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Sweeny: Drew Henson, Once A 2-Sport Phenom, Opens Up On ‘Long 10 Years’

Drew Henson with Cowboys (credit: Rick Stewart/Getty Images), Yankees  (credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Drew Henson with Cowboys (credit: Rick Stewart/Getty Images), Yankees (credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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By Sweeny Murti
» More Columns

Drew Henson, at 33 years old, should still be in the middle of his professional playing career right now.

Instead he is the new hitting coach for one of two Yankees teams in the Gulf Coast League.  He seems energetic about his new job, and even more excited that he and his wife Madeleine are expecting their first child at the end of March.  It’s been a long ride from when I first met Drew at the Yankees’ minor league complex in the spring of 2001.

Henson was a Can’t Miss Kid, in two sports no less.  From 1998-2000 Henson spent his falls playing quarterback at the University of Michigan, and his summers playing third base for the Yankees organization, who drafted him in the third round in 1998.

Henson was signed by Dick Groch, the same Michigan area scout who signed Derek Jeter six years earlier.  The Yankees thought enough of his baseball talent to let him do it part-time while he played college football.  After trading him to Cincinnati in the July 2000 trade that brought Denny Neagle to the Bronx, the Yankees re-acquired Henson just eight months later.  Henson announced he was leaving school, giving up football, and committing fulltime to baseball and the Yankees, who signed him to a new six-year, $17 million contract.

Just 21 years old, accumulating only 600 professional at-bats scattered over three summers, the Yankees put Henson on an accelerated program — he played five games for Single-A Tampa, five games for Double-A Norwich, and then went straight to Triple-A.

Now, in 2001 the Yankees AAA affiliate was in Columbus, Ohio.  Home of the Ohio State Buckeyes, it’s probably the only city in America that openly hated Drew Henson, former Michigan Wolverines quarterback.  Talk about swimming in shark-infested waters.  The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry wasn’t going to be forgotten just because he was wearing a Yankee uniform.

Henson spent the next three years at Triple-A, where he displayed potential, but never enough to earn more than two brief September call-ups.  He hit 18 home runs and 30 doubles for Columbus in 2002, but also struck out 151 times and made 35 errors.  The next year he hit 40 doubles, earned another call-up, and in the final game of the regular season got his only big-league hit.

At the end of the 2003 season, with a career .234 minor league batting average and 1 hit in 9 major-league at-bats, Henson quit and went to play football.

Drafted by the Texans, traded to the Cowboys, and later bouncing around with the Vikings and Lions, he totaled 20 pass attempts in nine games spread across five years.  He started just 1 game (Thanksgiving Day 2004 with Dallas, replaced in the second half by Vinny Testaverde).     Once a two-sport phenom, Henson’s pro sports career ended at age 29 when he was released by Detroit in 2009, finishing with a combined 3 games started in MLB and the NFL.

This week I spent about half an hour talking with Henson about his career, where it went and where it’s headed now as a hitting coach in the Yankees organization:

DH:  When I left school in ‘01 and came down here (Tampa), kind of in the back of mind, when I was done playing I always wanted to work for a team and envisioned working for the Yankees in some sort of front office capacity.  And even though my career has taken a long path, what’s in my heart really hasn’t changed.

I finished (playing) in ‘09 and had the chance to do some TV.  I did some college football for two falls and enjoyed it, learned a lot.  But I also realized I wanted to get back onto this other side of it.  I wanted to get back working with guys and working for a franchise again.  I talked to some football teams last spring and summer, and also reached out to (Yankees Senior VP of Baseball Operations Mark Newman) and they were kind enough to bring me back.

SM: DREW HENSON, HITTING COACH.  HOW DID THAT ACTUALLY COME ABOUT?

DH:  They brought me on and they were going to find a coaching spot for me with some changes and a new (GCL) team.  As they got to know me more again, they asked me if I’d be interested in doing the hitting stuff.  That was always my favorite part of the game and what I probably have the most confidence in myself, as far as going forward and being able to help these guys.  And some of the things I think I can share, my path and some of the stuff I struggled with, some of the mental side that looking back I could have done differently, whether it’s taking pressure off myself or just not being so conscious of trying to get to the next level, just believe in the process and when the timing is right the time will be right.  I’ll teach some mechanical stuff, some actual hitting stuff, and some big picture things, just sharing some of my experiences with these young hitters.

