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"Next man up" has multiple meanings for CJ Henderson

CJ Henderson

CHARLOTTE — It's perhaps the ultimate football cliche, "next man up." It's the kind of thing coaches say when a player gets hurt, and the only thing you can do is shrug and hope the backup plays well enough to keep a team afloat.

It has a practical application in the case of Panthers cornerback CJ Henderson, since the Panthers expect Jaycee Horn to miss what coach Frank Reich called "an extended time" with a hamstring injury.

But it also hits Henderson when he leaves work each day and goes home.

That's when he sees his 6-month-old son Jace.

"That's huge for me," Henderson said Wednesday. "Knowing you have someone to provide for, knowing you've got to be a father, knowing you've got to set an example for them.

"Yeah, that's huge."

CJ Henderson

Of course, this year was significant for Henderson for plenty of reasons before the birth of his son.

His career has included its share of ups and downs, as the former top-10 pick was traded here in Sept. 2021 for what amounts to spare change (effectively a third-round pick). Since then, he's on his third head coach and third defensive coordinator. That's enough. But this spring, the Panthers declined the fifth-year option on the rookie deal he signed after he was drafted by the Jaguars, meaning he'll be a free agent at the end of this season.

So when assistant defensive backs coach and former NFL cornerback DeAngelo Hall was just getting to know Henderson this offseason, he made sure to connect those dots for him.

"As I like to remind these guys, man, we all play this game to make sure our families are taken care of," Hall said. "And you know, with CJ having a new newborn like that's the best motivation in the world to get you locked down.

"That's your baby. You'll fight for him; you'll die for him. And so when I talked to CJ about it, it's like he understands this ain't about me no more."

Top talents at the cornerback position tend to get paid. Henderson has always had talent. So if this audition, thrust into a role of responsibility for the Panthers' defense, turns out the way coaches have always thought Henderson was capable of, then Jace has the chance to be well-provided for this offseason.

DeAngelo Hall, Jeremy Chinn, CJ Henderson

But even if things don't go according to plan, Henderson can walk in the door when he returns home and be immediately grounded. Henderson has had those conversations with teammate Donte Jackson as well, who has admitted fatherhood changed the way he thinks about the game.

"It's a great feeling of coming home to him every day, seeing a smile on his face," Henderson said of his son. "So, just coming home, the family loving on you regardless of the situation. That was huge for me as well. There's still bigger things in life. This is my job, my profession. But, you know, he's still growing, he's still my son, and I've still got to take care of the family as well."

That kind of perspective also helps him with one of the things a cornerback needs to make it at work: a short memory. Whether it's giving up a big play or a penalty, a corner has to be able to let it go before it spirals into something even worse.

So when he gets home, it's getting easier for Henderson to let go. "Me coming home thinking about the game isn't helping anyone in the household," he said.

Likewise, he can't dwell on the fact he's suddenly gone from a third corner behind another young star to someone the Panthers are relying on for the foreseeable future. He has to be ready.

"It's different," Henderson said. "You know, when (Horn's) preparing, getting all the reps and, and getting those looks and you have a role in different areas, it's different for the team. Unfortunately for him, but that's this business, the next guy is up, we've got to step up and get that, that's what we get paid for, is to move forward."

While Henderson's been on the wrong side of some plays in his time here, he's also coming off a solid preseason. Reich referred to him as "Mr. Consistency" recently in reference to the solid work he put in throughout the offseason and training camp. But he's also a bit of a Rorschach test based on how fans might view him. If you think of him in terms of a No. 9 overall pick who was quickly traded by the team that used it, you might view him one way. If you think of him through the lens of the No. 70 overall choice the Panthers sent for a valuable third corner, it's a different impression.

CJ Henderson

When Hall got this job with the Panthers, he called up his former Washington co-worker Torrian Gray, who coached Henderson at Florida.

"And I reached out to him just to kind of get a little bit of background on CJ," Hall said during training camp. "First thing he told me, CJ is explosive. A freaking athlete, right?

"We've got to get CJ playing with more confidence, but when I look at CJ and Donte and Jaycee, that's like three No. 1s, and we're going to need all of them at some point."

That point is now, and his teammates have grown to trust him.

"He's been great," Jackson said. "He's a top-notch competitor, top-notch professional. Always in the building ready to work, and yeah, he's a confident guy, and he plays like it."

It's a different kind of confidence than the normal cornerback swagger, as Henderson's a quiet guy in a room of larger-than-life characters. And now that he has another mouth to feed, Henderson knows what's on the line for him and the Panthers over the next few weeks and months.

Jackson sees it in him and has picked up on it in their conversations about football and family.

"It's right there; it's a motivation that you can see right in front of you every day when you get home," Jackson said. "You know, my kids don't care about what goes on at, at work, you know, they're just happy to see Dad. When you think about it like that, you just, you're just happy that somebody can take you out of that mold and out of that mindset, so it gives you an extra something."

Henderson's still kind of a quiet guy, but when he talks about the challenges he's been through as an NFL player, he opens up a bit. He's seen some things in three-plus years in the league and has gained an understanding of what's on the line for him now.

"I don't really look at it in that, in that frame," he said of all the changes he's been a part of. "I try to just keep moving forward, thinking about the future, what's ahead, instead of what I've been through.

"It's just trusting my process, moving forward, and the opportunities I have ahead instead of reflecting. Sometimes I take the time to reflect, but really it's just about moving forward and thinking about the opportunities I have got."

He's got a big one now.

For him, and someone else who is depending on him.

Take a look at the best pictures from pre-game, in-game and post-game action from Sunday's season opener against the Falcons.

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