MANKATO, Minn. – When E.J. Henderson's left femur essentially snapped in half in a game against Arizona in December, the gruesome nature of the injury shook the Minnesota Vikings and reduced some of the toughest guys around to tears after the game.
The vision of their defensive captain's leg flopping grotesquely to the turf was devastating, and some wondered if he ever would play again.
Less than eight months later, Henderson is back on the field and his stunning recovery is having an equally strong effect on the team in the first few days of training camp.
"I know it was a bad injury and I know some of those injuries can be career-ending," defensive end Jared Allen said. "So to see him back running, to see him back with a helmet in his hand, to me is awesome. It's inspiring."
The quiet Henderson is not a Ray Lewis, fire-and-brimstone type of leader. He smolders in the huddle, quietly and calmly making the calls with a style that is perfect for this veteran unit. There is no more respected player in the locker room than the middle linebacker, who is battling back from his second serious injury in the past two years.
Henderson missed the last 12 games of 2008 after a freak foot injury and was finally appearing to return to his dominant form in 2009 right around the time he collided with safety Jamarca Sanford while running down Cardinals running back Tim Hightower.
He was in incredible pain on the field and was carted off while younger brother and teammate Erin held his hands.
"It's been a long seven months. But then again it's only seven months," Henderson said. "I've played football a long time. I've been here a long time. I just look at it as a little journey I took. Seven months and I'm back at it."
So how did he do it? How did Henderson go from his career being in jeopardy to expecting to be in the starting lineup on Sept. 9 against the New Orleans Saints in such a short period of time?
Doctors placed a titanium rod in Henderson's leg during the surgery, and now Henderson said he does not feel any pain while running or cutting.
If Brett Favre is the Vikings' Iron Man, let's call Henderson their Titanium Man.
"From the first day he told me, 'I'm going to change the protocol with the way this injury is rehabilitated,'" coach Brad Childress said. "He has had his jaw locked right from the beginning. Obviously it is a painful injury. He has been religious about his rehab, almost to the point where you have to hold him back."
Henderson has been on the field with the first team for significant stretches over the first two days of camp. But he is not yet participating in some of the heavier contact drills as the Vikings ease him back into the fold.
In many ways, Henderson said this process was easier than returning from a back injury he suffered in college at Maryland.
"I would definitely put it in the same classification," he said. "But when a femur breaks, it was a clean break. I've got a titanium rod in there so it's not like anything is going to happen to it. In that aspect it was a little easier."
Rookie Jasper Brinkley filled in admirably in Henderson's absence last season, with veterans Ben Leber and Chad Greenway taking on more of the heavy lifting to help the Vikings reach the NFC title game.
Henderson, of course, watched that gut-wrenching loss at New Orleans from the sideline, feeling helpless as Drew Brees drove the Saints into position for the winning field goal in overtime.
"He's been on the verge of what I would say would be a Pro Bowl season, and then devastating injuries have happened," Allen said. "I just want to see him get back, have a full year under his belt. That is one player that I can say without a doubt will help us win a championship."
The Vikings begin the 2010 season right where the 2009 season ended, and Henderson is determined to be on the field this time.
"It's healed. It feels good," he said. "I think once I get back out there and get in the swing of things, catch up on some reps, I'll be ready to go."