Raising Henrys

Jenny Henry has cheered for volleyball, football, basketball, baseball, lacrosse—any sport her kids have picked up, she’s been right there with them, wearing the team colors and helping to guide them through major life decisions.

By Amy Gordy

Hayden, Mark, Hunter, Hope, Jenny and Hudson Henry cheering on Hunter as he accepted the 2015 John Mackey award for best tight end in the nation.

Hayden, Mark, Hunter, Hope, Jenny and Hudson Henry cheering on Hunter as he accepted the 2015 John Mackey award for best tight end in the nation.

 

This season, you’ll find Jenny Henry in the stands rooting for her four athlete children four days a week, and making time to recharge her faith and support her husband, Mark, on Sundays in the sanctuary of Fellowship Bible Church where he is a pastor.

Sports are in the Henry family’s blood. Jenny’s father played basketball at the University of Arkansas, Jenny was a swimmer and cheerleader, and her husband, Mark, also played football for the University of Arkansas. Now her son Hunter, 22, plays professional football as a tight end for the Los Angeles Chargers after a successful career at the University of Arkansas; Hayden, 18, is beginning his freshman year as a linebacker for the Razorbacks; Hudson, 16, plays football at Pulaski Academy and is ranked among the best tight ends in the country for his class; and Hope, 13, plays volleyball and cheers at Pulaski Academy.

“Sports have always been part of our life, and it started early,” Jenny said. We moved to Atlanta when Hunter was about to go to kindergarten, and they start you in full-on tackle football in kindergarten there. Lots of the kids going to school with him were going to play and he wanted to so bad so we signed him up. Over the years he did football, basketball, baseball—we were going from one sport to the next, it was pretty crazy.”

The Henrys have always been supportive of their kids’ passions and have made it a rule in their family to cheer for and encourage each other. While they ask that the kids commit to only one sport per season to keep them from over extending themselves, Jenny and Mark let the each of them find their own paths, and never pressure them—even as the stakes get higher.

 While all three Henry boys have fallen into football, it wasn’t the sport they grew up loving. “Hunter played football one year in kindergarten and didn’t play again until fourth grade. He played basketball and baseball until he was in the ninth grade, when we moved to Little Rock. He was a huge basketball player up until then and had played on an AAU team. He had planned to quit football if we stayed in Atlanta and focus on basketball. When we moved he started at Pulaski Academy and it is such a huge football school, it gave him a whole new lease on football and it became his love. It’s interesting to think what would gave happened if we hadn’t moved back,” Jenny said.

Jenny, Hudson, Mark and Hayden after an away game playing for Pulaski Academy in 2016.

Jenny, Hudson, Mark and Hayden after an away game playing for Pulaski Academy in 2016.

 Hayden and Hudson were both devoted lacrosse players in Atlanta, but they too caught football fever in Arkansas. Hope, still just 13, has dabbled in soccer, cheerleading and basketball, and recently found her passion in volleyball.

“We told all of our kids, ‘You don’t have to play college football because Dad did. Even when offers came I remember sitting down with Hunter and saying, ‘If this isn’t what you want to do, you don’t have to,'” Jenny said.

Even when Hunter made the decision to go pro, Jenny urged him to take pause and weigh his options. “Hunter decided he wanted to play  in the NFL and I was really concerned about concussions. He had one in high school and it really scared me. We got through that and he hasn’t had one since then, that I know of, but it is definitely scary. I asked, ‘Are you sure this is what you want to do?’ He’s a grown man and I can’t step in and tell him he can’t.”

To deal with her fears, Jenny got the idea from a friend to write Bible verses on the backs of buttons to wear over her heart during games. “Making these buttons gave me a tremendous amount of peace. Them playing football can really grip me with fear and worry, and creating these buttons has been my calming force,” she said.

As a mother, Jenny wants to protect her kids from the physical dangers of sports, but when they advance on to play at the college level a whole new world of off-the-field concerns enter the picture. This begins with the intense process of college recruiting, and helping to guide them to make decisions that could ultimately change the course of their lives kept Jenny and Mark on their toes.

“Recruiting is an overwhelming process. I know that there are a lot of kids that don’t have much parental guidance, and I know after watching my kids go through it that recruiting really messes with you. You go to these schools and it so exciting and glamorous and you get on this high and you really have to come down to earth and say, ‘Let’s look at this logically, put it on paper and think about the pros and cons,’” she said.