SM: WHEN YOU CAME BACK TO THE YANKEES THAT SPRING OF 2001, WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER THINKING ABOUT THEN ABOUT WHERE YOUR FUTURE WAS GOING?

DH:  Just that I was really excited to finally focus on one sport.  And I knew there was some catch-up to go because in the last couple years I wasn’t accumulating the amount of at-bats as other players that were playing full time.  But I envisioned myself being a Yankee and being a baseball player for a long time.

My biggest regret was just that I allowed some of the frustration to get to me.

SM: HOW?

DH:  Just feeling like you’re behind the curve, going back to Triple-A for the second or third time, wanting so  hard to get over that hump, sometimes letting at-bats from the day before affect me going forward.  Like I said, just believing in the process, believing in the work you’re doing each day, that plate discipline and those things will arrive with the at-bats and when the timing is right.

You know, I felt at 23 that I was behind the curve.  Looking back, if I was 24 or 25 by the time I got to the big leagues it still would not have been a big deal.  But when you’re that age, when you’re living in that moment, and feeling like “Hey I need to be there right now.”  Those are some of the experiences that I can share with the next guy that’s a prospect coming through and maybe having the same type of situation that I had.

SM:  DID YOUR UNIQUE SITUATION MAYBE HURT YOU IN THAT REGARD, BECAUSE AT 23 YOU BARELY HAD A CUP OF COFFEE IN THE BIG LEAGUES, BUT IF YOU WERE PLAYING FOOTBALL YOU COULD BE STARTING 16 GAMES IN THE NFL AT 23, AND I’M SURE YOU HAD FRIENDS THAT WERE.

DH:  You want to play at the highest level, whatever game that is.  When I left school I fully expected my football career to be done.

SM:  YOU DID?

DH:  Yeah, I did.  When I left school, left all that on the table—to play another year at Michigan, the chance to play in the NFL and be drafted—when I made that decision to leave early, I was comfortable with it.

Looking back now, maybe the best thing would have been just to play my 4th year of football and go through that, because the same opportunities I had in 2001 I would have had 12 months later.  That goes along with everything, that looking back, having patience, not necessarily being in too much of a rush for the next thing.

If I played my fourth year I could have made my decision, “Hey I’m good with football.” There wouldn’t be anything I didn’t finish on that end, and I don’t think that thought of going back to play would have been there.  And maybe I would have played football if that’s the decision I made. I just think that the frustrations, combined with the football opportunity, weren’t something I really acknowledged or even considered until I kind of reached a frustration point where it came to mind.

Looking back I wish I just would have had more patience with myself on the baseball side.  Because things would have worked out, whether it was with the Yankees or some other team, the plate discipline and all that would have just come along when the time was right, and I think things would have been off and running and been OK.

SM:  YOUR LAST YEAR AT TRIPLE-A YOU HIT 40 DOUBLES.

DH:  Yeah, I had 18 homers (in 2002) and 40 doubles (in 2003).  I think I was third in the league in extra base hits and RBI’s. So there were signs…

SM:  AND YOU WERE STILL ONLY 23

DH:  Yeah, all the signs that, on this side as a coach now, you say “Ok there are still parts to tighten up but there is improvement showing.”  But yeah, looking back now, you know feeling like you’re not hitting the expectations, feeling like you’ve fallen behind, feeling you’re in some sense a failure…it was a struggle, but it was still coming along.

And that’s another thing that I can hopefully bring to the table now, to continue to encourage guys and to see the big picture and just to believe in the process, believe in what you’re doing, that everything is going to come together when your experience and your talent and the mental side of it all is ready to.

