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Henderson happy to be back to his healthy self

MANKATO, Minn. (AP) -- The Minnesota Vikings were about to start their first training camp practice on Monday morning, and loquacious pranksters Jared Allen and Pat Williams were chirping away as usual.

That came to an abrupt halt when E.J. Henderson, the Vikings' stone-faced middle linebacker, pulled the entire defense together to deliver a message.

"You could hear a pin drop in our huddle, which with Jared and Pat in the huddle, that's not always the case," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. "But when E.J. is there, it's a different deal."

For most of last season, E.J. wasn't there.

Just when Henderson appeared to be vaulting into the pantheon of the league's best middle linebackers, he went down with an unusual foot injury that kept him out of the remaining 12 games last season. He tore ligaments in his big toe and dislocated another toe on his left foot in Week 4 against Tennessee, ending a promising season.

Now Henderson has returned fully healthy for his seventh training camp, ready to pick up where he left off last season. Perhaps that's why he decided to speak up, in uncharacteristic fashion for him, on the first day.

"He just talked about what he sees in each guy and just really challenged them to work hard every single day and have a championship attitude," Frazier said.

The speech even surprised Brad Childress, who hardly heard a peep from Henderson in his first three seasons as coach.

"He's not a guy that's running (his mouth) all the time," Childress said. "He's a guy that, when he speaks, you listen."

It was yet another sign that it's all starting to sink in for a guy whose career got off to a slow start.

"Most of the guys when I look in the huddle now are younger than me, so they kind of look up to me as a seventh-year player," Henderson said. "So it's kind of natural. I don't really have to say so much, but I am more comfortable now saying something to the younger guys, compared to being a second- or third-year player. ... I do feel more comfortable being vocal."

That hasn't always been the case.

After Henderson won the Butkus Award as college football's best linebacker as a senior at Maryland in 2002, the Vikings drafted him in the second round. He spent his rookie season primarily on special teams before starting 14 games at middle linebacker in 2004.

He struggled at times with calling defenses and was criticized for his quiet nature and inability to take charge as the quarterback of the defense. In 2005, the Vikings moved him to outside linebacker, where he flourished with fewer responsibilities.

Henderson spent two seasons on the weak side before Childress moved him back to his natural position in the middle in 2007.

In his second stint in the middle, Henderson is showing that you don't have to be a big talker to be an effective leader.