November 30, 2006

Influence of a True Leader

Nov. 30, 2006

By Steven A.Conn

Yale was struggling to move the ball for most of the first three quarters at Princeton last November, and the offense seemed to be waiting for its mates on the other side of the line to come up with a big play to get them going in a game Yale would eventually win.

Future captain Chandler Henley, sidelined for all of 2005 with a shoulder injury, moved up and down the Princeton Stadium visitor's sideline in the fourth quarter like a combination of player, coach and nervous parent as his pal, quarterback and 2005 captain Jeff Mroz, tried to capitalize on the late key turnovers the Yale defense produced.

Henley, by Mroz's side every time the senior quarterback came anywhere near the Yale sideline, worked feverishly to help his teammates get back into the game. At one point in the second half the two sat on the bench as Henley implored Mroz to stay in the pocket longer and give the receivers a chance to get open.

"Jeff would ask me what I saw as he was coming off the field," said Henley, who leads this year's team with 33 catches for 454 yards despite working with a new Yale passer. "Sometimes Jeff was so worked up and excited, I would just tell him to calm down and play his game. Sometimes that's all anybody needs when they're in the heat of battle, someone to calm them down and remind them to have fun with this game." Henley's finest work as a calming influence may be this season with first-year starting QB Matt Polhemus settling into the driver's seat.

"When I get a little upset or too emotional in the game, he tells me to calm down and focus on the next play. He has a calm and confident approach to the game and that definitely rubs off on me," said Polhemus, who connected with Henley on a 20-yard pass in overtime against Lehigh that set up the game-winning TD on Oct. 14 at the Bowl. "When we get off the field he tells me what he sees and how we should attack the defense. That kind of communication can make the difference between a win and a loss, and it has. In the overtime against Lehigh, he told me how he was going to run his route based on the corner. Our timing was right on and we made a huge play."

Henley, who has filled the role of player, coach and even mentor to some of the Elis, had plenty of fun his first two years at Yale Bowl. He saw enough action as a freshman in 2002 to catch five passes and be the starting punter for five games. He dropped the kicking duties in 2003 and hauled in 19 passes for 315 yards and three scores. As a junior, he earned All-Ivy honorable mention. His numbers soared (49 catches, 716 yards, team-high six TD receptions) almost as easily as he moved his body vertically toward a pass. "Getting up" for games took new meaning for the receiver Ivy head coaches often mentioned when asked about playing Yale in 2004. They clearly did not mind his missing the '05 campaign.

"All I think about is me coming down with the ball and no one else," Henley said. "I think you have to be aggressive to play this game. If you don't have that mentality, you will not last very long. Talent and hard work will take you so far, but determination, focus and preparation will allow you to do things that may seem out of reach. That is why I excel in those situations."

Henley, a former star at Mullen High School in Littleton, Colo., says a particular catch in the Colorado semi-finals had a huge impact on his college aspirations.

"It was my favorite catch and it came in my last high school game. It was the state semifinals against Columbine High. Our offense hadn't done much in the first half, but in the third quarter we came alive and I already had one leaping TD grab. On the next drive, they threw me a fade. The ball was under thrown, so I cut underneath the DB. As I reached for the ball, he pulled my head back, but I caught it with one hand falling back and tucked it away. The crowd went wild. That catch and game propelled me into college football."

The 6-foot-1, 195-pound wide receiver helped Yale beat Princeton from the sideline last fall, but he made a 2003 win at Old Nassau possible with a leaping catch with no time on the clock in the fourth quarter that sent the contest into overtime.

"I remember telling Alvin Cowan [the QB] the whole drive that I could get this guy on a deep ball because they were doubling [tight end] Nate Lawrie in the slot. He [Cowan] called it on the last play and I knew it was my shot. He put a great ball on my outside shoulder and I knew the whole way I was going to catch it. I was just hoping I would be in the end zone. That is the biggest play of my career because it's not that often that you can get a 'buzzer-beater' in football. Besides, that is a huge rivalry and we hadn't done anything on offense all game, at least until we needed to," Henley said. "Henley also made a game-tying catch in the closing minutes of the 2004 Colgate victory and had numerous leaping, turning and diving grabs in addition.

"He may not be the fastest or the biggest guy, but he runs good routes and has great body control," said fellow Yale receiver D.J. Shooter '07. "Chandler understands what is in front of him. He knows where the hole in the defense is and knows how to find that hole and connect with the QB."

Being sidelined last fall bothered Henley more than anyone could imagine.

"I remember how excited I was for the season, and how great I felt those first few days of practice. I was as strong, fast and focused as ever, but it was not meant to be," said Henley. He came across the middle in the first week of practice and took a routine hit that caught his shoulder the wrong way.

"I enjoy the game of football so much I couldn't be away. I had been playing this game for about 14 years, and had only missed a handful of practices, so it was very hard that first game and especially Harvard," said the Yale captain. "It was a great experience because I felt like a coach. I got to watch good friends and my classmates enjoy their last season from up close, and I will have those memories forever, especially that Princeton game."

Henley, a Morse College resident, didn't have a problem with the rehabilitation of the shoulder. The more significant discomfort was north of the injury.

