BOZEMAN, Montana — You don’t know what you like until you know. It’s something JoJo Henderson reminds himself often as his career with the Montana State Bobcats winds down.
The MSU senior safety needed a couple of stops on his college path before landing in Bozeman despite the fact that the Bobcats recruiting him out of Olympus High School in Salt Lake City.
As his third and final year at Montana State comes to a close, Henderson has learned to appreciate a great many things, from the top notch education he has received to the increasing opportunities on the playing field he has earned to the passionate fan base he has performed in front of since joining the team.
“When they were recruiting me out of high school, I came up on a visit but I didn’t have as much of an appreciation for how special it is up here as I do now,” Henderson reflected earlier this month. “Hindsight is 20/20. But the pageantry and fan support is second to none. That is something I am really big in to and that wasn’t something I was able to appreciate back then.”
Former MSU head coach Rob Ash and former Bobcat recruiting coordinator Bo Beck recruited Henderson pretty heavily after he earned all-region honors as a junior and a senior. As a junior, Henderson snared four interceptions and led his squad to the semifinals of the Utah state playoffs. As a senior, he rushed for 965 yards and 11 touchdowns while piling up 116 tackles, three tackles for loss and grabbing an interception to earn an invite to the Blue-Grey All-America Bowl in Tampa.
But Henderson, the son of former Iowa State and seven-year NFL veteran running back Joe Henderson, did not have much recruiting interest. He came on an unofficial visit to Bozeman in the winter of 2015 but MSU elected to sign a collection of transfers, including UAB’s Desman Carter and Iowa Western’s Bryson McCabe instead of Henderson.
Henderson had offers from Weber State and Lamar to choose from. He elected to go with the Cardinals in Beaumont, Texas because of the reputation of football in the Lone Star State and the sparkling new facilities offered by a school who’s football program lay dormant from 1989 until 2010.
“Lamar was a last-second option,” Henderson said in an interview the summer of 2017. “I visited them two weeks before signing day. Looking back at it, I was a high school kid and I was intrigued. It was a Texas school and they have no shortage of funds out there. They have really good facilities, better than most FBS programs. Of course, they told me what I wanted to hear, which was early playing time. So I chose them.”
The heat, the humidity, the Southwestern culture…none of it felt right to the kid who spent most of his life living in the mountains along the Wasatch Front. Henderson knew he was surrounded by athletes — “I’ve never been around so many guys who run 4.4 (seconds) 40s,” Henderson said with a laugh — and he appreciates the experience. But he knew almost instantly that Lamar was not for him.
After Lamar head coach Ray Woodard was fired following the 2015 season, Henderson decided to transfer. He landed at Snow College outside of Salt Lake. And all of a sudden, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound safety found himself adjusting again. Because of two standout players on the Snow roster, Henderson figured out how to get on the field at cornerback.
“They had two safeties they liked so I was forced to play corner,” Henderson said. “I went with it and I actually excelled. It wasn’t’ something I was used to, the press man stuff. They recruited me as a corner but they knew I could play safety as well. Being able to play both helped me get recruited.”
Meanwhile at Montana State, Jeff Choate inherited a roster after Ash’s dismissal thin on depth in the back end. That situation got worse following the 2016 season when starter John Walker graduated, starter Tre’Von Strong declared he would transfer, part-time starter Chris Harris quit the team and former Washington transfers Naijiel Hale and Darren Gardenhire were arrested on drug charges.
MSU added Henderson in the summer of 2017 just a few months before fall camp.
“Our back end was a disaster and we’d take anybody at that point,” Choate said. “We are thinking maybe he was a corner, maybe he was a safety. We didn’t care. We needed an athlete.”
Henderson seemed like he had the inside track on a starting spot. But Khari Garcia, a talented yet much-maligned safety, buckled down to earn captain status as a senior. McCabe also earned captain status. And true freshmen Tyrel Thomas and Jalen Cole progressed rapidly enough to earn significant playing time the second half of the season. Henderson played in five games, making 13 tackles mostly in spot duty.
“We had some guys emerge,” Choate said. “And I think it was hard for JoJo. And he wanted to be the guy. He’s a smart guy. He’s very well prepared. He’s not afraid of contact. He has made plays for us but he didn’t really get an opportunity to be an every-down guy early on.”
Heading into his junior year, Henderson again seemed to have an inside track on one of MSU’s starting safety spots. But then Jahque Allyene, a former contributor at Virginia Tech, got his academics squared away and became eligible. Brayden Konkol, a starter at Will linebacker and MSU’s leading tackler in 2017, moved back to the secondary.
Once again, Henderson found himself as the odd man out. Yet he kept a positive attitude and contributed when called upon. He appeared in all 12 games, notching 28 tackles and breaking up two passes.
