K.J. Henry, the basketball ref turned five-star DE
In the offseason, if you’re looking for five-star defensive end K.J. Henry and his family, chances are you’ll have to find a basketball court instead of a football field. Henry, along with his father, mother and sister, are all AAU and YMCA basketball referees in their hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
It’s a family affair that started with K.J.’s grandfather and now includes his aunts, uncles, mom, dad and sister.
“Not only does [K.J.] referee, but he’s certified and he’s going into his third year,” his mother, Nicole, said. “So it’s not something he just picked up. Because he’s a high school student, he only has time to ref on Saturdays and AAU ball in the summertime, but that’s his summer gig.”
The 6-foot-6, 234-pound prospect has been paired with his mother, father and sister as the referees for various games, which helps keep the family close, but that also helps Henry get his basketball fix.
Growing up in North Carolina, it’s only natural that his first love was basketball and not football. Even up until last year, despite being the son of UNC-Charlotte running backs coach Keith Henry, K.J. fully believed he would continue his basketball career and that his future was on the hardwood and not the gridiron.
What changed his mind and ultimately pushed him to realize that his future was in football, ironically, was an offer from North Carolina. Almost every basketball-loving kid in the state wants an offer from the Tar Heels, including Henry. When he dreamed about receiving that offer, he never thought it would be from the football coaches and not the basketball coaches.
“Don’t get me wrong, basketball wasn’t high on the charts for me in terms of my talent,” he said. “I definitely could play at a low D-I school for basketball, but even then with that offer I had to weigh my options. I used to wake up in the morning and go shoot, so I would say it’s a pretty quick turnaround for me, but I love football and I’m excited about the opportunities.”
And the opportunities are plentiful for the No. 6 overall prospect in the 2018 ESPN 300.
While he did start playing football at age 7, only recently did he believe that he had the chance to be a high-level prospect. After an impressive game during his sophomore season in which Henry had a pick-six, his father looked at him and told him he was about to pick up a ton of interest and new offers.
That prediction came true, and his recruitment took off from there, with Clemson, a team Henry grew up rooting for, making the earliest impression. The offers have rolled in since.
Having a college coach as a father, the family knew what to expect in certain parts of the recruiting process, but the interest level and amount of mail Henry received was eye-opening even to his mother.
“I guess it kind of hit us, because we know what [Keith Henry] does, that he’s a college football coach, but we didn’t realize that when we started getting all this mail, the little love notes that he has been writing recruits, that’s what he’s been doing,” Nicole said. “It’s kind of eye-opening in that sense. When you’re getting 100 pieces of mail from schools at one time, it’s kind of like, ‘Oh my God — this is what you do?'”
K.J.’s father never pushed his son into football and never tried to force him to love the sport. Keith put his children in basketball, football, soccer and even golf to let them experience everything and choose which sports they wanted to pursue.
Even now, in the recruiting process, K.J. describes his dad’s involvement as just the right amount. He’s not too involved, but not too distant either. He compares his dad’s advice and involvement to a cheat code in a video game, giving him the upper hand on other prospects.
It has also made it easier for the family to cut through the fat when talking to college coaches recruiting him. His parents have set parameters in the process, including limiting coaches from pulling their son out of class to speak with him and asking that coaches respect his time.
He won’t be making a decision until his senior year, so he has plenty of time to talk to coaches and make the right call with his college choice. For now, the only right call he’s trying to make happens with a whistle in a black-and-white striped shirt every Saturday on the basketball court.