More than 70,000 people will make their way to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Friday night.
Chances are, there won’t be anyone in the building with a bigger grin on their face than Eric Henderson.
Henderson, who serves as quality control defensive coach for Oklahoma State, is back in his hometown for OSU’s Allstate Sugar Bowl game against Ole Miss.
He’s thankful to be back. And even more thankful he ever got the chance to leave in the first place.
The obstacles life threw at him as a kid could have easily kept him in Algiers.
Henderson’s mother Ramona lost her battle with cancer and pneumonia when he was 9.
He’s never met his father, who was incarcerated in 1993, the same year his mom died.
“I remember talking to him on the phone once,” Henderson said.
So Henderson, the oldest of three siblings, had to grow up fast as he and brother, James, and sister, Erica Henderson, moved in with their grandmother.
“I was forced to play the role of a mom and dad for my brother and sister,” said Henderson, who turns 33 next week. “I had no choice but to be more mature than I wanted to be at that time.”
He worked at Popeyes in high school while attending Edna Karr, trying to help out anyway he could to make sure his siblings got some of the things they wanted.
But he knew working at a fast-food joint wasn’t going to cut it.
Sports was his ticket out. And football was a way to help him release some of the anger life had dealt him.
“He was an intense player, very passionate about the game and with a great work ethic” said Willie Brooks, Karr’s defensive coordinator at the time. “He played hungry.”
Because he was hungry.
Starving. Craving for something bigger, better.
It’s the reason he would make his way to Fox Park and work out on those summer days as the Louisiana sun blasted out temperatures nearing triple digits.
“I know you ain’t supposed to be out there doing that in that heat, but I had to because all I wanted to do was make it,” he said. “I wanted to get from around my surroundings and do something different. I look back and there were so many times I could have drifted off.”
But he stayed the course and went on to star as a defensive end at Karr. Colleges from all over the country made their way to the Westbank recruiting Henderson, who also excelled in the classroom.
He narrowed his choices to Georgia Tech, Clemson, and Miami.
He prayed about the decision. And he prayed his grandmother would be around long enough to see his decision.
“That was all I cared about,” Henderson said. “I knew my mom could watch me from heaven, but I wanted someone on earth, my grandmother, to see it.”
Kidney failure claimed Ulysses Henderson’s life on Jan. 5, 2001, three days before Eric Henderson’s 18th birthday and four weeks before signing day.
“There were many nights and many days I cried asking ‘Lord why am I going through this,’ ” Henderson said. “It seems I was losing everybody in my life.”
He chose Georgia Tech. It was closer to New Orleans than the other two, but just far enough away to make him feel he had made it out.
At Tech, he set the school record for tackles for losses and earned all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors three years in a row. He went on to play three seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals as an undrafted free agent and finished up his professional career playing in the United Football League.
Henderson became a grad assistant at Oklahoma State in 2013, thanks to OSU defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer, who had coached him at Georgia Tech.
“I was trying to get him on my staff as fast as possible,” Spencer said. “We will do everything we can not to ever lose him. He is a tremendous up-and-comer.”
Henderson is a big reason Oklahoma State has been able to branch out and recruit guys from outside the school’s normal recruiting base of Oklahoma and Texas. Henderson has helped the Cowboys go into Louisiana and Georgia and get players they normally wouldn’t have even tried to get.
“If you spend five minutes with him, you’re attracted to him,” Spencer said.
It’s that ability to relate to people from various backgrounds that has made Henderson successful.
Getting players comes easy for him.
Getting tickets is a different story.
He has close to 50 ticket requests from friends and family members wanting to get inside the Dome, a place that hasn’t been so kind to Henderson on the two occasions he’s been inside it as a player.
Karr lost to Amite 41-7 in the Class 3A state championship game in 1999, Henderson’s junior year.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees torched his Bengals team for 510 yards in the Dome in 2006. (The Bengals won though.)
Win or lose Friday night, Henderson still will have plenty to smile about.
After all, he’s back home, where his journey first began.
No, it wasn’t easy.
But he wouldn’t change a thing.
“As much as I would love to have my mom or grandmother or dad around, I wouldn’t change anything about my life for the world,” he said. “Everything I went though shaped me to be the person that I am. I understand my life now. I understand how the Lord works and I am thankful he chose me to go through that path.
“I could’ve easily fell victim to my circumstances like so many of my peers. But fortunately I had the fight, the strength and the wisdom to keep going.”