Tim Henderson puts lacrosse on hold to serve in military
The plane ticket to Boston was already booked and Tim Henderson, one of the New York Lizards' best defenders last year, was ready to make his season debut and rejoin a team anxious for his leadership.
But Henderson never made it to Harvard Stadium for that lacrosse game on June 21 against the Cannons, and he doesn't expect to play for the Lizards in any game before next season, at the earliest.
Instead of playing professional lacrosse, the 24-year-old will soon be in Afghanistan, serving as a field artillery officer for the U.S. Army.
"Would I like to just show up and play lacrosse every week and not have other responsibilities? Yeah, that crosses my mind," the soldier from Syracuse said. "But that's not a mature way to approach it. I signed up for this and it's something I believe in so it's a no-brainer for me that it's the right thing to do."
Henderson graduated from United States Military Academy at West Point in May 2012, from where he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He was selected in the Major League Lacrosse collegiate draft earlier that year by the Rochester Rattlers and was traded soon afterward to the Lizards. While undergoing a six-month period of army training after commencement, Henderson was able to play in 11 games for the Lizards.
Things are different this season, though.
Henderson and Lizards coach Joe Spallina were optimistic he would be able to play in quite a few games after going over the schedule together. Yet after his army training ended, Henderson was stationed with a unit in North Carolina and encountered scheduling conflicts with every game until up until June 21, which was to be his season-debut.
Or at least that's what was thought initially.
Just days before that game, Henderson received word that he was being transferred to the Fort Hood unit in Texas, one that will be deploying to Afghanistan within the next week. Despite his desire to play, he was not allowed.
Henderson immediately phoned Spallina and not only told his coach the news, but apologized as well.
"I just felt bad that it was three days before the game I was supposed to play in and now I'm calling [Spallina] because obviously I feel a commitment to the team and I never like to be the guy who doesn't show up," Henderson said.
The apology, Spallina said, was totally unrequired.
"The last thing that man needed was to hear me being disappointed that he's not playing in a lacrosse game," Spallina said. "You look at some of these pro athletes and how they take things for granted, and here's a guy who is going to fight for our country, who was going to fly across the country one time just to put the uniform on."
In his pregame speech in Boston, Spallina dedicated the game to Henderson and said, "Tonight, we play for Hendo." The Lizards (3-7) ended up losing and severely miss Henderson's skills both on and off the field.
"He was an emotional leader for our team last year as a rookie," goalie Drew Adams said. "It's not often someone comes into this league as a rookie and be that kind of guy that people can rally around."
Now, Henderson will be leading a different team with a mission far more complex than winning a lacrosse game. Henderson believes he was transferred to a deploying unit because he's young, single and doesn't have kids. He was also a bit surprised because not many units are expected to deploy between now and the end of 2014, he said. During the 2013 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama said the U.S. military will reduce the troop level in Afghanistan from 68,000 to 34,000 by February 2014.
Henderson could've studied and played college lacrosse elsewhere but instead he chose to be a soldier, following the footsteps of his grandfather, father and older brother. Henderson' s brother, Bill, also graduated from West Point and played in the MLL. In a similar situation, Bill played a couple of games for the Hamilton Nationals in 2011 and was then deployed.
"My brother told me some logistical things to know," Henderson said. "But there's really not much you tell someone about this."
As a West Point graduate, Henderson owes the army five years of service immediately after commencement. It's something he knows he signed up for and something that he said he doesn't regret, despite potential consequences.
It's perhaps the ultimate sacrifice a professional athlete can make.
"They train us very well for our jobs, and I have no issue going overseas," Henderson said. "It'd be like going to practice every day for two years and never playing in a game. It's sort of the same with the army. You get trained and you feel proficient at your job, and you want to go do your job and for us, that's being overseas where the fight is."