After forced medical retirement, former linebacker David Henry was left without the one thing he loves most in life-sports

David+Henry+at+the+Student+Performance+Center+at+Oregon+State+University.

Aaron Trask

David Henry at the Student Performance Center at Oregon State University.

Josh Worden, Senior Beat Reporter

PART ONE

When David Henry joined the Oregon State wrestling team in July 2016, he had to answer multiple questions.

For one: how was he going to handle Division-I wrestling despite his four-year absence from competing on the mat? Or, would he be able to stay healthy after medically retiring from the OSU football team only eight months prior?

Not all the questions were that difficult. For example, coming from the questionnaire he filled out for his bio page on the OSU wrestling roster, “What’s been your biggest athletic thrill?”

He had plenty of options to choose from. A three-sport star at Oakland High School in Oakland, Ore., Henry led OHS to its first football State Championship since 1964 his senior year. He racked up 264 rushing yards and four touchdowns in the title game, the capstone to his senior year in which he also earned First Team All-State honors at running back and linebacker.

Not to mention the 2A Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year awards—he won both. Wrestling state championships? He earned three of those. All-American wrestling honors? Twice.

But he didn’t pick any of those as his athletic pinnacle. He picked the OSU-Michigan football game.

Sept. 12, 2015. That’s the day Henry’s football career ended. The day he got his fourth and final concussion in a football game. The day he lay on the turf in Michigan Stadium, his mind clouded, unsure of what just happened, several months of headaches ahead of him. He still doesn’t recall the play, meaning his only memories of the day are centered more on the atmosphere of the largest stadium in America.

“The first time I walked out, I looked around the stadium and it just went up forever— 109,000 people watching,” Henry said, now more than a year removed from that day. “It was cool to play in that atmosphere. It was a fun game, from what I can remember.”

Henry had begun to make a name for himself as a linebacker for OSU before the injury. The 6-foot, 235-pounder was a walk-on fullback in 2013, moving back to his original position of linebacker in 2015 after earning a scholarship. Before the season began, he was one of 12 players to participate in a special forces leadership development program at Camp Williams in Utah. He made a career-high four tackles in the Michigan game before the injury. It was his fourth diagnosed concussion, but he estimates he’d already gotten between 10 and 20 undiagnosed concussions throughout his football career.

The day after the Michigan game, Henry called Hayden Craig. A former tight end, Craig overlapped with Henry for about 18 months with the Beavers before retiring in 2014. Craig, who got three concussions in six months, says he still suffers from occasional stuttering problems and eye sensitivity. He still remembers watching the Michigan game on TV.

“I saw him get hit pretty hard and I knew he had a concussion,” Craig said. “That next day, he called me and started talking to me. He didn’t sound right.”

“Was it worth it?” Henry asked Craig.

“Was what worth it?” Craig said.

“Was it worth it to retire and save your head?” Henry said.

“Yeah, it’s the best decision I ever made, Dave,” Craig said.

Henry didn’t need much more advice than that.

“I wouldn’t say I persuaded him to retire, but I gave him advice on every aspect beyond football,” Craig said. “Are you willing to take the risk of the next time you get a concussion, it could be a serious one? You could lose a body function or motor skill. And he’s smart, he knows. I just gave him the advice, because him and I love the game of football. It’s a tough decision when you’re that age to hang it up. Him and I, coming from small schools, worked so hard to get where we got to and we invested our lives in it. To have to turn away from the game because of an injury we don’t even fully understand, it’s hard.”

As it would turn out, Henry didn’t have much of a choice either way. Doug Aukerman, the head of OSU’s Sports Medicine staff, dealt the bad news. Henry had to medically retire, no two ways about it.

Suddenly, football was taken away from Henry as a redshirt sophomore. It had been so much of his identity ever since he first strapped on a helmet in fourth grade. It was his biggest passion at OSU, where he worked hard in school but cared far more about his team.

“People say it’s just a game,” Henry said. “And it is just a game. But it was pretty much every day of my life for three years.”

 An athletic history

 Henry grew up in Oakland, a town 100 miles south of Corvallis that’s been close to reaching 1,000 people for at least two decades. The son of a logger, Henry spent much of his adolescent years working for his father. His free time was spent hunting, either for bull elk in the bush or for running backs on the football field. Around adults, he always was a “yes sir, yes ma’am” type of guy, as Craig puts it. 

“The kid is kind of an anomaly,” Craig said. “He was raised right. I always joke around and say, ‘Dave, you were born in the wrong generation. You should’ve been born about 30 or 40 years ago.’”

Henry is quick to deflect any compliments on his character by relating it back to his parents, Joe and Shawn Henry. Some would call them strict or demanding. Regardless, they gave their son plenty of responsibility and had high expectations for him. By fourth grade, the same year he started playing football, he also started taking care of steers from the family’s cowherd, just one of his many tasks on the ranch.