"It was just painful to sit and wait to be able to run and catch the ball, things that seem so simple but can be taken for granted."

Henley, nicknamed "Hands" at Mullen High (one state title, two runner-up seasons), has helped that stick in college by becoming the go-to guy in key situations. Twenty-eight of his 33 catches this fall have resulted in either a first down or a TD. Henley, who had a string of 15 straight games with a catch snapped early this season, has caught 14 passes on third down and 13 have moved the chains.

The Bulldog captain has played on talented Yale teams that have underachieved for a variety of reasons. A lack of unity -- especially between the offense and defense -- has been suggested as a cause.

"He is focused on `togetherness' and staying away from the normal lines drawn between offense and defense," said receiver Jordan Spence '07. "He has merged us all into one big unit. He is a vocal leader who is always positive."

Said Emil Johnson, Yale's Director of Strength & Conditioning, whom Henley has called on to address the team because of his own motivational skills, "I think this team has taken on Henley's personality. When he walks on the field, he knows he's one of the best players out there, and this team now takes the field truly believing they are the team to beat."

Another aspect of being a strong leader is recognizing that it's not all about him. Others can contribute to the goal and share the spotlight with the captain. Henley's mother, Diane, sent him John C. Maxwell's book "Teamwork Makes The Dreamwork," and it had an immediate impact. Shirts with the book title were handed out to the Yale players during pre-season workouts.

"Chandler was always destined to be a wide receiver. From the time that he could walk, he always had a ball in his hands," said Rich Henley, Chandler's dad, whose own parents, Jean and Chandler (Bud) Sr., live in Connecticut and regularly attend practices and games. "As a young boy we would go hour after hour in the backyard throwing the football. My arm would be ready to fall off yet he kept saying `One more pass, Dad'."

Henley went on to captain Mullen as an all-state receiver before becoming the New England Prep Player of the Year at Choate Rosemary Hall.

Not much has drawn the Bulldog leader away from Southern Connecticut since he arrived in 2001. Henley has been a presence at summer workouts every year, more interested in improving his timing with the throwers than making time with beach inhabitants. In fact, he worked last summer for Than Merrill and Konrad Sopielnikow's real estate company, CT Homes. Both are former Bulldogs from the class of '01 who were part of the school's last Ivy title team in 1999, one that lost its opener before running the table for a 9-1 season. Yale's career reception leader, Ralph Plumb '05, was working with the group at the time, and he and Henley were getting some friendly ribbing from the owners about championship rings.

Henley, who has 106 career grabs (5th at Yale), 11 TDs (7th) and 1,509 yards (4th), made an impact at Yale ever since he walked into the Bowl for his first game and hauled in a pass against a San Diego program that had recruited him but dropped its interest before decision time. It was his first varsity snap and it went for 15 yards, which helped him feel vindicated. Since then he has had four different eight-reception games, including a 122-yard outing against Lehigh this fall. Against Lafayette, the one game he did not catch a pass this season, Henley recovered the Leopards' on-side kick in the closing moments to clinch a 37-34 Yale win.

His football playing career could be ending on Nov. 18, something that everyone in today's game will face at some point. When you understand that and can deal with it in a positive way, you often find yourself appreciating the little things that happen around practices and game day. Even the rituals become accentuated. Henley's friends have said that he has mentioned this year enjoying some of the drills in practice he used to hate.

"I am very particular about what I wear on game day," Henley said. "I always have my uniform, socks, gloves, wristbands and towel sitting out before a game to help me visualize. I go out before I get dressed and do about 30 minutes of ball drills to get my eyes and hands working, so in the game it's second nature."

He is not going to catch Plumb in any of the school's receiving categories, but Henley hopes to get something neither Plumb nor the two class of '01 real estate moguls have: an outright Ivy League title.

"Chandler is a much better receiver than I was," said Plumb, who was a sophomore when Henley arrived from Choate. "He had more of an influence on me as a receiver than anyone else at Yale. I made sure to watch everything he did, especially how he ran his routes. He was obviously well-coached in high school."

The pain Henley suffered from not playing in 2005 pales in comparison to the frustration from the last four season finales.

"The Harvard rivalry is truly an experience only a handful of men in this world get to experience. It is not a BCS bowl game, and it is not a Super Bowl, but it is every bit as important to the people who play in it. If you think about the history behind it, it means even more. It has been so disappointing every year to lose. I watch Harvard celebrate and I am enraged, so this year it has to change. I realized how much it means last year when I couldn't play. I couldn't speak or walk in the locker room right before kickoff, it hurt that bad not to be able to contribute with my teammates and close friends. I have been working so hard to feel the opposite after this year's game."

Henley is considering a commercial real estate career and hopes to make enough money to someday purchase his own zoo.

"I enjoy all animals, particularly big cats and the primates. I started going to zoos after I began college, and I enjoy watching the actions of the animals. If I make a lot of money, I would love to have a zoo because I could see all the behind-the-scenes action with all the animals."

It is hard to imagine him letting anyone else handle the tigers.

Steve Conn is a Yale Assistant AD and the Director of Sports Publicity