Lincoln-Way East's A.J. Henning breaks two tackles for a first down Sept. 28 at Lincoln-Way East High School in Frankfort. The Griffins defeated the Vikings, 28-14.
Lincoln-Way East's A.J. Henning breaks two tackles for a first down Sept. 28 at Lincoln-Way East High School in Frankfort. The Griffins defeated the Vikings, 28-14. — Shaw Media File Photo

AJ Henning uses the word "blessed" a lot.

But not always for the reason you might think.

He's certainly right using the word to describe his playing abilities, because the Lincoln-Way East standout is indeed truly blessed. Henning, bound for the University of Michigan to share those talents in Ann Arbor, had a spectacular season in 2019 that earned him a long list of accolades, including being selected as the Joliet Herald-News football player of the year.

Henning is a fierce competitor and doesn't shy away from anything. But one thing you'll notice if you watch him long enough is that he's rarely not sporting a smile, and he's clearly enjoying himself.

That's because Henning is quick to remember when things weren't quite as easy and free.

After suffering a leg injury in the summer prior to his sophomore season, Henning was able to battle through the pain to play a big part in Lincoln-Way East's State Championship win over Loyola in 2017.

But the injury continued to nag at Henning to the point where it severely altered his ability to perform at the level he felt he could. Henning played sparingly his junior season, and when he did, it was without the explosiveness that took him to another level.

"I always talk about how I'm thankful for that junior season. It really just opened my eyes and showed me that in a blink of an eye this game can be taken away from you," Henning said. "Enjoy the time you have with it. It just showed me to persevere. Everyone around me just got together and came as one and helped to get through that. It was such a tough time for me, just being off the field. Me wanting to compete so bad with my brothers on the field, it was really tough."

His coach, Rob Zvonar, had a simple hope for Henning's 2019 season.

"As a junior, unfortunately, nagging injuries continued to plague AJ, but he fought hard to be healthy and still had a season most kids would dream of, but it was simply not quite the AJ Henning standard," Zvonar said. "And that set the stage for this year, his senior season. Going into this year, our biggest hope for AJ was that he simply be healthy and stay healthy. We knew if this young man could play week in and week out consistently over the course of an entire season, that the sky would be the limit for what both he and our team could accomplish. And that is exactly what happened."

And after a junior season of uncertainty, Henning didn't know exactly what to feel when he stepped onto the field for the first time his senior year.

"It was kind of overwhelming, and I felt like I had fought through so much adversity the previous season going out on the field and not being able to go out there at 100 percent," Henning said. Just being able to play free and play loose and being able to play the way I know I can play, it was a awesome feeling."

He also had a slightly different approach to things.

"I looked at some of my practice habits and changed," Henning said. "Some of the little things I took to the game changed, just from being a bystander and watching from the sidelines."

Those little lessons, when coupled with full health, led to a dynamic season in which he finished with 28 total touchdowns while providing him an opportunity to showcase his skills in a number of ways.

"I embraced that," Henning said. "Coach has the trust in me that I can get the job done from multiple positions. I feel like any way I can help the team, that's just what I wanted to do. Whether it was in the slot, line me up at outside receiver, quarterback, running back, whatever he wanted me to do, I was happy to do it."

That also involved assuming the quarterback role in the Wildcat offense. Henning, who played quarterback in the seventh grade, was itching for the opportunity to throw the ball. He finally got the green light in the postseason, but the pass fell incomplete. A chagrined Henning broke down the play as only a wanna-be quarterback could.

"I've always practiced that three-step drop," Henning said with a hearty laugh. "I should have taken off my glove. Did you see it? It got stuck to the glove!"

It's not surprising that Henning looks back at that one pass play as a missed opportunity to do something else significantly better than most. It's a quest that pushes Henning each and every day.

"My competitive nature, everything I do in life, I just want to be successful and be the very best at it when I do it," Henning said. "When I put my mind to something, I'm driven to do it, and do it at 100 percent. Leave no regrets and no doubts."

He won't leave any doubts about what he was able to help accomplish at Lincoln-Way East. Being a part of one state championship is an incredible accomplishment, but having taken part in two is rare, and that's not lost on Henning.

"It's just amazing. It just goes back to what coach expects from his players, nothing but excellence," Henning said. "This group was just so close, together as one. And to finish out with a state championship was like a dream come true. I wouldn't want to end my senior season any other way with any other guys."

But all good things eventually do come to an end, and it was a fact that hit Henning just before the Griffins' victory over Gurnee Warren in the Class 8A title game.

"I think going on the bus to the state game, there was a lot of things going through my mind," Henning said. "One of the things that crossed my mind was just take a moment to let everything sink in, and one of the things that I thought about was taking the field one last time with these guys that I've played with for so long."

That bond spawned a belief in Henning and his teammates that they could find a way through a Warren defense that so many others had failed at doing.

"I went over to the offensive line and told them, 'All we need is one little crease, and we're going to get it done. We're going to get our shot if we keep pounding away at them.' And that's exactly what happened."

Henning broke through for a 56-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter that finally separated the Griffins from the Blue Devils and brought home the big hardware to Frankfort. The bar has been set high when you are in the Griffins' program, a fact that Henning has relished.

"When I entered this program as a freshman, they welcomed me with opening arms, and it's just been a family feel ever since the beginning," Henning said. "Just the people I've come into contact with, the coaches and the community."

"It's really been a blessing."