EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Minnesota Vikings linebacker Erin Henderson recalls watching television with his 2-year-old son, Lennox, and seeing how his son reacted to shows on the National Geographic channel.
It was “Big Cat” week about year ago, and Lennox was taking as much of an interest in shows about lions, tigers, cheetahs, jaguars and leopards as Henderson was — truly a bonding experience between father and son. Henderson had seen advertising for National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative with actress Betty White promoting the “Cause an Uproar” campaign that is attempting to help the species survive extinction. Immediately, it hit the Minnesota linebacker what he had to do next.
“I told my personal assistant right then and there, we got to figure out how to get involved in this and how to make this work so I can be a part of this and try to help,” Henderson said.
The bonding experience with his son has become so much more for Henderson these days.
“For whatever reason, I would put those on and he would watch the same way I would watch, and it seemed like he was as interested as I was,” Henderson said. “And one of the first animals that he recognized was a lion, and I thought that was telling me something. I don’t want my son to grow up in a world where we’re talking about big cats and lions like people once talked about dinosaurs, ‘Now they’re extinct, but at one point they roamed the world and they did this or did that.’ I want him to be able to see it for himself and experience it in the same light I got a chance to.”
Henderson, who says he sports several tattoos of lions, is putting his money where his heart is. Last season, he started Sack for Cats — where he would donate $1,000 to the Big Cats Initiative for every sack he recorded, even against the Lions. He hoped to bring attention to the plight of the big cats and motivate others to join the cause. Last week, Henderson presented National Geographic with a $5,000 check for the Big Cats Initiative and plans to continue Sack for Cats next season.
National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative is a program designed to help halt the decline of big cat populations by the year 2015. The comprehensive program includes conservation projects, education, economic incentive efforts and a public awareness campaign. According to National Geographic, scientists estimate approximately 100,000 lions roamed Africa 50 years ago, a number that has dwindled to an estimated 32,000 today. The decline is due to the human population growth and loss of habitat for the animals, along with poaching, hunting and retaliatory killing.
Henderson, who re-signed with Minnesota in March for two years and $4 million, hopes his success on the field will help. He recently met in Washington D.C. with key members of National Geographic and offered his ongoing support for the campaign.
Monetarily, Henderson thought he would be offering an even bigger check during that visit. In his second season as a starter, Henderson had two sacks in last season’s first two games. After returning from an injury that caused him to miss two games, he had one sack over the final 12 weeks. He finished with career-highs of 80 tackles and three sacks.
“What I initially said was $1,000 for each sack, and with the way this season started, it looked really good,” Henderson said. “I thought it would be a very productive thing that I was trying to accomplish. Things slowed down a little bit, so I decided to just go ahead and make a $5,000 donation just to get us started and to show them that I am loyal to them and I do want to do this work and I am serious about it. . . . It was fun for me. It was just like extra incentive. There’s always enough incentive to go out there and play well and make plays and help the team win. It’s also meaningful making a donation to something that’s important to me, a charity that I think will do the right thing with it in order to make sure that big cats aren’t gone from this world.”
His passion for the animals is apparent in his words. A part of Henderson, who one day hopes to go to Africa and see the animals in their natural habitat, has always been drawn to lions.
“I love what they represent,” he said. “I love the idea of being the king of the jungle, the majestic value that they bring. If you actually look at a lion, it’s aesthetically pleasing, but they have that other side to them. They can turn on a different side that people may not see on a regular basis. When it comes down to survival, they’re one of the best at it. At this point, if you look, it’s a little bit harder for them. . . . So I just felt like I was in a situation and I had an opportunity to do something that I was passionate about that meant something to me and be able to make a difference at the same time.”