Safety Aaron Henry during the Raiders off-season program. Photo by Tony Gonzales
Safety Aaron Henry grew up in Immakolee, Fla., a small town an hour and a half west of Miami. It is a town known mostly for producing star NFL running back Edgerrin James, and it was James who helped inspire Henry to aim high in his football career. "Edgerrin James is kind of our claim to fame," said Henry on Immokalee. "He was in the league for probably about 10 years and he's going to be a Hall of Fame running back. To this day, he's made himself available to me. I can call him any time to just ask for advice and he's definitely a guy that I look up. Knowing Edgerrin personally it's been amazing."
Before getting started in football, Henry's unconventional upbringing helped mold him into the football player and person he is today. "I was raised by my grandparents," Henry explained. "My grandmother did a tremendous job in my upbringing. She shaped and molded me into the guy that I am today. I have nine sisters, but that's not even counting my two step-sisters. I have 11 sisters total. I have a baby brother as well and it's just a huge, huge family. I was raised by my grandmother and one of my other sisters so on the weekends I'd be able to go to Ft. Myers where my mom stayed and see the rest of my family. My mom had a lot of kids and she had a really tough time raising all of us, so my grandmother, while my father was incarcerated, took it upon herself to help raise us."
His relationship with his family as well as his faith is what he believes has made him successful. "I'm deeply rooted in my faith," said Henry. "My faith is what makes me the person that I am."
Growing up in Immokalee, Henry was involved with many sports including football, basketball and track. Although good at all three, he put the most effort into football and received the best college scholarship offers. "I was a premiere point guard on my high school team, but football in Immokalee was the way to get out of Immokalee," said Henry. "I didn't take [basketball] as serious just because all of my cousins were playing football and everyone else was playing football. I was known as the kid around town who was a really, really good football player, so I didn't really take my basketball game to the next level or take it serious."
Henry decided to take his football talents to the University of Wisconsin, where he played with QB Russell Wilson, drafted in 2012 by the Seattle Seahawks, and RB Montee Ball, who was a 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist. Facing those two in practice every day helped prepare Henry for the NFL. "Russell Wilson, I had a chance to go against that guy, him and Montee Ball, had a chance to against those two guys every day in practice," said Henry. "The way Russell, that one year that he was in there with us, and the way he commanded the offense and the way he ran things, he's going to be a success at this level, there's no doubt in my mind, because of the tenacity that he has and the will and the drive and the complete determination. He's also extremely smart guy as well."
His preparation for the NFL also came from playing in the Big 10 Conference. "It's very identical as far as the style of play," explained Henry. "Both styles of play are very, very aggressive. They do a lot of shifts and motions. The college offense that I came from, it was run by Paul Chryst, who's the head coach at Pittsburgh right now, and this guy is a guru. He motioned guys, we had five or six calls, depending on one play. We may adjust five or six times. It's definitely made me look at the grand scheme of things."
Henry's time at Wisconsin also evolved his personal style of play. "I suffered an injury my freshman year in college and I tore my ACL and it really made me become a student of the game," said Henry. "Beforehand, I was really, really aggressive. But now, I would still consider myself as aggressive, but [now] there's a little bit of finesse. Early on in my college career, I just played football. I really didn't care too much about what kind of set they were in or what kind of tendencies they were giving. Now that I'm at this level, coming from college, I'm able to see the big picture and go out there and play the game smart, but also be aggressive."
His ability to add the mental aspect to his game - reading the play, recognizing down and distance and formations - has given him the opportunity to play for an NFL team. Henry found out he was courted by the Raiders during a party thrown by his grandmother, celebrating his college graduation as well as his future NFL career. "I came out of the room and told [my grandmother] and gave her a hug and everybody was crying," said Henry. "My sisters were there, my mom was there. The only person who wasn't there was my father. Hopefully when he gets out in the next couple of weeks, I'm going to have a chance to go and see him. He was extremely excited and so it was a complete thrill for my family to be right there and find out that I'm coming to Oakland."
"[Being signed by the Raiders] was just a blessing because my whole life it's been a dream to me to even play in the NFL. So now to even have this opportunity to say I'm a member of an NFL team is utterly exciting."