Jaquan Henderson knows what he wants to do when his football days end, and it isn’t a career common to former Georgia Tech football players, such as real estate, finance or coaching. Henderson, the Tech signee who could be a difference-making linebacker, has a different route in mind.
Henderson, from Newton High in Covington, wants to be a funeral director.
“One thing about that, the key is job security,” he said. “People die every day.”
There’s more to Henderson’s aspiration than a clever observation. His choice opens a window into a young man with ambition to make a better life for himself and the compassion and personality to engage grief on a daily basis.
“He has told me that before,” said Misty Morgan, a Newton High teacher who taught Henderson U.S. history last year. “He was talking about how that’s a place where people need a friendly face. They need someone who can make that time easier on them. That by itself shows you what kind of heart he has.”
Personal warmth is not much of a marker for football stardom. But Henderson’s drive to make something of himself might be encouraging to Yellow Jackets fans as they await the next class of freshmen to populate the Tech roster. Henderson will come to Tech from humble beginnings, a Covington neighborhood that doesn’t frequently send off its own to college, let alone one of Tech’s stature. Already, Henderson is a victory for Nelson Heights, about two miles south of Covington’s charming town square but much further away in other respects.
“He wasn’t that typical kid that grew up in Nelson Heights, as far as how you carry yourself,” said Brian Nunn, who was Henderson’s football coach at Indian Creek Middle School. “You always knew that Jaquan wanted more than he was exposed to, and he knew what he had to do to get it.”
Henderson is the fifth of J.C. and Sandy Henderson’s children, all boys. They grew up in a crowded three-bedroom home on Puckett Street, often playing tackle football in the front yard, where the bushes represented one end zone and the driveway the other. All were athletes, but Jaquan will, barring unforeseen circumstances, be the first to play at the college level. He would also be the first in the family, including the parents, to graduate from college.
“We all wanted to have the opportunity to go NFL, and Jaquan has made that happen, so that makes it so special,” said Henderson’s brother Anthony, the fourth-born son. “We’ve been waiting for this, all the five boys have been waiting for it, and we’ll be danged, Jaquan was the one to make it happen.”
Nunn coached all five Henderson brothers — Quintarius, Jessie, John, Anthony and Jaquan — and he doesn’t even think that Jaquan was the best athlete, saving that honor for John. (He did say Jaquan would be second.) But Nunn saw in Jaquan more than speed and strength. He was respectful of his teachers, didn’t cause trouble and didn’t need anyone to push him. One of Henderson’s teammates and close friends was J.J. Holloman, now an early-enrollee freshman wide receiver at Georgia. Nunn saw the same drive in both.
“I tell people that J.J. and Jaquan, you never had to get on them about their work ethic,” Nunn said. “They just worked from the time they came to practice to the time they left.”
He has been similarly steadfast in the classroom. The most vivid impression that Henderson left on Morgan, his U.S. history teacher, was his friendliness and respectful manner. (Henderson has a megawatt smile.) Beyond that, he distinguished himself to Morgan as a student unembarrassed to reveal what he didn’t know in the questions he asked, not necessarily a common trait.
“He was one of those people that always wanted to do his best,” she said. “Even if something doesn’t come naturally to him, where he doesn’t get it right away, he never stops going to be the best at what he is doing.”
He was determined to earn a football scholarship early in his high school career, but it was not merely a matter of personal pride. When he was a sophomore, he told his father that he wouldn’t have to pay a cent for him to go to college.
“I remember, because my brother Anthony, we had to pay out of pocket for him,” Henderson said. “I saw it was a struggle for them paying for him. I told myself they wouldn’t have to do that for me.”
Henderson’s father, J.C., suspects that Jaquan has been motivated to achieve by a desire to bring honor to his family. J.C., a retired city of Covington employee, has been a Newton County commissioner since 1996. He said that some of Jaquan’s older brothers caused the family some embarrassment by getting into trouble, which, because of his father’s political position, caused local notoriety.
“To make a long story short, he wanted to be better, him and Anthony wanted to be better,” J.C. said. “(He) wanted to make mom and dad proud and he wanted to do something that maybe the others didn’t do, to be more focused, and he wanted to make us proud, he wanted to make the community proud.”
His football exploits and his college scholarship have made him something of a celebrity in Nelson Heights. Kids come to the house to ask to play football with him and ask for his autograph, Sandy Henderson said. The Henderson home is noticeable for the weight rack in the driveway.
“Every time I lift weights: ‘I want to see Jaquan do it, not you,’” said Henderson’s brother, Anthony.
Soon enough, they’ll likely be able to see Henderson at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
“Wherever I go, everybody says they’re proud of me and they’ll be watching me,” Henderson said. “I’m ready for it.”