SM:  ONE OF THE THINGS I ALWAYS THOUGHT WAS UNFAIR WAS THE WAY YOU WERE PUSHED THROUGH THE SYSTEM WHEN YOU CAME BACK IN ’01.  THEY WERE TRYING TO SPEED UP THE CURVE AS YOU SAID TO CATCH YOU UP ON AT-BATS.  I HAVE A HARD TIME BELIEVING THIS WOULD HAPPEN TO ANY PLAYER TODAY—THEY GAVE YOU 5 GAMES IN A-BALL, 5-GAMES IN DOUBLE-A, AND THEN SENT YOU TO TRIPLE-A, WHICH JUST HAPPENED TO BE IN A CITY WHERE YOU WEREN’T VERY WELL LIKED AT ALL.  I CAN’T IMAGINE THAT WAS VERY EASY FOR YOU.

DH:  No, frankly.   And we joke about it now.  It was probably the most difficult of positions on a day to day basis, playing in Columbus having just finished up at Michigan, getting booed at every home game for three years and then getting booed at every road game as well.  So, some of the fun of it wasn’t there and maybe played a factor.

After my freshman year I played I think 60-some games with the Tampa Yankees, and then another two months at Double-A, so I was getting to Triple-A without even a full professional season of at-bats.  I wish I had looked at it that way, know that there are going to be some bumps along the way, we’re going to learn as we go and it’s going to click.  Whereas, in my mind I’ve always had so much success, I’m ready for the next challenge.  I’m trying to do this and perform and get out of here as fast as I can.  But when you look at every single player’s career path with their at-bats and their development, there’s something to be said for just playing games and getting at-bats.

SM:  1,500 AT-BATS

DH:  Yeah, that’s kind of the industry norm.

Whereas I didn’t achieve the things I wanted to on the field, I feel like my experience and my story have given me something on this backside that is invaluable.  And that’s what I’ve taken from all of this, that it’s just a huge learning experience and how can I help the Yankees even more from this end as we move forward.

SM:  I IMAGINE THE FIRST TIME YOU GET BOOED IN COLUMBUS, YOU’RE LIKE “HA HA HA, I GET IT, I GET IT.  I’M THE MICHIGAN QUARTERBACK.”  BUT IF IT GOES ON AND ON AND ON EVERY DAY…

DH:  It’s like anything we do–when it stops being fun, it stops being fun.  Combine that with some frustrations on the field, it’s kind of the perfect storm that looking back I wish I had just grinded through and said “This is all going to work out when it’s supposed to.”

And then on top of that, the Texans have my (NFL) rights.  You’re hearing it from everybody, “Hey you can go play football.”  I still knew and believed I could play football if I wanted to.  It wasn’t until midway through the summer of ’03 that I even considered the idea.

But just going back to what I said before, patience for me, looking back, is something that I’m continually trying to develop and wish I would have had when I was younger.

SM:  WAS IT HARD FOR YOU TO RECONCILE THE DIFFERENCE IN SUCCESS LEVEL BETWEEN THE TWO SPORTS.  I MEAN, AS A HIGH SCHOOL PLAYER IT’S PROBABLY PRETTY EASY AND IT CHANGES WHEN YOU GET TO A PROFESSIONAL LEVEL.  I SAW A CLIP OF DEREK JETER IN ROOKIE BALL AND HE SAID AS A HIGH SCHOOL PLAYER YOU GET 2 OR 3 HITS EVERY DAY, BUT NOW IF YOU GET 1 HIT A DAY IT’S PROBABLY A GOOD DAY.  IN FOOTBALL IF YOU COMPLETE 1 OUT OF EVERY 4 PASSES IT’S A PRETTY BAD DAY.  THE DIFFERENT LEVELS OF MEASURING SUCCESS, WAS THAT HARD FOR YOU TO RECONCILE?

DH:  Not so much in measuring success as it was the process.  Playing quarterback you can prep all week, you can watch film, and you can analyze everything and all that’s going to help you in the game.  In baseball, you watch a little bit of film, but it’s more working on your swing and the mental approach and then you go out and play.  And so I always fought not over-analyzing things.  Whereas it was a strength in one, sometimes it can be a hindrance in the other sport.  And there’s a constant battle between football and baseball guys, because there’s a passive aggressiveness in baseball and at quarterback you’re dictating everything and you’re hands on and it helps being as prepared as you can be.  That was the biggest difference probably, having done both, trying to turn off one side of it when I was playing baseball and vice versa.