“His old man definitely pushed him,” said George Swartzlender, a close friend of David’s whose father wrestled with Joe Henry at Umpqua Community College. “Dave was pushed to a different level than a lot of kids are. He respects his old man a lot because of what he did for him… He taught him how to work. He’d come in the morning, feed cattle, go to school, work all day after school. He gave [Dave] a work ethic second to none.”

David learned early not to grumble when cutting firewood or baling hay, and he took the same attitude to the football field and wrestling mat.

“He’s a hard person to come by as far as character and his ability to get the job done and not complain,” Craig said. “Kids our age, you see it all the time, a lot of kids complain. You never really heard that from Dave, and I think that’s what helped him in his success in football and wrestling.”

And Henry’s athletic successes were abundant. He helped Oakland High transform from a 1-8 football team to State Champions in a four-year span. He averaged 20.3 tackles per game as a junior, second among all players in the nation. On the wrestling mat, his efforts were unparalleled.

“He was on a different level than other people,” Swartzlender said, who wrestled for Burns High School and saw Henry compete multiple times. “He was a man in a boy’s world. Domination. Nobody could compete with him.”

Josh Parazoo, now on the OSU wrestling team with Henry, remembers playing football for Scio High School and facing Henry’s Oakland team. The entire offensive game plan, Parazoo recalls, was focused on Oakland’s star linebacker.

“I just tried to get in his way because I wasn’t going to completely stop him,” Parazoo said, who played left tackle and often would try to block Henry. “I just grabbed ahold of him and hoped I wouldn’t get called for holding.”

Henry ran track, too. It’s not often a linebacker would run the 100-meter dash, but he placed fifth in state. Gabe Ovgard, who would go on to play football at OSU before retiring in 2016 due to concussion problems just like Henry, remembers marveling at Henry in the 2012 state track meet. Ovgard’s football coach at 1A Triad School in Klamath Falls walked over to his sophomore standout that day and pointed at Henry.

“I didn’t even know who he was at the time, and [coach] said, “That’s what I want you to look like by your senior year,’” Ovgard said. “Because he was 6-foot, 200-plus pounds and was running around 11 seconds in the 100-meters. He was just so solid. Obviously I didn’t get to that size or caliber my senior year.”

As a senior, Henry earned the Johnny Carpenter Prep Athlete of the Year Award, given every year to the four most outstanding Oregonian high school athletes. Previous winners included Steve Prefontaine, Damon Stoudamire, Kevin Love, Galen Rupp and some future OSU stars like AC Green, Charlie Sitton, Jordan Poyer and Joey Wong. Not to mention AJ Hedgecock, a close friend of Henry’s who also played football for OSU before medically retiring and eventually switching sports to the OSU basketball team.

“Dave was one of the freakiest athletes I ever saw,” Hedgecock said of his 235-pound former teammate. “I’m telling you, the guy could do front handsprings and do backflips off the wall and a whole bunch of crazy stuff for a guy as big as he is.”

Once he came to OSU, Henry’s athleticism didn’t change. It took him a couple years to get playing time but he continually exceeded expectations, winning the Special Teams Scout Team Award while redshirting in 2013. Once, Ovgard was rewatching an OSU game with some teammates when Henry wasn’t present.

“One of our fast guys, maybe a receiver, was running and all of a sudden we see this mass,” Ovgard said. “And it’s catching up to this receiver. Sure enough, it’s David Henry. All of my teammates were shocked, but I had seen him in high school and I knew how fast he was. That’s David Henry. He’s 240 pounds, running down those receivers.”

But even while on the football team, Henry was a wrestler. He may have chosen football over wrestling once he came to college, but he didn’t back down from a challenge to grapple with anybody.

“Him and I would get in some wresting matches every now and then,” Craig said. “When I was playing, I was 6-foot-4, 250 pounds and I thought I was stronger than an ox. We wrestled and he just beat the (expletive) out of me. That was pretty funny. You didn’t mess with Dave Henry. With that being said, I will say he’s probably the nicest person you will ever meet. He’s a gentleman. On top of all that strength—he knows he could kick everyone’s (expletive) in the room, but he’s a gentleman.”

Craig’s praise of Henry’s character wasn’t simply lip service, either. Henry showed it. A handful of times, he drove to Dayton to help on Craig’s farm, just to help out a friend. Countless times, Henry’s uncle Rick would call him up when he needed help on his cattle farm in Prineville. Henry was willing to drive more than three hours on a Friday night, even if he’d just gotten out of a football workout, without hesitation. It wasn’t for money. Just family.

