At 6 feet 5 inches and nearly 300 pounds, Don Henson looks more like a professional football player than an artist comfortable sculpting clay into works of art.
With good reason.
Henson, 45, used to be something of a star on the football field and appeared headed for a career in the NFL after attending Sam Houston University in Huntsville, Texas, on a football scholarship.
The subject he studied — graphic design — ended up leading to a different career path after he was sidelined by a knee injury. And that’s how Henson comes to find himself on the University of Louisiana at Lafayette campus these days, where he’s an assistant professor in the visual arts department and area coordinator of sculpture.
He still has the physique of the football player he once was, though.
“When I meet someone they always ask me, ‘Who do you play for,’ or, ‘Who did you play for?’ ” Henson said. “I’m still pretty big, so I say, ‘Yeah, I played — years ago, but that time has passed.’?”
Because of his size, Henson said, people usually suspect he transitioned from football to the military, law enforcement or perhaps the oilfield. And when they ask what he does, they never expect his response.
“I say, ‘No, I’m an art professor,’ ” Henson said. “And you can see their head cock to the side and they’re like, ‘Huh?’ It’s something that a lot of people find very interesting, but for me, it’s just my life.”
Although passionate about art and teaching, Henson admits wishing that his football experience could have lasted a little longer.
He’d been one of the top offensive tackles in Division I-AA at Sam Houston State, where he would up after graduation from high school in Houston but suffered a knee injury early in his junior year season.
After deciding against playing his senior year, Henson joined the practice squad of the Washington Redskins. Before the injury, Henson said he was drawing second- to fifth-round NFL draft grades. Yet, he never fully recovered.
Henson played on the practice squad for 18 months, alongside players like UL-Lafayette’s Brian Mitchell, Marc Logan, Gus Frerotte and even Terry Cruz, with whom Henson said he shared a mutual interest in art.
His hopes for an NFL career dashed by the nagging injury, Henson said he bounced around jobs for the next four or so years until he decided to re-enroll at Sam Houston State to continue studying art. It’s something he said he should have been doing all along.
“Fate had its hand in there. Fate wanted me to be an artist. It’s kind of like my destiny,” Henson said.
Growing up, Henson said, he knew he had creative talent that most children didn’t, something he realized was a gift when drawing flowers in his third-grade art class.
“I guess I did such a good job at a young age that (the teacher) was going up and down the hall showing all the other teachers my drawing,” Henson said.
Whether ripping drywall off his garage walls to use as chalk for the street in the cul-du-sac next to his house, or doodling in a notebook in class while his teacher was talking, Henson always had an artistic instrument on hand to indulge his creative impulses.
His childhood hobby wound up turning into a career. Initially enrolled in graphic design classes, he noticed how much the program had changed and found something that better suited him: sculpture.
“I went into the computer lab in my first semester back taking graphic design courses, and I didn’t even know how to turn on the computer because they changed so much,” he recalled. “So I went to take a sculpture class and I fell in love, and that was it.”
Henson earned his bachelor’s of fine arts from Sam Houston and his master’s from Kent State in Ohio. He also completed postdoctoral fellowship research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Henson featured his sculptures at nearly a dozen art galleries, primarily around Ohio, before landing a job in the highly competitive field at UL-Lafayette.
“Any given year, there’s maybe 25-30 sculpture positions open, and you have thousands of MFA candidates coming out of all of the universities across the United States vying for these jobs,” Henson said. “I would equate it to the competitiveness that you would find in sports when trying to go (professional) in a particular sport.”
Now that he had savored both the art and sporting worlds, Henson said he was ready to spread his knowledge to students and attempt to mold them into artists, like he does a piece of clay.
“Teaching is something I feel like I was meant to do,” Henson said. “It’s something I consider to be very special, to interact with students at a university level. You get to take this person who is kind of starting to form their identity as an artist and help them to further that journey.”
Henson said as much as he enjoyed them, he’s put his football days behind him.
“I became a football player,” Henson said, “but I was born an artist.”