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August 18, 2013
It has been 995 days since Rob Henry started at quarterback for Purdue.
And it's been a challenging nearly three years, too.
Henry has overcome a torn ACL and a season full of frustration from riding the bench in 2012, feeling as though he was healthy but underutilized. When Darrell Hazell accepted the Boilermakers' head coaching job in January, he made it clear there would be one quarterback fully handed the reins to lead the program.
Henry has waited, with a calmness and patience grounded in his faith, for his second chance.
And, on Sunday, Hazell officially gave it to him, announcing the fifth-year senior will be Purdue's No. 1 quarterback. He beat out redshirt freshman Austin Appleby and freshman Danny Etling for the job.
"You got a sense probably within the last week or so that he was clearly, in our minds, the guy that was doing the things we needed to do to move the offense consistently," Hazell said Sunday. "He was clearly the guy, but you wanted to let it all play out and see exactly where it went. It played out. He was consistent every single practice. Period. He was. He was very consistent with how he approached it, how he executed the offense, and I think that's what probably makes the biggest difference.
"He's going to be pretty special this year because he's hungry. There's something to be said about that."
Henry earned the job, in part, because of his ability to grasp new coordinator John Shoop's complicated system, its complex language and its variety of groupings, shifts and motions. Henry was poised, rarely allowing any moments of uncertainty to show inside the huddle.
But Henry also showed improved accuracy - he had the highest completion percentage of the QBs in camp - and more zip on the ball than in the past.
Perhaps, though, the most important trait exhibited over the last two weeks was the way he impressively balanced his athleticism with his willingness to be a passer first, debunking the perception he is only a running quarterback.
"Guys that are as athletic and as fast as he is sometimes rely too much on their feet and not enough on their brain and their arm and distributing the ball," Shoop said. "I think he's really, really worked hard to find that balance of, 'I'm going to run when I have to run.' But he's done a really good job working the pocket, finding the safe spot in the pocket and delivering the ball as a passer."
Henry admitted that's been the toughest adjustment in this offense, sticking in the pocket and making this offense work with his arm first instead of relying on his feet. It's still a challenge and something he continues to work on, he said.
He realizes some see him as a running quarterback because that's the system he's been in throughout his career, and he simply did what was asked of him. But now
"Having that perception of being a guy who can just run the ball, I'm ready to show people what I can do," he said Sunday.
Fans haven't really gotten much of that chance so far in Henry's career.
Henry's last start was against Indiana on November 27, 2010, the final in a string of seven in his redshirt freshman season. That year, he was rushed into the job when starter Robert Marve tore his ACL in the season's fourth game. Ultimately, Henry became the first QB in school history to lead the team in rushing and passing in a season.
But even that wasn't a smooth one. In only his third start, Henry's throwing hand hit the helmet of an Ohio State defensive player, badly mangling the index finger on his hand. He actually started the next week at Illinois but didn't last long. He never considered not going out there. That's not who Henry is - or ever has been.
"I knew from the beginning that if there was any way he could play, he would," said Henry's father, Wayne. "The harder that you work for something, you make it your goal, then the harder it is to just give up on it," said Henry's father, Wayne. "If you've put a lot of time and effort into it then you're not just going to give up on it just because of some type of injury, if there's any way possible."
By the end of the season, Henry finished with two of his most productive games, completing 16-of-26 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns against Michigan State and then throwing for 252 yards and three TDs against Indiana.
He was set to be the starter in 2011, after Marve was slow to recover from his knee injury and Caleb TerBush was coming off a season of being academically ineligible. But then, one week before the opener, Henry tore the ACL in his right knee during practice.
But while family, teammates and friends struggled with the injury, Henry was resolved. He stayed positive, stayed focused on returning better than ever.
To him, it was just another moment to conquer.
"Obviously there's been some ups and downs," Henry said of his career. "Coming out of my redshirt freshman year thinking, 'I've got a chance to play for several years here and do some good things.' Staying level-headed (was important). That's life.
"My faith always keeps me grounded. So that's probably the No. 1 thing, just knowing that good things are going to happen."
Henry did all he could to come back in 2012 healthy, abiding by rehab schedules and working on his own to strengthen the knee.
He thought he was ready to go.
Coaches, though, weren't as confident. They spoke about being "cautious" and not rushing Henry back.
What that led to was Henry watching from the bench, occasionally getting some quarterback snaps in blowouts. Until, later in the season, when Henry played some receiver for the Boilermakers.
At that time, he never voiced frustration. He never questioned the decision-making.
Now, he admits that it was "definitely rough" and how he wishes the situation would have been clear about who was going to play and how much. But quickly, in true Henry fashion, he says how he understood the situation the coaches were in and how there were other quarterbacks who'd had experience and how the team was coming off a bowl appearance.
"It is what it is and we accept it and move on," he said this summer. "You can't change yesterday, you can only look forward to today and the next one."
That's the kind of response and attitude that has impressed Henry's teammates.
It wasn't just his accuracy or his ability to "crush defense's morale," per Hazell, when he does finally break the pocket and rush for a key first down that had Henry poised to be the starter. It's also his exemplary work ethic, maturity and steady leadership off the field.
"For everything he's overcome in injury, some of the quarterback things that happened in the past, he never changed. He was the same guy every single day," Appleby said Saturday, before the decision was announced. "You never saw him pout. All he did was come every single day and bust his behind to be the best player he can be, and he never lost faith. He's just been the best teammate he can possibly be for us. For him to get his shot and for him to come out of here the starting quarterback, if in fact he is, I'd be so happy for him and do nothing but support him all season because that's what he'd do for me."
Eight times during an interview on Sunday, Henry said he was "excited." Only once did that relate to having the title of starting quarterback.
For him, it's about being an example as a man of character, for being someone who earns his teammates trust and respect. And, he hopes, who leads a program to victories.
"I'm really just excited about this season, excited about the offense that we're going to run and the guys we're going to get the ball to," he said. "I'm excited to be the starting quarterback but more excited to see where this year goes for the team."
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