Football is drowning in politics. It has become endless replay controversies and sad grown men shouting on the radio.
But it isn’t that way at all in Frankfort — or anywhere that AJ Henning plays.
The Lincoln-Way East senior’s game-breaking ability is breathtaking, literally. It’s hard not to hold your breath with anticipation when the ball is heading Henning’s way. Astounding things can happen, the game can change in a moment. It reminds fans and players and even jaded old reporters why they first fell in love with football.
Griffins coach Rob Zvonar has been watching Henning, the Sun-Times Player of the Year, much longer than most. He says Henning became “kind of an urban legend” shortly after moving from Bloomington to Frankfort in sixth grade.
“He came with the most fanfare,” Zvonar said. “[People kept saying] that you have to see this Henning kid play.”
Henning lives in the Lincoln-Way North district. That school closed after he finished eighth grade, so he attended Lincoln-Way East. It’s clear Zvonar hasn’t taken that slice of fortune lightly over the last four years. He regularly refers to Henning as a “once in a lifetime player.”
“A group of him and his [youth football teammates] decided they were going to come here and we are awful blessed to have him,” Zvonar said.
Henning, a receiver and running back, is the only non-kicker to ever play on Lincoln-Way East’s varsity as a freshman. He made an impact that year, but his sophomore year was a revelation.
“We don’t win the state championship without him,” Zvonar said. “We were undefeated but we are a three or four-loss team without the plays that he made. You don’t say singlehandedly, but he played an awful big part in beating Loyola in the championship game.”
The majority of Henning’s junior year was lost to a hip injury. So even though he’s just 18, he has experienced enough rough patches to be able to fully appreciate his breakout performance in the 2017 Class 8A state title game.
“Sometimes I will go back and watch [the game],” Henning said. “And I see the clip of the jet sweep all the time. Everyone brings that back.”
It was a 63-yard run around the right end in the third quarter. It gave the Griffins a six-point lead that was eventually cut to two. Henning turned on the magic again, busting loose for a 42-yard touchdown run with 3:44 to play that sealed the win.
From that moment on Henning was the state’s star attraction.
“We are just awful proud of him,” Zvonar said. “He’s an electrifying player on the field. He’s one of those players where everybody stops what they are doing when he touches the ball because you never know when you are going to see a highlight-reel play.”
So where does that electricity come from? Henning has incredible speed. Last year he placed fourth in the state in the 100-meter dash. But that speed doesn’t always translate to football magic.
“It is a combination of everything the great ones have,” Zvonar said. “It is vision, it’s balance, it’s football IQ. It’s his ball skills and the way he can concentrate and catch a football.
“He makes these unbelievable catches all the time. He has a presence out there. You hear about when guys get in the zone, whatever sport it is. They talk about how the game slowed down for them. Everybody else is going full speed and he just sees everything in slow motion.”
Henning is a hardcore football guy. His goal is to play in the NFL. All of those skills Zvonar mentions, other than the speed, were acquired through long hours of hard work over the years.
“Football was always on from an early age,” Henning said. “Every Sunday we would sit down as a family and watch the Bears. I lived in Bloomington so it was not too far from ISU and we would go to their games sometimes. Football was always around and I gravitated towards it.”
Henning runs track to be better at football.
“Track and football work hand-in-hand, improving my speed in the off season and working on endurance and stuff,” Henning said. “It really does translate into the game of football. It’s really surprising [more players don’t do it] because it helps a lot. I’ve seen great improvements with it.”
Henning had scholarship offers from every big-time school. But his official visit to Michigan was special. The family’s plan was to wrap up official visits and spend two weeks thinking things over.
“We were on the car ride home [from Ann Arbor] and I told my mom that we have to turn around and I have to do this because it was just so strong in my heart,” Henning said. “I knew it was the place for me. I wanted to tell [Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh] in person.”
Henning has scored 28 touchdowns this season, helping to lead a loaded Lincoln-Way East team to an undefeated season and a return to the Class 8A state title game at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, the site of his heroics two years ago.
The Griffins face Warren, which boasts the state’s best defense. The Blue Devils have allowed just 40 points in 13 games this season.