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Greg Hansen: After years of hearing Donnie Henderson stories, I write one

Veteran NFL coach Donnie Henderson will lead Arizona State’s defense into Friday’s rivalry game.

At the 1992 Territorial Cup, I walked onto the ASU sideline 90 minutes before kickoff to say hello to Sun Devil defensive coordinator Kent Baer, my long-ago high school friend and fellow Utah State Aggie.

Kent introduced me to ASU’s secondary coach, Donnie Henderson, who had not just played and coached at Utah State but was selected to USU’s All-Century football team.

"I know your wife," said Henderson. "Debby, right?’ We were friends at Utah State."

I told him that I knew many of his USU teammates: Detroit Lions QB Eric Hipple, Denver Broncos star Rulon Jones and those who coached him at USU, including ASU’s 1990s head coach Bruce Snyder.

"Let’s talk," said Donnie. "Give me a call when you’re in Phoenix."

When I got home after the game, my wife asked if I had written anything about Donnie.

"I’ll do it next year," I said.

And for the next four years, the conversation repeated.

"Did you write about Donnie?"

"I’ll do it next year."

I heard Donnie Henderson stories every year. He got his coaching start at USU for coach Chris Pella, whose wife, Rita, was one of my wife’s close friends.

"You couldn’t meet a man any nicer than Donnie," my wife said." You should write about him."

Every year she told me stories about Donnie, especially about how he overcame a difficult childhood. He grew up in the racial tension at Watts, a south-central suburb of Los Angeles, surviving the 1960s riots when the National Guard protected him and his neighbors, driving tanks up and down the streets of Watts.

Donnie went to Locke High School, teammates with future Hall of Fame baseball players Ozzie Smith and Eddie Murray. He didn’t have enough money for his own baseball cleats, so Ozzie gave him his.

"You could write about that," my wife said.

Donnie became such a prominent athlete at Locke High School that the Detroit Tigers offered him a contract. Instead, he chose football, enrolling at Santa Monica Junior College where Snyder spotted him and recruited him to become an Aggie.

After his college days, Donnie was signed by the Detroit Lions but was ultimately released. To make a living, he became a clothing salesman. Three years later the Aggies offered him a coaching job. His career has since become something out of a storybook.

"You could write about that," I was told.

At the ’96 Territorial Cup, I planned to interview Donnie, but that all changed when Sun Devil quarterback Jake Plummer had the game of his life, dismantling Arizona 56-14, leading ASU to the Rose Bowl. The story was Plummer, not the secondary coach.

A few weeks later, I was assigned to cover the Rose Bowl, where I hoped to interview Donnie and write about his impressive football career and how his rise to the top paralleled that of the Sun Devils.

Once I got in Pasadena, I was told no assistant coaches would be made available for interviews.

That’s when I lost track of Donnie. He left ASU and soon was coaching for another ex-Aggie, Brian Billick, as the Baltimore Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV. He then became the defensive coordinator for Herm Edwards and the New York Jets, followed by a job as a defensive coordinator with the Detroit Lions and another ex-Aggie, Lions head coach Rod Marinelli.

There was so much I wanted to find out about Donnie.. The many USU connections intrigued me. He subsequently coached the Arizona Cardinals, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills, among others.

Finally, last winter, I read that Donnie had returned to Tempe and would be the defensive coordinator for Edwards, something of an around-the-world coaching tour. At 65, Donnie had agreed to go back to college to help pick up the pieces of what appeared to be a splintering Sun Devil program.

"Are you going to write about Donnie now?" my wife asked.

Yes, I said. This is the year.

Donnie Henderson has coached more than 400 football games since his days as an All-Century cornerback at my alma mater. The oldest of seven children from a family that grew up in poverty in south central Los Angeles, was unafraid to step into the chaos that was ASU football.

Donnie is the last remaining coach from the Herm Edwards coaching tree on an ASU staff that has been torn apart by an NCAA investigation and a disconcerting 3-8 season. After Edwards was discharged last month. Donnie became the most experienced voice of the ASU football program.

"You’ve got to write about Donnie now," my wife said.

Over the weekend, I contacted ASU media relations director Doug Tammaro and asked about Donnie’s availability for an interview. Unfortunately, his schedule is jammed on a short Thanksgiving week and the attendant prep for the Territorial Cup.

My hope to interview Donnie Henderson began 30 years ago at Arizona Stadium. He’s got such a compelling story. But the UA-ASU game will be Donnie’s last. He will retire after the Territorial Cup.

I don’t know what I’m going to tell my wife.

In the second-to-last week of the regular season, there are a handful of games that will help shape conference championship matchups and potential postseason bowl games. No. 7 USC vs. No. 16 UCLA highlights this week’s top-10 slate.

Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or ghansen@tucson.com. On Twitter: @ghansen711


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