DALLAS (BP)–Anthony Henry’s eyes are fixed on reaching Phoenix for Super Bowl XLII, but his thoughts are never far from the Florida resort town of Fort Myers. His old stomping grounds, however, never make any of the travel brochures.
“I grew up in the projects,” said Henry, a veteran cornerback with the Dallas Cowboys who was raised by a single mother, along with two siblings.
“I saw a lot of things she had to overcome as a single parent,” Henry recounted. “She had a second and a third job. She had to walk one and a half hours to downtown Fort Myers. The most important thing for her was applying her relationship with Christ to life. There’s nothing that God can’t take care of. That’s something I apply to my life as a pro athlete with all the ups and downs, the winning and losing.”
Drugs, violence and death cast a dark shadow over Henry’s childhood in Michigan Links Court, a low-income area owned by the city’s housing authority. His older brother was in and out of jail, and his mom often left $5 on the breakfast table for that evening’s fast-food dinner since her various jobs entailed long hours.
Of his immediate family, which includes eight half-siblings from his father’s side, Anthony is the only one to earn a high school diploma and not have any children.
“For me personally, even though it was tough, I look at it as a blessing,” Henry said of his childhood. “It makes me value life that much more.”
It also puts his career into focus: Football takes on a different level of importance in your life when you’ve seen people stabbed and shot.
Despite the sin-stained wreckage around him, Henry rose above and quickly made a name for himself at Estero High School in football, basketball and track.
“We never had any problems,” said former Estero football coach Joe Hampton, who frequently took Henry to church and introduced him to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). “He was probably the most popular kid in school because of his disposition. Everybody liked him.”
Florida’s three college football titans -– Florida, Florida State and Miami -– all showed interest in Henry but eventually cooled off because of his grades. Instead, he arrived at South Florida as a Prop 48 student in 1997, the same year the Bulls started their football program. By the time Henry graduated, he had impressed NFL scouts enough to be taken by the Cleveland Browns in the fourth round of the 2001 draft.
But no one could have predicted his immediate success in the NFL. As a rookie, he led the AFC and tied a Browns record with 10 interceptions, including a 97-yard touchdown return. And while he has never revisited that plateau, the 31-year-old, who signed with Dallas as a free agent in 2005, has enjoyed a sterling career, averaging four interceptions and 59 tackles a year.
He started on a tear this season, leading the league with four interceptions through the first three games before suffering a high ankle sprain against St. Louis in Week 4 that sidelined him for the next three weeks. Still, he finished the regular season with six interceptions, including a 28-yard touchdown return against Chicago in Week 3, and 13 pass deflections in 13 games.
The NFC East champion Cowboys (13-3) enter the playoffs as the favorite to represent the conference in the Super Bowl, where they hope to win the franchise’s sixth Lombardi Trophy overall and the first since winning three between the 1992 and 1995 seasons. With a first-round playoff bye, they will host Seattle, winner of last Saturday’s wild-card game against Washington.
“I definitely think we can go far,” Henry said. “Each year, we’ve gotten much better. I think we can be a big-time contender this year.”
No matter how far the Cowboys go, Henry will never forget his humble beginnings. For the past two years, he has traveled back to Fort Myers in April to serve as the keynote speaker at the Lee County FCA banquet, where he has helped raise roughly $23,000 to send local students to FCA camps. He also has been donating money to FCA’s Black Mountain Camp (N.C.) scholarship fund for four years.
Henry, who accepted Christ after a team Bible study early in his career at South Florida, enjoys helping kids get the same spiritual grounding he did in high school at Black Mountain. “It was a life-changing experience for me,” he said.
When in town, Henry displays none of the prima donna tendencies that often mark his multimillionaire NFL brethren. He covers his own airfare and stays with family to limit FCA’s costs. Gretchen Shelton, FCA’s area representative in southwest Florida, said he generously gives his time to the students rather than vanishing after his speech.
“He realized that the kids are excited to be around him, but he’s just a regular guy,” Shelton said. “He wants to show them God’s love. When I think about someone who is humble and has the things of Christ in mind, I think of Anthony. He just has a heart for serving.”
Henry has come a long way from the mean streets of Michigan Links Court. When you survive the perils he did, life is all about perspective. Playing football is good. Being alive is better. Being alive in Christ is best.
“Growing up like that made me realize a totally different relationship with God and being thankful for what you’ve got,” he said. “Being a pro athlete with money, sometimes you take it for granted. But I want to stay focused and know that God has blessed me to be where I am, but that I also need to care for other people.”
Joshua Cooley of Germantown, Md., is a regular contributor to BPSports, on the Web at www.BPSports.net.