial surgery, Henry vowed to come back better than ever.

"I believe, honestly, God has a bigger plan for me," he said at the time. "I don't see it right now because I'm injured, of course, but I believe He has a bigger plan for me."

It has taken longer than expected, but Henry has made good on his word.

"Had it not been for the injury, I probably would never have been a safety," he said. "There's no telling where I'd be.

"Fortunately for me, I was put in a position where I could go out there and succeed. I had some success back there this season. I have to give my coaches thanks for that."

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