The Henrys do set rules for recruiting to keep their kids grounded and from making emotional choices. “Getting through recruiting takes a lot of guidance from both Mark and me. Our rules are when you go to a school for a visit you cannot commit on campus, you have to come home and process. Recruiting has become a really narcissistic process, and for lots of kids it becomes all about them. We remind our kids it’s not about you. We told them, ‘God has given you a platform to do good in this world, and you have to use this opportunity to show your faith. It’s not about you making yourself better and becoming the greatest.’ Staying humble and grounded is a huge deal for us.”

It’s not only the school’s reputation and team rankings the Henrys have to think about, but the coaches of the teams as well. As parents, they are essentially handing their child over to a team of coaches who will become primary mentors in their athlete’s life.

“It’s hard, because coaches are putting on their very best performance and you have to be able to weed through the mumbo jumbo and be able to step back and ask yourself, ‘Is he being genuine?’ It’s hard sometimes, and we have been so thankful for our experience with Arkansas. Coach Bielema is who is says he is, and who he portrays himself to be. He’s not veered from that in all the years we’ve known him. I hope our fan base will give him a chance to prove himself. He’s a great guy.”

The Henrys love their experience at the University of Arkansas, both with Hunter and now Hayden embarking on his first year. “Hayden was a late bloomer, so he didn’t get the attention that Hunter got. He didn’t get recruited until really late. He had a really great senior season then Arkansas didn’t have a place for him, but offered him a blue shirt. He was leaning toward the Air Force Academy at that point, and when this opportunity came available it was what he really wanted. He’ll go on scholarship in January and we just got the news that he’s going to be playing some backup this season so we are going to try to make it to all the Fayetteville games and some away games.”

At this point the Henrys have a University of Arkansas legacy going, but they are careful not to put that pressure on Hudson. “Just because his brothers went to UA, I don’t want him to feel pressure to commit. He has several offers and there’s still time. I’m sure he feels some pressure, but we tell him if he wants to go somewhere else we understand that. I don’t know what he’ll choose. He loves Arkansas and he’s a huge Razorback fan, but he’s keeping an open mind. I will wear whatever colors. I will be a dual fan if I need to. I’ve told him, ‘No matter where you are I’m a fan of you,’” Jenny said.

Hope Henry

Through all the excitement and buzz over the boys in the home, Jenny makes sure to give her daughter, Hope, the much deserved spotlight when she can. “Hope has had to deal with all of it. She’s awesome. She knows so much about football and loves sports. I make sure she knows she’s special and unique. She’s got a really bubbly personality and that helps,” Jenny said. Jenny said the recognition that has come with their family’s success can be overwhelming at times, but they continue to support each other and be Henry family cheerleaders. “I think the hardest part for our family through all of this is notoriety that Hunter has gotten. We can’t go out to dinner without being recognized and that stuff sometimes gets old, but he handles it so well and realizes that’s part of it.”

Hayden, Hudson, Hunter, Jenny, Hope and Mark on New Year's Day in front of Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, the former home of the Chargers.

Hayden, Hudson, Hunter, Jenny, Hope and Mark on New Year's Day in front of Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, the former home of the Chargers.

 Now that some of her chicks have flown the nest, Jenny’s days of pushing two carts full at the grocery store are over. “You can’t imagine what my monthly grocery bill used to be,” she said, laughing. “It’s so exciting to watch your kids do the thing that they love. It’s been fun for me to switch gears and watch Hope do volleyball. Having her be the last one and really taking the time to enjoy it is a totally different thing.”

Her schedule is still jam-packed however, with volleyball practice Mondays and Wednesdays and games on Thursday, Hudson’s football games Friday nights, trips up to Fayetteville Saturdays to see Hayden, catching Hunter playing on Sundays when they can, and making it back for church on Sunday. In addition to Jenny’s cheer career, she also helps out with her dad’s business two days a week and every now and then steals away a moment or two for herself for prayer and quiet time.

“I’ve learned to be a morning person so I can find time for myself. I try to make sure on the days I don’t work not to schedule a ton of stuff and just be. Mark and I love to travel, which is usually scheduled around football games. It’s been fun for me to watch and cheer, and I really love my kids. They are such fun people and I see them being launched into adulthood and they are becoming these great human beings—someone you like to be with. It’s so rewarding as a parent. I’m a proud, crazy, crazy sports mama and I love it.”