SM:  I KNOW SCOUTS WHO ARE FORMER PLAYERS WHO TELL ME THEY CAN SEE NOW WHY THEY DIDN’T MAKE IT.  IT WASN’T BECAUSE THEY WEREN’T GIVEN A FAIR SHOT, BUT BECAUSE THEY CAN NOW LOOK BACK ON THEIR SKILL SETS AND KNOW WHAT THEY DIDN’T DO WELL ENOUGH.  HAVE YOU LOOKED BACK AND SAID, “I KNOW NOW WHY I WASN’T GOOD ENOUGH?”  YOU’VE MENTIONED PLATE DISCIPLINED, IS THAT PRETTY MUCH IT?

DH:  Well, yeah when I put the ball in play I’d hit .400.  I think that the less technical and more mental approach is what I wish I had.  And I think, again, finishing at 23—I believe I would have gotten there, just with more at-bats and more baseball maturity.

That’s kind of why here as a hitting coach I want to talk mechanics, but you’re also trying to talk about, especially as you get to higher levels, what pitchers are trying to do to you, where to look for pitches in counts, how to draw the line down the middle of the plate, and say “I’m going to look for a breaking ball on the first pitch if this is what this guy has given me before.” Kind of take that next step of the mental side as far as hitting, and not worry so much about, “Hey, where are my hands?  Am I getting my foot down?”  Because that can cloud your mind.

SM:  THAT STUFF HELD YOU BACK AT TIMES?

DH:  I think was thinking a little too much about mechanics and less about game plan at the plate, I would say.

SM:  JUST BASED ON YOUR NAME RECOGNITION YOU HAD SOME PRESSURE ON YOU.  PLUS THE SCOUT WHO SIGNED YOU IS THE SCOUT WHO SIGNED JETER AND HE TALKED ABOUT YOU AS ONE OF THE TOP GUYS HE’S SEEN AT THE AMATEUR LEVEL.  DID THAT STUFF SWALLOW YOU UP AT ALL?

DH:  No.  I know I was given a lot of talent by the Lord in a lot of different ways.  And if I had been an average football player and just been a baseball player, signed out of high school and just hit the ground running it would have been great.  And if I was an average baseball player and a great football player I would have gone the other way and probably been fine.  Having the good problem of being able to play two sports up to the highest level, at some point when you get to the highest level everyone else is just as good as you, and then it was playing catch-up whether it’s at-bats, or going back to football having been off for three years and getting back in football shape.  Especially at the quarterback position where you’re going to get one opportunity basically, and mine just happened to be one half of one game.

I know I was given a lot (of ability) and I certainly expected a lot from myself.  So I don’t think any of the outside stuff affected me as much as knowing what I had inside me and wanting to show that and develop that as fast as possible.

SM:  YOU SPENT MOST OF THREE YEARS AT TRIPLE-A.  IS THERE ANY ONE GAME OR SERIES OR SOME MEMORY THAT STICKS OUT TO YOU VIVIDLY?

DH:  I had an unbelievable three week stretch one time I think at the beginning of ’03 where everything clicked and I was seeing the ball great, taking walks and hitting the ball all around the field and I thought I’d harnessed it and kind of gotten over that hump.  It was probably the best stretch I had and then I scuffled a bit over the summer.

Being there for a couple years, the seasons tend to run together.  But, I love the people I worked with, I loved the guys I played with.  I just wish that I would have taken a little pressure off myself.

SM:  WHAT WERE SOME OF THE INTERACTIONS LIKE WITH THE FANS IN COLUMBUS?

DH:  I’d run into people all over town, and most of it is just like any rivalry stuff, it’s good-natured to some point.

SM:  I IMAGINE IT GOT PERSONAL FOR YOU AFTER A WHILE.

DH:  Yeah, nobody likes to hear when 10,000 people come out just to scream at one person.  It’s not necessarily what you like to be walking to the plate for.  But that’s all part of it.  Its pro sports.  You’re going to deal with that at the highest level on the road, so that’s all part of it.  It’s just that some of the fun was taken out when I was playing there I would say.

