The academic and spiritual side of UW’s Aaron Henry
Athletic Scholar

By Jonathan Gramling

Part 1 of 2

       Like so many young African American young men, if Aaron Henry, a starting safety on the UW
Badgers football team and named to the 2009 Academic All Big Ten team, had grown up in Madison, he
may have been labeled ‘educationally disabled’ when he was in the third grade and given up on. Henry
was illiterate, he didn’t know how to read and he was very energetic, which may have led others to
label him ADHD.
       But Henry was fortunate because he was from Immokalee, a small town on the edge of the Florida
Everglades where football is king and he went to live with his grandmother when he was in the third
grade. It was a move that would transform his life.
       Henry’s grandmother raised him and one of his sisters. And when she started raising Henry, her
values began to mold him. The first order of business was education. “I was in the third grade and I
couldn’t read at all,” Henry said. “The Dr. Seuss books were something big for her and my upbringing. I
can remember one time when I first moved in with her during the summer and I didn’t know how to
read, she made me. First she sat down and read the book to me a couple of times throughout the
summer. Every day before she got home from work, I had to have read that book at least 2-3 times.
After a while, I began to memorize the words in the book. It was kind of a rhyming book. Eventually, I
ended up catching on to it. I think my first semester with her during the third grade, I didn’t do so well. I
really wanted to play football. I was a kid with all kinds of energy. She told me that in order for me to
play football or any kind of sports or even go outside and play with my friends, I was going to have to
Aaron Henry starts as a
safety on the UW-Madison
football team while
maintaining a 3.01 GPA.
take care of my schoolwork first. After that, I just made it my business and took pride in excelling in school. That’s when I started to
raise my hand more in class. By the time fourth grade came around, I was on the honor roll. Within a span of a year, she gave it her all
and poured education into me and made me want to go out there and read more books and discover what was in the books.”

      She also taught Henry to have faith in God and faith in himself. When she took Henry and his sisters into her household, there was a
lot of talk in town how that might not be the right situation for the children.
       “A lot of people felt like she shouldn’t be raising her son’s son and this and that,” Henry said. “But my grandmother, the way she
raised her kids was amazing. She knew she could raise her son’s kids as well. So when a lot of people told her she couldn’t do it, she
went ahead and did it any way. For me to believe in myself, she just told me that she didn’t care what anyone else said and that I
shouldn’t care what anyone else said, but every day, try to get a little better at this reading thing because reading was a big issue for
me. I knew that if I couldn’t read, I wouldn’t have been able to excel in the classroom. If we can start small and then work our way up —
take small steps at a time — eventually, I was going to get to that point where I was going to be a honor roll student. Luckily for me, it
happened a year later. It wasn’t 4-5 years later. I truly thank my grandmother for that because she took time out of her life to raise me
and she was over 60 years old at the time.”
       At that age, Henry was filled with energy, an energy that could drive everyone else in the household crazy. “Initially, I was staying
with my mom before I moved in with my grandmother,” Henry said. “They knew I always had a whole bunch of energy. I was just this
crazy kid with a whole bunch of energy. I was always running around like a chicken with its head cut off. I always had this ball of energy
and they didn’t know where it came from. But they knew they wanted me to somehow put it into a sport because when I came home from
school, I was always running around the house. I was always playing. They figured if I put it into a sport, when I got home, I would be
tired. When I moved to Immokalee to stay with my grandmother, she wanted academics to be taken care of before I got into the sport.
But once I started handling my academic part, she ended up putting me into a sport. It pretty much went up from there. I always ended up
coming home so tired. I didn’t have the energy that I had. But I knew I had to get my homework done. I knew I had to take care of my
responsibilities in the classroom as well.”
       Henry was enrolled in Pop Warner football where the youth started with flag football and went up from there. At that level, the youth
play at just about every position. His dad was involved in his life and would come and watch him play. Henry’s talent became apparent
to him the first time that Henry stepped on the football field. And his dad would give him little incentives to be the best that he could be.
“During Pop Warner, my dad paid me $10 every time I scored a touchdown,” Henry recalled with a smile. “It got to the point, my fourth or
fifth year, it was the night before a game and he and I were just sitting down talking. He told me ‘Don’t forget, $10 for every touchdown.’ I
was like ‘What if I score 10 touchdowns?’ He started laughing. He told me that would $100 and he told me that I would never score 10
touchdowns. The next day we had a game, I had five touchdowns by the half. He told the coaches not to play me the rest of the game. It
was kind of funny. From that point on, he knew that I was a pretty special kid on the football field. But it was hilarious because he talks
about that story to this day. I ended up with six touchdowns that game. I think I ended up scoring one on defense as well. He didn’t want
me playing offense anymore. He told them they shouldn’t play me on offense anymore, but I got an interception or a fumble recovery and I
took it in for an 80 yard touchdown. He was trying to find a way to get me off the field.”
       Henry’s grandmother ran a tight household and Henry never forgot that his academics came before football. For the most part, he
stayed with that philosophy through high school and beyond. Things weren’t always easy for Henry academically. “From time to time, I
would fail a test or I wouldn’t do so well on a test,” Henry said. “I would go home and we would talk about it. But she always used to tell
me ‘If you gave it your all and you left it all in the classroom, I can’t be mad about anything.’ I was constantly bringing home As. I was
always doing well in the classroom. But from time to time, I wouldn’t do so well on an exam or do so well on a test. But when the end of
the semester or school year came, I always finished out well.”
       Henry is a very competitive person and so he became naturally competitive in the classroom as well as out on the football field. He
wanted to be the best academically by the time that he graduated from high school.
       “I graduated in the top 20 students in my high school,” Henry said. “Our school colors are red and white. But all of the students who
graduate have on a red gown. But the top 20 kids in academics wear a white gown. I graduated with a 4.3 GPA coming out of high
school. I had taken some AP courses. That was probably one of my most memorable moments as far as academics go. I went from a kid
who went to his grandmother’s house and couldn’t really read or spell and wasn’t good in mathematics — the only thing he knew what
to do was run around and have a ball of energy — and my grandmother took that somehow and channeled it. She found a way for me to
use it in school and on the football field. Graduating from high school was probably one of my greatest accomplishments just because of
where I graduated from and how I did it. My grandmother was there for my graduation. She was very excited. She was crying, the whole
nine yards. My mom was there. Everyone was excited for me of course. But my grandmother knew from the way she raised me to how I
was when I graduated, she knew she had done some things very well.”
       In his sophomore year, Henry made the varsity football team at Immokalee High School. But it wasn’t until his junior year that he
started having break-out games. “In my junior year, to start off the season, I led the state in punt returns for touchdowns,” Henry said. “I
think the first game I played punt returner in, I had something like 200 punt return yards. A lot of people went ‘Wow.’ I always knew I had
ability. But it just came kind of easy at the high school level. Once I got the ball in my hands, I knew I was a playmaker. It became
easier than I thought it was. From that point in time, I knew I had some ability to take it to the next level.”
       And due to his performance in the classroom and on the football field, Henry had a lot of Division I colleges and universities
interested in giving him a football scholarship. By the time he graduated from high school, he had offers from 26 universities.
       Next issue: The making of a winner