Swartzlender benefitted from Henry’s eagerness to serve, also. When hunting in southwest Oregon near Bandon, Swartzlender says he’s needed to call Henry to help get his truck unstuck “more times than I can count.” The drive from Corvallis to Bandon is three hours. No problem for Henry, though.

“He’s the first person I call when I get in a tight spot,” Swartzlender said.

“He’s the type of guy that will do anything. He’ll take the shirt off his back for you,” Craig added. “He’ll never tell you no if you ask him to help you out. It’s hard to find a friend like that.”

Ironically, it was Henry’s refusal to back down, whether from an appeal for help or a challenge on the football field, that perhaps ended his career. Never one to shy away from contact, Henry was in the middle of too many collisions.

“The relentlessness and the no-fear side of him—the guy would do anything,” Hedgecock said. “At times it could’ve gotten him in trouble, just because he’s pretty much willing to do whatever: in football, he had all those head injuries because he was willing to put his body on the line and do what he needed to do, and he ended up having to stop playing for it. I kinda can relate to that, but at the same time he’s a level above a lot of people I’ve ever been around. He has a side to him that’s ruthless, that he wants to win no matter what. It’s a competitiveness you don’t see around anymore.”

The very same thing that made Henry a valuable football player, his hyper-competitiveness and tenacity in pursuing the ballcarrier, likely played a factor in his concussions. And once it all ended, Henry was left in the cold. What would he do without one of the things he cared about most?

 PART TWO

“When I had to quit playing football, it made me realize that nothing in this life is forever,” Henry said. “It can be taken away at any moment. So, enjoy it and give it your all when doing it.”

Henry knew his football career had to end at some point. That end just came sooner than expected. Unsurprisingly, the transition was grueling.

The headaches lasted a few months, from September to at least January. He came to OSU football games even after he retired in October 2015, watching his teammates compete without him only weeks after he was battling with them every day.

“It was hard for me watching guys on the field,” Henry said. “I was supposed to be there with them.”

He tried to attend practices and stay involved with the team, but the inability to contribute physically made Henry feel empty.

“I’d go watch practice, sit through half of it and then leave because I’d get sick and wish I could be out there,” he said. “It was a rough time.”

Though Henry was a hard worker in the classroom, the loss of his bigger passion in football took a toll on his academics. He was still enrolled in school but started skipping classes. He’d leave often to go hunting, where his mind was much clearer.

“I didn’t really think about [football] when I was out there,” Henry said.

Hunting helped, but it didn’t take long before Henry knew he had to find a replacement for football.

“After a few mornings of waking up and not going to practice or film study, just going to class, I didn’t feel right,” Henry said. “I felt something was off. I needed to do something. I can’t just go to school. I had too much time on my hands.”

Looking back on when Henry had to retire in October, he says he would’ve dropped out of school if it wasn’t for Evan Simon. The Head Football Strength and Conditioning Coach approached Henry about joining his staff as an intern and working with football players in the weight room. Only weeks after Henry was battling with his teammates on the football field, he was battling with them again in the weight room.

“Being a part of the weight staff and being a part of the team, playing a role — not as big of a role, but a role — that helped me a lot,” Henry said.

“Dave is mentally tough. I saw him prevail,” Swartzlender added. “I tried my hardest to help him out through those times and we’d have long conversations about it. He had to do it for himself. He felt like he was letting everyone else down that was on his side… But there’s not many people that could do what he did — being a walk-on, making the team, finally getting a chance and then being let down. I didn’t know what to say to him. But his character didn’t change.”

 

Returning to competition 

Even though the weight room opportunity helped, Henry’s journey wasn’t over. In July, in a meeting with Dr. Aukerman, Henry finally got cleared to return to Division-I athletics. Football was off the table, but Henry insisted on wrestling.

Henry walked out from Aukerman’s office that day and made a beeline for OSU’s wrestling coach Jim Zalesky’s office. Henry asked to join the team and Zalesky didn’t think twice about saying yes.

Earlier in his career, Henry had tested the possibility of doubling up on Division-I sports, a feat that few would be capable or willing to try. But, as Henry puts it, “It’s human nature to compete.” And it’s Henry’s nature to go above and beyond in competition.

For a short time after his redshirt freshman season in 2014, Henry would spend mornings wrestling under Zalesky’s coaching and afternoons in football film studies and workouts. Not only was Henry grinding through self-induced two-a-days in two different Division-I sports, he said the worst part wasn’t even the physical exertion. It was cauliflower ear, a common issue for wrestlers caused by blood clotting that swells the ear up. That’s hard enough for an average wrestler to deal with, but Henry had to go to football practice later and try to fit his helmet over his enlarged ears.

He kept at it, though, until Gary Andersen became the head football coach in December 2014. Henry decided to show commitment to his new coach by shifting back solely to football.

About 17 months later, Henry finally rejoined wrestling workouts, now completely committed to a different team.