SM:  WHEN YOU TALKED EARLIER ABOUT CARRYING YOUR AT-BATS OVER TO THE NEXT DAY, WHAT WOULD YOU DO THAT NIGHT?  WOULD YOU REPLAY THEM IN YOUR HEAD, KEEP YOU UP AT NIGHT?

DH:  Yeah, there’s no need—if you’re good one day, you’re good.  Go to sleep and wake up the next day.  It’s one thing that I think Jeter over the years, getting to know him and hearing people talk about him, that’s what he is naturally so good at.  When the day’s over with, he leaves the field and that day’s over with.  He shows up the next day ready to play a baseball game.

(I was) going over every pitch of every at-bat.  “This is what I should have done there, this is what I should have done different.”  That’s part of my nature and it’s something that I would always fight.  So looking back, just being able to put each day to bed and wake up the next day not feeling like I need to get three great at-bats today.  That’s not going to help in the long run.

SM:  WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT ACTUALLY MAKING THE DECISION IN ’03 TO GO PLAY FOOTBALL?

DH:  When you get frustrated to the point where you say this has stopped being fun.  Let’s figure out “Why am I doing this? What am I getting out of it? Am I doing it because I really enjoy it?”  And that was all “Yes.”  But at that time when you’re frustrated and trying to figure it out and it’s just not working and there are other opportunities out there, you just want to be excited going to work each day.  And that’s when I started considering it I guess, but it wasn’t until towards the end of the ’03 season.

There wasn’t a certain day (that it turned), it was more of a feel that, which looking back, I wish I hadn’t had.  I wish I hadn’t given in to that frustration.  But it was probably over the course of a couple months where I was trying to lay things out.  It’s a huge decision.  You’re retiring from a sport with guaranteed money and you’re with this great organization, but I ended up deciding to go down that road and once the winter came and it came time to play I made the transition and started working out in the football sense.

SM:  IF I ASKED YOU IN 1999 DO YOU LIKE PLAYING BASEBALL BETTER OR DO YOU LIKE PLAYING FOOTBALL BETTER WHAT WOULD HAVE BEEN YOUR ANSWER?

DH:  Long term, baseball.  I mean that’s what I told Mark Newman in ’98.  I said “Hey if you guys draft me and allow me to play football at Michigan, I want to go to college, I want to play football, I want that experience, but I also see myself wanting to play baseball long term.”

SM:  WHAT DID YOU LIKE DOING BETTER?  JUST BEING ON THE FIELD, ASSUMING THAT THAT DAY YOU WERE SUCCESSFUL AT WHATEVER IT WAS YOU WERE DOING.

DH:  Hitting.

SM:  YOU LIKED BEING A BASEBALL PLAYER.

DH:  I liked being a baseball player.  The training on the baseball side is much more enjoyable than football.  Hitting ground balls, just the act of practices and being on the field is fun.  Football, you’re lifting and you’re running, not so much sport specific drills.

There’s nothing like being a quarterback and having the ball in your hands and being under center.  I’ll preface with that.  But there’s also nothing like playing baseball every day and being around the clubhouse and teammates and this organization especially, I don’t think there’s anything like it.

SM:  SOME PEOPLE WOULD SAY THAT SITTING IN FRONT OF 100,000+ FANS AT THE BIG HOUSE WILL PREPARE YOU FOR ANYTHING.  IN SOME WAYS I’M SURE THAT’S TRUE…

DH:  Well it’s not going to help you lay off a slider with two strikes (laughs).

SM:  RIGHT.

DH:  All the other stuff, the media stuff and New York, everything at Michigan and coming up young with this organization are all positives.

SM:  SO WHEN YOU LOOK BACK NOW, WERE YOU UNABLE TO RECOGNIZE THE BREAKING PITCHES, OR JUST HAVING TROUBLE LAYING OFF OF THEM?

