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Never Surrender : Through Snowstorms and Slights, Cardinal Brian Henesey's Extreme Persistence Pays Off With a Start

October 29, 1994|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For two years, the question would sneak up on Brian Henesey, buzz in his ears, spin his head.

For two years he swatted it away, but never on the first try, and never for long.

Now do I quit? Sometimes it sneaked up while he was sending one of dozens of faxes about himself to NFL teams.

He wanted a tryout. He would try anything.

On one resume, the 5-foot-10, 215-pound running back used the fabricated nickname, "the Bucknell Flash."

Another contained a drawing of Sherlock Holmes with the words, "If you're looking for a running back, here I am."

Nobody was looking.

Sometimes the question would sneak up on him in a hallway when he was working at the pharmaceutical firm.

He would throw off his suit coat, drop to the carpet and show co-workers how a one-handed push-up was the first step toward the NFL.

They chuckled at him as you chuckle at a child who claims he is flying to the moon. Henesey knew that laugh.

Now do I quit? Earlier this year, the question sneaked up on him one last time, while he was sitting outside the office of Arizona Cardinal Coach Buddy Ryan.

Henesey knew Ryan would be working because, a day earlier, he had posed as a deliveryman holding a person-to-person package for the coach.

"He'll be in tomorrow morning to accept the delivery," said his secretary.

"I'll be there," Henesey answered.

He had a package, all right. In it were his cleats and a game film of his days as a running back at Bucknell.

He was hoping to talk Ryan into giving him a tryout, even though he was short and had not played football in nearly two seasons.

He had waited three hours for Ryan in the parking lot. Then three more in the lobby.

He began worrying, not about the tryout, but about the increasing likelihood of arrest.

Now do I quit? When the Pittsburgh Steelers visit the Cardinals for a nationally televised game Sunday night, an unlikely player is scheduled to be returning kicks for the Cardinals.

He will be touching a football in a game for the first time since he graduated from Bucknell, in Lewisburg, Pa., in 1992. He will be returning kicks for the first time in six years.

He was undrafted, unwanted and was offered a tryout only by the Cardinals, only after he had flown to Phoenix on a friend's frequent-flier miles.

He is known no longer as Brian, but simply as "Rudy," a moniker instantly understood by anybody who has seen the movie of the same name about a Notre Dame walk-on.

That returner for the Cardinals is Brian Henesey. If nothing else, he hopes to show the world that he has discovered the answer to that nagging question.

Not now. Not ever. During a telephone interview the other night, Henesey excused himself to accept delivery of a pizza.

While other NFL players spend their free time enjoying the fruits of their success, Henesey eats take-out food in a small apartment where he worries about outlasting a six-month lease.

He was signed to a contract by Ryan in February only because the coach was impressed with his brashness.

He made the team during training camp only because he survived daily beatings from smirking draft choices and veterans who didn't think he belonged.

Since participating in a two-point conversion play in the season opener against the Rams, he has spent the last seven weeks as a non-eligible player on the practice squad.

He is active and starting Sunday only because the Cardinals have the second-worst kickoff return average in the league.

And because he had arranged another meeting with Ryan earlier this week, asking that he be activated for the game Nov. 6 against the Eagles in his hometown, Philadelphia. He promised Ryan he would sign his $6,500 game check over to the team if he did not make a big play.

Ryan, again, was so impressed, he activated him for this game.

"Nobody else will do anything, so maybe Rudy will run through some tackles," Ryan said. "I've been thinking about it and I just decided, hell, when you play tough people, you better have tough people with you."

If it seems as though Ryan is Henesey's first believer, that's not the case.

Rick Henesey, Brian's father, also knows a thing or two about faith. He worked 30 years as a roofer, helping to raise five children in the blue-collar Philadelphia neighborhood known as Manayunk.

Amid the clutter of factories and hoagie shops, the Henesey children were taught to seek the world.

"Brian always had this dream," Rick said. "We always told our kids to go for their dreams."

Two weeks into this season, Rick suffered a heart attack. He stopped breathing four times.

Brian rushed home from Phoenix, just as he had rushed home two months earlier to grieve the loss of an older brother who had drowned.

"If I had lost my father after losing my brother . . . I might have quit everything right then," said Henesey, 24. "But he made it. He had to make it."

Henesey was also taught to keep believing by a 70-year-old former Philadelphia policeman named Joe Caponi. They worked together at the pharmaceutical firm that paid Henesey $36,000 a year.

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