The academic and spiritual side of UW’s Aaron Henry
By Jonathan Gramling
Part 2 of 2
It was a move that changed his world when he was in the third grade. Aaron Henry a starting safety
on the UW Badgers football team and named to the 2009 Academic All Big Ten team, had gone to live
with his grandmother in Immokalee, Florida. Functionally illiterate and what some would call
hyperactive, Henry’s grandmother gave him the guidance he needed to become an A student and shine
as a football player. By the time he graduated from high school, Henry was one of the top 20 graduating
seniors at Immokalee High School and considering football scholarship offers from 26 universities.
Henry narrowed down the list to Florida, Iowa, South Carolina and Wisconsin. He made the long trip to
Madison. “I didn’t know anything about Madison,” Henry said. “I didn’t know anything about Wisconsin
until my first visit here. When I visited, it wasn’t that nice here. It was about 30 degrees and they were
playing Illinois. They were down about 17 points at the half. They ended up coming back. It was freezing
that day. Nick Toon was one of the guys who helped me solidify coming here. He ended up bringing me
up a cup of hot chocolate that day and it was freezing.”
Outside of Toon’s kindness, Wisconsin had something else going for it that gave it the inside track
when Henry’s final choice came down to Florida and Wisconsin. Immokalee High School both had red
and white as school colors and shared the same fight song. And then there was his aunt’s advice.
“What mattered was me getting out of the state of Florida,” Henry said. “I love my grandma to death.
Originally, I was thinking I just wanted to stay close to her. But my aunt came in — she stepped into the
situation — and she said ‘You can always come home. At the end of your four years, you can come
Aaron Henry starts as a
safety on the UW-Madison
football team while
maintaining a 3.01 GPA.
home and stay home for the rest of your life if you want to. But you should get out there and see what the rest of the world is like.’”
When he came to the University of Wisconsin, one may have thought that Henry would have a difficult transition coming from a
small Florida high school to a world-class university. But just as he had prepared for this next step in his life on the football field, Henry
had also prepared in the classroom by taking advanced placement classes.
“My teacher was Amy Williams, a beautiful lady,” Henry said. “She does an amazing job at teaching. My goodness! I remember
when I walked into her class. I understood some things, but she made my freshman year at college easier than my junior year in high
school because of the way she taught. A lot of people don’t find out what AP is until they get here to college. I found that out my junior
year in high school. By the time I got here, it made it that much easier. She did a tremendous job with us and a whole bunch of other
students. When I came here my freshman year, when a lot of guys were struggling and didn’t know which direction they wanted to go in,
I had a plan and idea and that is why I was able to do well both academically and athletically.”
Henry has to be on top of his game, academically and athletically. And because he is very competitive in whatever he does in life,
Henry puts in the time and hard work in for both in order to excel. He wants to be the very best.
Although he was well-prepared to come to the University of Wisconsin, it is hardly a cakewalk. “It’s tough, man, very, very tough,”
Henry exclaimed. “Time management is the key, especially when you are trying to compete at a high level, both academically and
athletically. You want to go out and get wins, but you also want to be able to say at the end of the semester that you have a high enough
GPA to be considered an Academic All Big Ten guy.”
“On a typical day, my morning starts about 9:30 a.m.,” Henry said. “It ends during the week at night, on Tuesday about 9:30-10 p.m.
That’s when I leave here. But I go home and do homework as well. I probably don’t get to bed until around 1 a.m. You have to do a 14
Henry’s life could have turned out drastically different. But he made the right choices in his life and accepted help when he needed
“Kids should keep pursuing their dreams,” Henry emphasized. “At a young age, I was told that I wasn’t going to be able to amount
to anything and look at where I am today. Kids need to listen to their parents. If I hadn’t listened to my grandma, there is no telling where
I would be at. If you come from a bad situation, if you come from a bad background, you don’t have to be what you come from. If you
grew up in the projects, if you grew up in the ghetto, if you grew up around shootings, alcohol and drugs — similar to me — you don’t
have to end up like that. You don’t have to be a statistic. You can always change the way you end your life as opposed to the way you
grew up. Just keep pursuing your dream. When someone tells you that you can’t go any further, keep going. That’s the main thing
because it’s going to come a time when you are going to have obstacles. There are going to be times when you feel you want to give up.
But keep pushing man.”
Watch any UW football game and one can see Henry flying around the field covering the receivers of the opposition. But while Henry
flies around with ease, is on a UW football team that is 6th in the nation, is Academic All Big Ten and seems that he has everything going
for him, doesn’t mean that Henry doesn’t face personal challenges along the way.
“There are times when I get discouraged,” Henry said. “I’ve had four knee surgeries since I’ve been here in college. But even
throughout my discouragement and my trials and tribulations, I’ve learned how to deal with them. It’s not what is thrown at you, but it is
how you handle it that is going to be the testament of your character as a man. When I tore my ACL, I could have easily given up on my
academics and not really cared so much about football. I could have easily stopped going to class. But I had to be even more strict on
my academics when I got hurt because when you get hurt, you don’t really want to do too much. You just want to sit around and mope.
But I knew I had to get on myself. And I thank the Lord because it has truly been a blessing in disguise because even throughout my
tribulations and my pain that I have been through, it has helped mold and shape me into the person that I am today. If I had not gone
through that, you probably wouldn’t be looking at the same guy today. Anytime someone is dealing with problems and situations and they
feel that they can’t get through them, they need to remember that it could always be worse. I usually try to tell people that. Instead of my
knee, it could have been my neck. It could have been a ton of different things. It could have been my back. So I just try to take any
situation I’m dealt with, even if it is negative, and I try to turn them into a positive.”
Most importantly, what keeps Henry going, no matter what difficulties he faces, is his spirituality. “I’m a Christian and my faith is
what makes me as a person, a human being,” Henry said. “If a person wants to define me, I am sure that they would be able to define
me by my faith in God. I know if I continue to trust in Him and believe in Him, he is going to put me where I need to be. At the end of the
day, there is no touchdown that is going to solidify my spot in where He wants me to be. There is no statistic on the football field or
academically that is going to put me where He wants me to be. So just keep chasing your dream and have a plan.”
Henry is on a mission, in the classroom and on the football field. One can’t help but feel that he will succeed in life because he has
prepared himself academically, athletically and spiritually to surmount any challenge that comes his way. And down in Immokalee,
Florida, one can imagine his grandmother standing on the stoop of her home, proud of all that her grandson has achieved.