DH:  You know what it was?  It was that I wouldn’t trust my swing enough with two strikes.  Because early in the count I’d be good.  It was the two strike approach–where they’re not going to get it by me.  I could drive the ball to right field, if they leave a breaking ball up I can pull it.  But just not having that comfort level with two strikes to be able trust your discipline and that you can handle any pitch they throw up there, which I think with more at-bats I think would have continued to develop.

SM:  WE DON’T GET ANY DO-OVERS, BUT IT SOUNDS LIKE YOUR WHOLE PHILOSOPHY RIGHT NOW IS “I WAS ONLY 23, I WISH I HAD JUST STUCK WITH IT.”

DH:  Yeah, that’s true.  Whether I was 20 or 21, if I had just taken one more year to play football, play baseball.  There’s no rush to live your life, to rush your life away so to speak.  Just a little more patience on that side, and certainly more patience with myself on the baseball side.

SM:  WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT THE CALL-UP?

DH:  Unbelievable.  Back in 2002 they said, “Hey we’re going to bring you up, we want you to be around the atmosphere.”  It was amazing, to pack your bags and go to New York and ride the subway to the Stadium and walk the halls like everybody said, where numerous Hall of Famers and legends have gone through, it was an amazing experience.  I got to spend some time in the locker room.  Roger Clemens and Jason Giambi were my locker mates, two guys that are as good as anybody’s been over the last 20 years.  To pick their brains and be around Jeter, Mariano, Posada—everybody that does everything so professionally, and the right way…it was a great experience.

SM: YOUR FIRST HIT WAS…

DH:  My hit (smiles).

SM:  YES, YOUR ONLY HIT…DO YOU REMEMBER IT?

DH:  Yeah, it was a fastball off Eric DuBose, up the middle (single).  I’ve got my hit and got my touchdown pass (laughs), they’re both in the office.

SM:  YOU’VE GOT ‘EM BOTH?

DH:  Yeah, yeah.  One and one.

SM:  WHAT WAS THE TOUCHDOWN PASS?

DH:  It was a short play-action goal-line pass to the third tight-end on the back side.

SM:  DO YOU HAVE ANY SIMILAR FEELINGS ABOUT YOUR FOOTBALL CAREER THE WAY YOU DO ABOUT YOUR BASEBALL CAREER, THINGS YOU WISH YOU HAD DONE BETTER OR COULD HAVE DONE BETTER?

DH:  No.  So much of it is timing and opportunity on the football side.  I would have liked to have had a chance to play more in Dallas, I would have liked more than one half of one game to show what I had.  But those are coaches’ decisions and things that are out of my control.

SM:  YOU’VE TALKED A LOT ABOUT THE PATIENCE YOU WISH YOU WOULD HAVE HAD.  CLEARLY YOU WERE TALENTED AT BASEBALL AND TALENTED AT FOOTBALL.  DO YOU EVER SIT THERE AND THINK, WHICHEVER ONE I PICKED, IF I HAD JUST PICKED ONE OF THEM…

DH:  Yeah, that’s the million dollar question.  I feel, yeah, 100 percent, if I had played just one sport out of college then hopefully I’d still be playing.  But we only get one life to live and every step along the way you try to make the best decisions and the most well thought out decisions.  Looking back now, I think I’ve got a jump start in my second career and I’ve had invaluable experiences unique to me that I can help bring to this side of it and help this organization.

SM:  IT WOULD BE HARD FOR ME TO SAY I WOULDN’T HAVE REGRETS, BUT YOU CAN’T GO BACK…

DH:  No.  I love my life.  If I hadn’t left baseball, I wouldn’t have moved to Dallas, I wouldn’t have met my wife, and I wouldn’t have the family we’re about to have.  That in itself justifies all the decisions I’ve made.  I mean, I’ll be good.  I’ve saved my money, we have a comfortable life, and I’m coaching baseball.  If you told me when I was 15 that I’d work for the Yankees, and be a coach and have a wonderful life, I would have taken it in a heartbeat.  There have been some bumps along the way.  It’s been a long 10 years in some regards, but I’m better for it and I’m very excited for this opportunity.

Follow Sweeny Murti on Twitter @YankeesWFAN.

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