When E. J. Henderson and Ben Leber aren’t smashing wide receivers in the flat, they’re smashing plates of Famous Dave’s barbecue ribs. Or at least they were on a recent Friday afternoon at the Viking’s Winter Park facility. After every end-of-the-week practice, a decadent buffet greets the players in the locker room. This time, it was corn bread and pork. (“The food stays the same if we win,” said one particularly hungry lineman. “So hopefully we’ll be eating a lot of ribs this fall.”)
The meal was a nice reminder that our Purple People Eaters are people themselves. We pulled E.J. — back this year after a gruesome, late-2009 injury that left his femur broken — and Ben aside to chat a bit about their lives outside the pads.
E. J. Henderson:
DTJ: I gotta ask, how’s the leg doing?
I feel good. Back to 90, 95 percent. I think the rest will just come with reps, game experience. But I feel good.
At least it got you a great nickname, the Bionic Man.
No, it’s good. It’s right up there with the famed Williams Wall. Speaking of, with those guys and with Jared Allen, you guys have some pretty colorful characters on the defensive squad. Are you all having as much fun as we think you’re having?
We try to. We definitely got some characters. Like Coach Joe [Woods, defensive backs coach] says, we got some characters with character. And J. A. is definitely one of the biggest. But it’s fun. It’s definitely fun coming into work everyday and working with those guys. I think they’ll make the season go by fast and fun.
So has Jared taken you out hunting yet?
Nah, I haven’t been out hunting yet. But I’ve been hearing some good bear stories.
You were the Vikings’ Community Man of the Year last year. [After volunteering early in his career with several Downtown groups, including the Boys and Girls Club of the Twin Cities and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Henderson in 2007 donated $100,000 of his own money to found the E.J. Henderson Youth Foundation. The Foundation provides mentoring for at-risk youth.] Any moments from last year’s community service that particularly stand out?
We had the boys come over here [to Winter Park] for a camp. I think it was nice, cause a lot of those kids don’t get chances to come to a facility like this and see this kind of environment. Especially after the season that we had. For those kids to come in and experience that, I think it was really moving for them.
How did they react?
Shocked. Surprised. We took them up in the lunch room, gave them some food. They really enjoyed that experience, and we were really happy to provide that for them.
Do you ever come Downtown for the social scene? Any places you like to frequent?
Oh yeah. The Dakota Jazz Club, that’s where you’ll spot me and my wife. They always have a pretty good meal, too. Definitely catch the shows there. I’m a big jazz fan. I’d give the Dakota a shout-out as one of the best places Downtown.
You came out here from Maryland, where you had played in college. What’s been the biggest shock moving to Minneapolis?
Biggest shock? Of course it’s the winters. For everybody. Even coming from the East Coast — we got a rough winter, but it’s not like these winters. You really gotta buckle down for three to five months and wait for the Spring to come. That’s been the biggest thing.
Have you made it out to any Twins games?
Yeah, I did. I made to a Yankees game this year. It was my first time out at the new stadium. It was a great experience. Hopefully I can make a game when they make the playoffs.
Is it a little weird that those players might have to dress a little warmer than you guys for their October games?
There’ll be a lot of excitement.
How’s it been having your little brother [fellow linebacker Erin Henderson, signed as an undrafted free agent in 2008] on the team with you?
It’s cool, man. Fun. It definitely makes coming to work fun everyday. Nice coming to work to come and see your little brother.
With the famed Williams Wall and with Jared Allen, you guys have some pretty colorful group of guys on the defensive squad. Are you all having as much fun as we think you’re having?
I think it’s even more fun than what people realize. You see what we do on the field and you hear some stories, but to be in this locker room everyday? Just hearing all the BS that happens. We were just laughing today, when you walk into this locker room, you gotta have thick skin, because we will pick on everybody. But that makes it all the more fun.
Has Jared taken you out hunting yet?
I haven’t. I don’t know if I have enough chest hair to go out with him. You know, he’s out there with Bowie knives getting up close and personal. I tend to keep my distance. You know, with guns.
Do you try to squeeze in a few hunting trips?
I still enjoy a good hunt. I grew up pheasant hunting as much as I could in South Dakota. Then I picked up turkey hunting from my father-in-law in the last couple of years. I’ve bagged a couple of turkeys.
Do you ever come hang out Downtown?
I’ve checked out some shows at First Ave. Who was it? The Fray. I remember the stage set. Yeah, I do enjoy catching the live performances. And I like to eat out. My wife and I hit up Uptown and Downtown quite a bit.
Have you checked out any Twins games?
I have. I love the stadium. I think it’s fantastic. Of course it helps that they have one of the best home records in all of baseball, so you’re pretty much guaranteed when you go, you’re going to see them win. They’ve done an awesome job with that place.
You were out in San Diego for a few years playing with the Chargers. A little hard to leave all that sunshine behind?
Yeah, the grey skies. after about my third year, I think I took it for granted that it would be sunny 300 days out of the year. The hardest adjustment was just coming back here in the wintertime and how dreary it can be. The fact that we come in this building here with no windows in the basement, and you will not see the sun for several days of the week, coming in and going home