“I’m doing something I still love to do, just with a different group of guys,” Henry said.

His parents were cautious at first, still scared about long term effects of his concussions. His mother in particular did not want Henry to wrestle, but he was not going to pass up the chance.

“I just told her I was going to do it, whether she was going to be happy with it or not,” Henry said. “I figured she would come around, and she did.”

It wasn’t the easiest of transitions. Henry was trying to join a Division-I sport he hadn’t fully competed in since high school four years ago. He was still in good shape from football, but “football shape is nowhere close to wrestling shape,” Henry says. Football plays last six or seven seconds usually, but wrestlers have to be going 100 percent for several minutes straight.

Henry was reminded of that lesson in October, when the team held its first open practice with fans invited to attend. He was facing off against fellow redshirt junior Cody Crawford, and Henry quickly realized the disparity in stamina.

“Probably the first 45 seconds, I was just gassed,” Henry said. “I was like, ‘I got a long ways to go.’”

He has since made big strides in conditioning and relearning technique, as well as changing his weight lifting routine. In football, he focused more on charting his maximum lifts and going for explosive bursts — he could bench press 385 pounds and squat about 515; now he aims for muscle endurance and isn’t as concerned what his numbers are.

“I’m not bulky strong, but I’m wiry strong,” Henry said.

And for a first-year collegiate wrestler who admits he’s still getting back to speed on the mat, he’s been remarkably successful in competition. He has a 12-7 record this year and is riding a seven-match win streak with two first-place heavyweight finishes in tournaments.

“I hadn’t wrestled with him since high school, and when when we started out wrestling [at OSU] he was pretty raw,” Parazoo said. “But now he’s getting pretty good with his technique. Not perfect, but he’s getting better.”

And just like when he was a football player, Henry’s contributions don’t end when he steps off the mat.

“He’s only been here a short time but I can see him stepping into a leadership role where he’s not afraid to speak up,” Zalesky said. “You’ve got to have those guys who aren’t afraid speak up, to call guys out and hold them accountable. He’s that kind of guy.”

Reflecting on the situation 

Ovgard remembers seeing Henry at one of the OSU football games this past fall. Both players, retired within the last year or so from the team they now watch from the sideline, caught each other’s eye. Ovgard had retired more recently, finally calling it quits in August and losing an opportunity to get playing time at safety.

“We just kinda stopped and had a conversation,” Ovgard said. “He was the first person that didn’t try to sugarcoat it for me. He was like, ‘It sucks, right?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He was like, ‘It’s horrible.’ Having him say that was such a relief because everyone else was being helpful but I heard a lot of ‘Keep your head up’ and stuff like that. Which is great, but he was the first person that made me realize that it was okay that I was sad or that it was okay going to these football games was super hard.”

If there’s one extra chapter in Henry’s story beyond his childhood days on the ranch, beyond his absurd athletic talents in high school, beyond his willingness to help out a friend three hours away without a second thought, beyond his ability to transition to a second Division-I sport and succeed, it’s how he has impacted other football players who’ve had to retire. Hedgecock, Craig and Ovgard — all three were dedicated to OSU football before medical issues cut their careers short. Same with Henry.

Sometimes it was Henry being straightforward with guys like Ovgard that was refreshing for his peers. Other times, it was lending a hand to a friend like Craig no matter the situation. Often, it was a gesture of friendship even before Henry had to quit football in the first place.

Ovgard remembers Henry doing just that when Ovgard was a senior in high school. Remembering how Henry became a walk-on at OSU just like Ovgard planned to do, he found Henry on Facebook and started messaging him about Corvallis and the Beavers.

“Looking back, I was probably pretty annoying with how frequently I sent him messages,” Ovgard said. “But he didn’t seem put out at all. He answered every question I had in detail and was more than willing to give some random kid who was going to walk on next year advice, and good advice. He was telling me about training table, what to expect as a walk-on, what my attitude should be. That’s what stands out for him, going out of his way to help someone he didn’t know at all.”

Opportunities like those to provide a service help Henry say he has no regrets about his time at OSU, not even about wondering what his football career could have been. As his closest friends would say, that’s just a testament to who he is.

“You get to know him, he’s one of the better guys you’ll ever come across,” Swartzlender said. “He just wants everyone around him to be happy and have a good time. There are few down days with Dave. His work ethic is second to none. His heart and mind are in a great spot.”

“He was a role model to me when I came on,” Ovgard added. “He got a scholarship, he got playing time and he was a walk-on from a small school. My story was pretty similar to his, so he was somebody I looked up to the whole time. Not just because of how good he was on the football field, but the kind of person he was off the field. He was gracious, humble and an all-around good person.

“His actions line up with his words 100 percent, and I think that’s rare.”