MISSOULA — First it was a torn bicep tendon. Then it was a torn pectoral tendon.
Idaho defensive lineman D.J. Henderson had each of his past two seasons prematurely ended by injuries. He rehabbed for six months both times, thinking during the recovery process that his days of playing football were over.
“It was just as tough in the mind as it was with physical therapy,” Henderson said.
Henderson has been able to stay on the field throughout his senior season and is coming off the best game of his college career. His play, along with others on the defensive front, could provide Montana’s young offensive line with a challenge during their game Saturday in Moscow, Idaho.
“I’m feeling like I’m capitalizing on it, man,” Henderson said. “I’m trying to keep it up my last two games, trying to redo the same performance.”
Perseverance is nothing new for Henderson. He had to prove himself through the junior college ranks before he got a Division I shot at Idaho.
The Mississippi native went to perennial powerhouse East Mississippi Community College. He didn’t know when he signed that the Netflix series “Last Chance U” would be filming the team’s next two seasons; he just wanted to win a national championship and thought EMCC would be his best shot.
The popular show traces big-time FBS college football players who dropped down to the junior college ranks in hopes of earning another Division I shot. Henderson’s experiences around those high-caliber players gave him hope of moving on to a four-year college.
“They were telling us that they didn’t work as hard as we did at their D-I facility, they didn’t do half of the stuff we did and it wasn’t that hard,” Henderson said. “It made us believe. It kept us going. It was like motivation.”
After the first season there, one of his teammates, Aikeem Coleman, got an offer from Idaho coach Paul Petrino, who had worked in the south and knew the area. Henderson’s connection to Coleman gave Idaho a leg up in getting a commitment from him the next year.
Henderson was injured at the end of his sophomore season but was good to go at the start of his first year at Idaho. He showed flashes of what Petrino saw on film and tallied 20 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in 10 games.
“I think his biggest asset is his quickness,” Petrino said. “I think he’s got good hands, does a good job of defeating blocks with his hands.”
Henderson had that season cut short by injuries but worked his way back for a final year despite a late start in which he didn’t start practicing until the summer. He’s moved around the defensive line throughout the season, playing at nose tackle, at the 3-technique between the offensive guard and tackle, and at defensive end.
It was at the end position that he broke out last week with four tackles for loss and two sacks in an upset win over North Dakota. His 21 total tackles and seven tackles for loss are tops among the team’s full-time defensive linemen through nines games.
“I’m just glad I made it this far through the season. I feel better than I did last year this time of the season,” Henderson said, adding that he’s dealing with just the usual bumps and bruises.
While Henderson is salvaging his final season with some individual success, the team’s achievements haven’t been as great.
Henderson committed to Idaho when the Vandals were in the midst of a 9-4 season and went to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. They went 4-8 and missed out on a bowl last year, moved down to the FCS this season and have struggled to a 4-5 mark with a young group that he's helping lead and develop in hopes of a brighter future.
“It’s a tough one,” Henderson said of the season. “It didn’t turn out like we planned it too. It might be the hardest season of my life, but it might be the most doable season. I’m grateful for it. I’m grateful to still be playing.”