In 2015 I attended the Military Bowl with my youngest son Max. My son was nine years old and by all accounts, a rabid Pitt fan. He was anxious to attend his first bowl game and cheer on his favorite team. We stayed at the team hotel and he was in his glory. We walked around the lobby and Max was able to meet countless coaches and players. He was so excited, it was nearly impossible getting him to sleep. The morning of the matchup between the Panthers and the Navy Midshipmen, the voice of the Panthers, Bill Hillgrove, asked my son to sit with him during breakfast. Max sat at his table, believing he was a celebrity, and had a smile ear to ear. I captured the photo of the breakfast and it proudly is displayed in my study.
We quickly ran to our room, dressed for the game and ventured down to the lobby to get our car. Max was a bit dismayed that we missed the team walking out to the team bus. Just then a player quickly ran back into the hotel. He was able to see us standing in the lobby. The player ran over and gave myself and my son a hug. Max was elated and I was honored that he thought enough to break away from the team to greet us. He then patted Max on the head and said, “I’m scoring one for you today.” It may have been a small gesture for the player, but it was significant for a young, rabid fan. My son was elated. On the way to charming Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, MD, he insisted on calling my wife and raving about the brief interaction with the player. On the opening play of the game, something magical happened. That player caught the ball on the opening kickoff and ran the ball back 99-yards for a touchdown on the first play of the game. My son started screaming. He pointed at the Pitt fans sitting in our section screaming, “That was for me!” For a father, it was a magical moment. The player that scored that touchdown was Quadree Henderson.
On Monday, Quadree Henderson announced he would be leaving the Pitt football program to enter the National Football League draft. The 5-foot-8 inch, 190 pound dynamo holds the Pitt career record for return touchdowns and he is one of only two players in school history to compile more than 2,000 all-purpose yards in a season. A consensus All-American in 2016, he accumulated 2,083 all-purpose yards during the season, second only to Tony Dorsett.
Yesterday, I spoke with Henderson about his decision to enter the NFL draft.
Why did you opt to declare for the NFL draft?
It was pretty much the last game and I started thinking and I wasn’t really touching the ball as much as I want my sophomore year. My production numbers are down I didn’t want to run that risk again next year. So I just decided to test the waters and enter into the draft.
Did you do any research prior to your decision? Did you speak with anyone affiliated with the NFL? Perhaps a scout?
It was pretty much just me, my mom and my dad. I’ve been hearing from a lot of teams, just from academic advisors, a lot of people coming to practices and some resources I have let me know what scouts are saying about me. So I pretty much used all of my resources before I made my final decision.
Where do you see yourself in the NFL? You have excelled as a punt returner and you can play receiver. Is there anyone you would like to emulate in the NFL?
I feel like I’d offer that Tyreek Hill role, that Ryan Switzer role, that Tavon Austin role. I have the ability to make plays in an open space. I wasn’t going to be given the chance to do that this year on offensive side of the ball besides kick returns and punt returns. I definitely see myself in that situation, a guy that get in space and make plays happen just get the ball in my hands and space and just let me work my magic.
What was the reaction of your coaches and teammates when you told them about your decision?
I told my teammates. They were happy for me. They wished me the best of luck. Same thing with my coaches and I talked to Coach Narduzzi. He told me it was an honor coaching me, he wished the best for me in my next journey. My teammates they were just … they were happy for me. They were happy for me just for me like they were my parents or something. And when they congratulated me and told me they could see me doing big things at the next level.
What were your favorite moments as a Pitt Panther?
My first memory is definitely the Military Bowl, you know the first play of the game my freshman year was my first collegiate touchdown. You know that was one of my favorite moments, you always dream of scoring your touchdown on the big stage on television and it just so happened to come the first play of the Military Bowl as a freshmen. I ran the opening kickoff 100 yards to the house for my first touchdown on the first play of the game.
My second favorite memory had to be against Virginia this year, the punt return. Virginia had been game planning for me to run back to the sideline so they over-loaded the sideline and I just directly ran down the sideline, broke seven tackles, got tripped up but kept my balance and just dove over for a touchdown.
My other two games are the Miami and the Clemson games. Nobody expected us to go into either of those games winning. I don’t think we even had a shot to beat Clemson or had a shot to beat Miami from what the fans saw or what all the ESPN analysts thought. So just to go out there and beat them, it was definitely an honor to say I was part of a team that knocked off the number two team in the nation two years in a row.
Elaborate a bit on the friendships you have made at Pitt. How much will you miss playing with your teammates?
Those guys, they definitely are brothers just being there for three years. You know you build a relationship with everybody at the facility on the daily basis. We are all waking up around the same time to go practice, watch film, run around for two hours and get better. Just being with them for three years in a row, you really look as them as a brother. You see them every day, you’re with them every day, and you’re doing everything with them, going out to eat, going to basketball games and doing fun stuff with them. All of them are like family to me. I’m from Delaware which is five hours away so I don’t really get to go home during the season so you know you just have to treat them like family and let them comfort you.
Many former players like Larry Fitzgerald, Tyler Boyd, James Conner and Aaron Donald come back to Pitt and stay in close touch with the football program. Will you be doing the same?
I’m definitely still going to be pretty active with the program. I like giving back, I never forget where I came from. Even back at home I still go to my high school games whenever I get a chance, go to the little league games, you know teams I played for when I was little. When I was little, I just go back and give them support so I’m definitely going to stay at Pitt, give them support, going to games when I’m not playing in NFL just going back to games to give them support.
You have made the decision to enter the NFL draft. What are your short-term goals?
I don’t really have too many goals but one of my short-term goals is definitely get picked up to actually play in the NFL. You know I’ve been dreaming of this moment since I was five years old, you know I’m 21 now so this has been a long time coming. So definitely just to play in the NFL, to have a good team, just to say, “I did it”. The NFL is not forever, there’s only a certain amount of years people are expected to play, when I retire from the NFL I just want to give my kids, if I have any at the time, the feedback and just to have the experience to play in the NFL at the national level.
The Pitt coaching staff will be entertaining recruits throughout the month of December. If you had to discuss the football program with a potential recruit, what would you tell them?
I would tell them that the program is A+, you know everything they tell you is true. They’re going to work your butt off, they want the best players on the team, they’re not going to shoot you anything wrong. They’re going to tell you right from wrong, they’re going be on your case all the time. Make sure that you’re working, ethics, in the weight room and on the field is a part of it. Once you get to college it’s a different level, you know the speed of the game changes. You’ve going to learn a lot about offenses, learn concepts and things like that. But the program as a whole is a great program.
Harry Psaros can be found on Twitter at @PittGuru