During a training camp session on a sauna-like day, running back Travis Henry spots a photographer shooting pictures of him from about 40 feet away. He smiles, points, then flashes the thumbs-up sign. The 25-year-old is cheerful and relaxed, exhibiting little concern that former University of Miami superstar Willis McGahee is starting for him while he sits out and heals bruised ribs.
He says the pain is not nearly as bad as the torn rib cartilage or the hairline leg fracture he played with last year. Still, he admits that just as a precaution, he likely won't practice or play until the Bills prepare for their Week 1 September 12 home opener against Jacksonville.
The time off doesn't seem to concern him, even with McGahee around. From the sideline he chats with Drew Bledsoe, jokes with a ball boy, tosses a football in the air, obviously completely comfortable with his standing on the team. He emits the confidence found in a running back who's played in the Pro Bowl, averaged nine rushing touchdowns a year, and competed the last two seasons with the top NFL backs for the rushing title.
As he kneels on one leg, he reminds me of Bono during U2's 1983 "Sunday Bloody Sunday" performance at Red Rocks. It would be impossible to mistake the two for each other, though they're both about 5 feet 8 inches. Bono seems more intense and dramatic. Henry looks like he's ready to go fishing, with a red bucket hat (the kind weekend fishermen wear) and a pair of hip shades (the kind Bono might like). I can't see Henry belting out "Sunday Bloody Sunday," but he might try the Black Eyed Peas' "Where is the Love?"
So where is the love for Henry? He has rushed for nearly 2,800 yards and 23 touchdowns the last two years, yet people seem to minimize his accomplishments as if he's a second-rate journeyman who bounced to his fifth NFL team. Perhaps they're just interpreting the actions of management, which has tried its hardest to secure talent to compete with or replace Henry.
General Manager Tom Donahoe's philosophy is that in the NFL, there's no place for players who don't want to compete every day. I understand that, but let me put it differently: If a team has a 24-year-old Jim Kelly, who just had an all-star season, would it draft another blue-chip quarterback in the first round?
In 2002, Donahoe signed ex-Steelers/Panthers running back Richard Huntley, and last year, he drafted McGahee 23rd overall. They were peculiar transactions because Henry has always led the team in rushing, and posted exceptional stats, since he arrived in Buffalo three years ago.
In fairness, Henry's future was shaky after his rookie year in 2001, and I could see why Donahoe would acquire Huntley, who didn't make the team. During his first season, Henry, then 22, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for consensual sexual contact with a minor who allegedly told him she was 18. It's something Henry has told me he remorsefully regrets. Unfortunately, that kind of episode can be a public relations death sentence for an athlete.
Huntley's presence was a warning for Henry to shape up, and he responded with his best year as a pro in 2002, even chasing some of O.J. Simpson's franchise scoring and rushing marks.
But then the Bills picked McGahee, whom they didn't need at all. Henry just rushed for the fifth-most yards in a Bills season, scored the second-most rushing touchdowns in a Bills season, and made the Pro Bowl. He proved himself repeatedly behind an offensive line that has been a concern nearly every year since Jim Kelly retired in 1997. In retrospect, that pick would have been better used on anything else --- anything. McGahee, 22, was an extravagance the 8-8 Bills simply couldn't afford.
Additionally, Buffalo didn't even know what it was getting from the extravagance. McGahee was recovering from a gruesome three-ligament knee tear just a few months before, and he still might not ever be the same. In fact, not long ago, the injury was considered so severe doctors might have amputated.
Donahoe certainly made a wacky and bold move, and though I really respect people with the guts to be original, it was a move I disagree with.
Then again, it's fun to do reckless things once in a while. I remember playing Asteroids on my Atari as a kid and I would move my spaceship through the asteroid belt at warp speed, just shooting randomly and hoping for success. I'd get killed in a few seconds, but man, that was a lot more fun than staying in the middle of the screen. I'd get bored.
So I could see why Donahoe would draft McGahee. When you're in the asteroid belt and you're stuck in the same place all the time, it can make you nuts.
One of Henry's interests is weightlifting, a hobby not exactly for the unmotivated. As a Frostproof High School senior, Henry won a Florida weightlifting title with a state-record 670-pound weight total, benching 350 pounds and lifting 320 pounds in the clean and jerk.
On the field, Henry plays with injuries that could threaten his long-term career. He buys into that team-first, sacrifice-for-the-greater-good mentality that NFL coaches and general managers preach.
Yet, those efforts don't seem to benefit him much in the PR arena. Henry might not be as charismatic as Michael Jordan, but he's a fantastic, big-hearted, dedicated, and fearless player.
It's time to show him some love.