When Ted Ginn Sr. first saw Willie Henry, he saw the makings of a football player. He saw a defensive lineman dripping with potential, capable of busting through opposing offensive lines and sacking the quarterback. He saw a young man who, if he utilized his physical talents, would be good enough to earn a scholarship playing college football.
Henry was a sophomore transfer to Ginn Academy, Ginn’s school where he focuses on educating the male youth of Cleveland. The school doesn’t have athletic teams, so Henry would play at Glenville High School, where Ginn coaches.
It seemed like the ideal situation for Henry. The coach produces numerous college football players in each class at Glenville and has sent a handful of players to the National Football League.
But in football, success, especially for a defensive lineman, is measured as much by determination as physical strength. It’s about how badly the player wants to hit the man on the other side of the line of scrimmage, the intimidating look on his face when he would do anything to make the tackle.
But for Henry, his first instinct wasn’t natural aggression. It was to smile.
No matter what he’s doing, the Michigan redshirt sophomore is always smiling. From the first time Ginn met Henry to the last time he walked off his field, Henry always had a big grin on his face.
“Even when he’s serious, he looks like he’s playing all the time,” Ginn said.
In the testosterone-soaked world of football where coaches demand constant aggression and meanness from their big men in the trenches, the feature that most defines Henry is often misconstrued as a lack of care.
It didn’t matter if he was running drills, in a meeting or even getting yelled at by a coach, Henry’s facial expression was the same. He never stopped smiling and laughing with his teammates.
“He’s a joker,” Ginn said. “He’s just a good kid. He’s playing around so much, he’s joking around so much. And I think in the beginning it kind of hurt him.”
During practice at Glenville, that joking was constant, which irked Ginn. He felt as though Henry’s jesting prevented him from making all of the plays he could’ve.
Ginn said Henry’s joviality was a combination of being just a happy-go-lucky guy and a little bit of immaturity.
“You could be talking to him about something serious and he’ll look at you and laugh,” Ginn said. “And it will frustrate you.”
In order to fulfill his potential as a college football player, Henry had to shed some of that playful mentality. And that was a process.
Before his senior year, Ginn began to see some changes in Henry. The smile was still there, but he began to show some of the fire and maturity Ginn was looking for.
Glenville was short on depth on the offensive line and Henry said he’d play both ways. He started on offense and defense that year, beginning a trend of leadership from Henry. When it was needed, he spoke up for the good of the team.
Ginn said the recruiting process brought out the seriousness in Henry, but it wasn’t immediate. During one recruiting visit, Henry goofed around the entire time. Then, he really heard it from Ginn.
“I got on him real tough,” Ginn said. “And that’s the time that I saw he looked real serious, because he knew I wasn’t playing with him.
“I cut that smile off his face.”
Ginn knew Henry could play in college from the first time they met, and he wasn’t going to let him risk anything.
Henry was serious about recruiting from that moment on. Still, he wasn’t considered a can’t-miss prospect. His offer sheet was composed primarily of schools from the Mid-American Conference and the Big East before Michigan offered.
“It was the greatest day of my life when I got the offer, they told me that I had the offer from Michigan,” Henry said last week. “I cherished that moment, put it in a jar, Coach Hoke would say, sealed it up.”
He didn’t wait long to commit, giving his pledge soon after he was offered in late January 2012.
Like he did with Michigan senior defensive end Frank Clark, another unheralded recruit from Glenville, Ginn told the Wolverines’ coaching staff about the potential he saw in Henry. Michigan asked him what he saw in his own players, whereas many college coaches don’t make similar efforts in the recruiting process, relying on scouting rankings and film instead.
Because of their faith in Ginn, the Wolverines found two of their starters on the defensive line.
But once he was in Ann Arbor, his easygoing demeanor prevailed again. He was still joking around, but this time the stakes were higher.
“It’s a good thing more so than it’s a bad thing,” Ginn said of Henry’s attitude. “It’s a bad thing because if you don’t really understand him, you’re going to misread him.”
Ginn thinks this negative side of his playfulness caught up to Henry a little bit in his first two years at Michigan. After redshirting his first year, Henry frequently found himself on the bench early in his second season.
When he was on the field, the coaches noticed Henry didn’t run to the ball on every play and he wasn’t serious enough for their liking. Once again, coaches felt as though the effort wasn’t fully there. He needed to mature.
“They don’t have time for that,” Ginn said.
This season, Henry has become more serious once again, starting all three games and playing a major role in the Wolverines’ stout run defense. Hoke says the 6-foot-2, 293-pounder may be the strongest player on the team.
Last week, Michigan’s coaches noted Henry’s increased desire and maturity. For the first time, his effort is a constant.
“You’ll see (him) running to the football in times of the game where he wouldn’t have before,” said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.
As with most of his young players, Hoke thought hearing Tom Brady and Elvis Grbac speak to the team — as well as watching a video of Richard Sherman talking about preparation — helped Henry understand the responsibility that comes with playing college football.
In practice in the offseason, defensive line coach Mark Smith and Hoke pushed Henry every day. They too didn’t want to see his potential go to waste.
To Henry, it felt differently than it did when his coaches previously demanded more.
“When you were immature, you feel like they’re picking on you, but as you grow you see that they just want the best for me,” Henry said.
This newfound maturity brought out the best in Henry. Instead of resting after drills or going to the locker room early, he did extra pushups and wind sprints to become a better player.
The smile hasn’t disappeared, though. When he speaks with the media, he flashes a toothy grin, revealing his braces.
But because of Henry’s newfound dedication, Ginn envisions a new future for his former player, one that goes beyond playing in college.
“He could be a guy that plays in the NFL for 10 years,” Ginn said.
That would give Henry yet another reason to smile. This time, his coaches would join right in.