“All the hard work you do through adolescence through 18 years old, you don’t work that hard to let a bump in the road stop and turn you around,” Henderson said.
“It hasn’t always been easy. It wouldn’t be easy for anybody. The fact that I have come this far, there’s so many statistics and dudes I came in with that don’t last. That hard-headed nature to finish. I’ve always known if I want to do something, I’m going to do my best. It has paid dividends in the end, here, right now.”
During the off-season, Montana State’s defensive staff underwent a wholesale change. Defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak parted ways with the program. Safeties coach Kyle Risinger now coaches cornerbacks. Choate hired Kane Ioane to replace Gregorak as the DC as well as to coach safeties.
“This is just the opportunity that was given to us with a new position coach that is the defensive coordinator,” Henderson said in August leading up to the season. “I saw it as an opportunity to have a great first impression and hopefully I did have that. That’s motivated me to work really hard all summer.”
During the final fall camp of his career, Hendersonstood out right away even with two of the more talented safeties in the Big Sky Conference entrenched in front of him.
“I actually think JoJo Henderson has had one of the best camps out of anybody on the back end,” Choate said in August. “I say that really with a lot of admiration for that guy because I think he’s worked harder this year than he’s ever worked, going into his senior year. He will have a huge role for us in some way shape or form.”
The fifth-year senior has done just that, playing a huge role for the Bobcats in 2019. He has fought his way into the starting lineup for most of the last two months as Montana State has favored a three-safety look that has gotten all three seniors on the field simultaneously.
Henderson snared an interception in MSU’s 38-17 win over No. 12 Southeast Missouri State. He has totaled five tackles or more four times, including rolling up 10 tackles and a tackle for loss in a 34-21 loss against Sacramento State. All told, he has 37 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions, including a pick last week in MSU’s 45-14 win over Northern Colorado that moved the Bobcats to 7-3 overall.
“JoJo is one of our best guys,” MSU senior cornerback Damien Washington said. “He’s one of those guys when we need an open field tackle, he’ll make it. He’s always getting extra work in and studying film and trying to do everything he can for the team. He’s a really good safety for us.
“Through his perseverance and his positive attitude and his approach, now he’s getting his opportunity to shine and he’s playing some really good football for us,” Choate added.
“He’s been an awesome kid. From the day he got here – it took him a minute to figure out what he role was and how he was going to fit in – but he bought into what we were all about. He has continued to grow as a person and as a player.”
JoJo Henderson has idolized Joe Henderson since he was a young boy. The duo have spent plenty of time working out together, “putting in the blood, sweat and tears it takes to play Division I football”, the son said.
Duirng his college career at Iowa State, Joe Henderson was one of the Big Eight’s leading rushers for three years in a row. Despite battling head injuries in the pros, Joe played for the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints during his seven-yearn NFL career.
JoJo said there was never any question if he would play football. He has loved the game since the first time he ever played. And once he reached the college level, Henderson began to fall in love with the friendships and camaraderie of being a part of the team.
Throughout the last handful of years, the son has always kept his father close to his thoughts, using their bond to remain focused.
“If I wasn’t playing for me, I was playing for him,” Henderson said. “That’s my ultimate motivator. He’s such a tough guy and I always wanted to be tough like him. I never tell him about my little nicks and bruises. He’s always been my motivation for the game.”
He has also found motivation in his teammates. When he first got to Bozeman, Henderson admits he was “introverted” and “I don’t think a lot of people knew much about me.” Now he calls his teammates his brothers, relationships “I will truly appreciate the rest of my life.”
“I’m in it for Montana State,” Henderson said. “Even when I was hurt a couple of years ago, I was trying to help where I can. Sometimes, it’s difficult going long stretches waiting to get in. You have to be ready because when you do get in, you have to be ready to perform.”
With less than two months left in 2019, Henderson is closing in on a degree with a double major in business marketing and management with minors in finance and entrepreneurship. Montana State heads to UC Davis on Saturday. Henderson and the Bobcat secondary will be tasked with slowing down Davis All-American quarterback Jake Maier and one of the most productive passing offenses in the country.
Henderson has just two guaranteed games left in his football career. He said he is still deciding if he will pursue football beyond his career at MSU but that he is leaning toward “taking the opportunities that are right in front of my face.”
He plans on moving back to his hometown and exploring opportunities in real estate while also perhaps personal training with his father. The lessons he’s learned during a trying yet rewarding football career in Bozeman is sure to carry him far.
“Putting your head down and going to work and persevering through whatever challenges are thrown at you, these are lessons that will impact everyone in the long run with their lives,” Henderson said. “I think that’s the most important and what Coach Choate emphasizes in his program. It’s not just about being good football players but good men in the present and the future. That’s what I will take from these past few years.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved.