William Henderson was 'the ultimate pro' at fullback

Three Packers RBs combined for nine 1,000-yard seasons with him as lead blocker

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Former Packers FB William Henderson

William Henderson

  • Inducted: 2011
  • Fullback: 1995-2006
  • Height: 6-1; Weight: 252
  • College: North Carolina, 1991, '93-94

Honors:

  • Associated Press All-Pro Team (chosen since 1940): 2004
  • Pro Bowl Selection (played since 1950): 2004

When the relatively brief evolution of NFL fullbacks from featured runners to largely blocking backs was all but completed, William Henderson was among the new breed and one of the best.

In the early to mid-1990s as teams started using more oversized interior defensive linemen – up to 325 pounds, if not more – those new-generation behemoths would fill the gaps between the centers and guards, allowing linebackers to run free and blow up inside running plays. Plus, by the mid-1980s, the trend among teams winning Super Bowls was to either play bigger and bigger fullbacks from Maurice Carthon of the New York Giants to Daryl Johnston of Dallas, or run from one-back sets like Washington.

Their success bred copycats and almost overnight every team still lining up in two-back formations was seeking a more one-dimensional fullback to serve as a lead blocker for a primary running back or what many still called a halfback.

Henderson was a perfect fit for the role and his calling on most plays over his 12 seasons with the Packers was to escort into the hole the likes of Edgar Bennett, Dorsey Levens and Ahman Green, who combined for nine 1,000-yard rushing seasons from 1995 to 2006.

It was an unsung role requiring an unselfish outlook on the game.

"He brings a lot to our offense because there aren't a lot of big men that can do what he does," Mike Sherman, Henderson's head coach for six years, once said. "Block, catch the football, do the right thing at the right time all the time. He does his job as well as anybody in the business."

When the Packers drafted Henderson in the third round in 1995, the fullback position was still in a state of transition. Thus, Henderson wasn't even invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, and his selection was lampooned by ESPN's on-air pundits. But Packers general manager Ron Wolf and head coach Mike Holmgren were looking strictly for a fullback cut from this new mold and got what they wanted. In Holmgren's words: "A policeman, more the lead blocker, catch-the-ball type of back." And Wolf, in turn, had determined that Henderson "was the best blocking fullback available in the entire draft."

What's more, Holmgren and his staff were coming to the realization that they needed to keep up with the Joneses after finishing 21st, 22nd and 19th in rushing their first three seasons. "Given our system, where we really didn't have the big blocking fullback, to try to get the running back to do certain things might have been a little unrealistic," backfield coach Harry Sydney said before the 1995 season. "With the new defenses people are using, we're going to have a different running style, more straight ahead."

The selection of Henderson also allowed the Packers to move Bennett, their starting fullback in 1993 and '94, to running back. As it turned out, Henderson injured his knee early in his first training camp, missed the entire preseason and played behind Levens, a better runner and receiver who didn't offer much pop as a blocker. Still, Henderson's playing time increased late in the season as a blocker in short-yardage and goal-line situations and offered a glimpse of the future.

"… put it this way," said Sydney, "he was getting respect throughout the league. When they see him line up back there and there's a linebacker looking across, they're saying, 'Oh my goodness, here he comes.'"

Four days before the 1996 opener, the Packers moved Levens to halfback to share playing time with Bennett and inserted Henderson as their starting fullback. Less than five months later, those changes paid off when the Packers were crowned Super Bowl champions for the first time in 29 years. Henderson wound up with the ball in his hands fewer than 70 times, but he pancaked enough defenders to have an immeasurable impact.

Over the next 10 years, Henderson held the job against all comers, although his playing time and duties continued to evolve.

He started as many as 14 games in 1997 and as few as six in 2000. He averaged 31 rushes a season from 1995-97, then never carried more than seven times in a season thereafter. In fact, over his final four seasons, Henderson played in all but two games and carried the ball from scrimmage once, losing five yards. The one difference between Henderson and fullbacks of more recent vintage was that he played a bigger part in the passing game. Blessed with soft hands, he was a reliable safety valve for quarterback Brett Favre and averaged 27 receptions a season.

Overall, Henderson played in 188 games, missing only four, and started 112. He caught 320 passes for 2,409 yards, a 7.5 average, and carried 123 times for 426 yards, a 3.5 average. He also scored 19 touchdowns. His postseason totals included 16 games, 11 starts, 24 pass receptions and 21 rushing yards.

Henderson was released in March 2007 and at the time ranked fourth in Packers history in regular-season games played behind only Favre, Bart Starr and Ray Nitschke.

"William is the ultimate pro and he's been like that forever around here," offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski said late in Henderson's final season.

Born Feb. 19, 1971. Given name William Terrelle Henderson.

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