October 28, 2009

Special Bulldog

By Tommy Hine

Travis Henry is an outside linebacker by position. He is a special teams player at heart. There is a reason he enjoys jogging on and off the field with teammates whose names aren’t on the depth chart.

A linebacker this season and a defensive end last season, Henry has been playing on Yale’s special teams since his freshman year.

“Special teams are definitely just as important as any other part of the game,” Henry said. “Games are won and lost by special teams every Saturday and Sunday that you watch football.

“Being a special teams player gives me the opportunity to get my hands on two-thirds of the game. Defensive players only get one-third of the reps. Obviously, offensive players only get a third. If you are on special teams, you get your hand on another third. Being able to have my stake in two-thirds of the game and helping the team win is pretty big.”

Nothing in Henry’s career matched the experience of trotting onto a football field in Cambridge as a special teams player his freshman season when he played some games with a herniated disk.

“I think one of the greatest moments of my freshman year was being on the field for the Harvard game,” he said. “It was my first time to play in that type of environment at a football game.

“Even in high school down in (Lauderdale Lakes) Florida, we played in packed stadiums, but nothing like that. Having 45,000 people watch you play football is pretty exciting.”

Included in the 45,000 fans were Henry’s parents, Stafford and Yvonne. “They only get the chance to come to one game a year, usually the Harvard or Princeton game,” Henry said. The Bulldogs went on to win The Game, claiming their 14th Ivy League championship.

Henry’s sophomore season, he earned his second varsity letter playing on special teams in every game. He won the Special Teams Award for his play in the Dartmouth game. He also played four games on defense as a backup safety.

Henry loved playing on special teams as a freshman. As a senior, he still does.

“Yes, he does,” linebacker coach Doug Semones said. “We’re playing a lot of starters on our special teams, and Travis has done a nice job on that. You know, there are a lot of big collisions on special teams, and one thing Travis is -- he’s a hitter, that’s for sure. He loves the opportunity to run into somebody.”

At the start of his junior season, Henry played at safety again all through the pre-season.

“I was just thankful for the opportunity,” Henry said.

About four weeks before the season opener, he was called into the coaches’ office.

“They said they wanted to get me on the field more,” Henry said. “They said if I moved to a different position, I would definitely get more playing time. I’m a competitor, so I was a little skeptical in changing positions.

“But in hindsight, it was definitely the best move for me.”

Semones said the change in positions was a natural for Henry.

“The position is basically the same,” he said. “He’s playing in space, and he’s doing great. He’s really stepped up his leadership on the team. The outside linebacking position is a pretty versatile position. We have to play at the line of scrimmage on the run. We have to pass rush. We cover in zones, and we play man-to-man. Players there have to be able do a lot of things, and Travis is such a good athlete, he has a good feel for all of those things.”

Off the field and away from the classroom, Henry is heavily involved in a youth mentoring program with students from Wilbur Cross High in New Haven. Even after the football season began and his class schedule was at full strength, Henry and his committee still found time to hold strategy and logistics meetings for the mentor program he now runs this year.

“We work with a group of freshmen and sophomores who are not necessarily the top of the class at Wilbur Cross,” Henry said. “They are not necessarily the bottom of the class, either. They are kind of in the middle.

“The hope is that with the small classes we have, the more one-on-one attention they get will help the students in the middle of the pack and bump them up a little by the time they get into 11th and 12th grades.”

Seven games still remain in Henry’s college career, but it is still not too early for him to look back at his years at Yale and put his collegiate experience in perspective.

“It’s been what I expected and a lot more,” Henry said. “I have met people who I would never have had the opportunity to meet my entire life. I say it all the time. I actually sit in a locker room with guys from all over the country. They are all tremendous athletes, and the level of intelligence that is always around me is pretty incredible.

“In high school, you’re kind of a big fish in a small pond. You’re a star athlete. Everyone knows you. You come here, and you are among a group of guys who are from all over the place, from all different walks of life. The all have stories to tell. They have all accomplished so much, and they all will accomplish so much in the future. It’s pretty incredible.”

This season, Henry changed defensive positions again and, after a year at defensive end, he is playing at outside linebacker. By the time of today’s kickoff with Dartmouth, he and his teammates will have had two weeks to get over the disappointment of losing their Ivy League opener to Cornell.

“At the beginning of the season, you always want to go undefeated. That’s our goal every year,” Henry said. “When you lose a game, you have to look yourself in the mirror and figure out what went wrong.

“I’m not the type of person who points fingers at people. I took the loss as a personal loss. There was more I could have done on the field to help us win. I felt I didn’t do enough. We could have created more turnovers. I had some opportunities on special teams to make a play that I didn’t capitalize on. You only get so many opportunities to make a play that can change a game. You have to make it when you get that chance.”

Henry said he and Yale will benefit from that early-season Ivy League loss.

“It’s hard to take a loss,” he said. “I don’t like losing at anything. I want to win, but there is something special about losing, too. It gives you the opportunity to put things in perspective. You only get so many opportunities to play. You get 10 games a year at Yale, 40 games in your career. In those 40 games, every game is very special.

“Losing hurts, but learning from that loss is pretty special, too.”