Ellis Henderson’s plan was clear.
Following a stellar career at Skyview High, he would lead a football resurgence at the University of Hawaii, the team he cheered as a child.
Living in paradise would be a fringe benefit of pursuing two of his passions: sports and marine biology.
Life, however, sent Henderson in a different direction. That path led to a place where it’s brutally cold in the winter and 1,000 miles from the ocean.
And Henderson couldn’t be happier.
Now a sophomore at the University of Montana, Henderson has become one of the top playmakers in the Big Sky, if not all of FCS football. As the Grizzlies’ leading receiver with 34 catches, his 15 touchdowns through 10 games ranks him second in the conference.
This breakthrough season follows a period of uncertainty and self-reflection that saw Henderson transfer from Hawaii and nearly enroll at Portland State before settling in Missoula.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Henderson said in a phone interview last week.
The reasons Henderson left Hawaii are numerous: frustration with the football program, homesickness, isolation. That muddled college experience gave Henderson a full syllabus of life lessons.
“It’s about being part of something bigger than myself,” he said. “In making that kind of decision, you have to step away from football. In a couple years, I might not be playing football anymore. But I’ll always have the support of the school and my teammates. I’ll always have those relationships.”
Henderson has become more in tune with the mental aspects of sports. He changed his studies to focus on psychology and sees his on-field performance bolstered by that switch.
“The difference, psychologically, from high school to college is very big,” Henderson said. “I would get really hyped up for a high school game. In college you need to be more calm and settled. You have to think clearly, read defensive coverage and be on the same page with your quarterback.”
Three of Henderson’s touchdowns have decided games. Without him, the 9-2 Grizzlies could easily be 6-5 or 5-6.
His 98-yard kickoff return with 1:36 to play gave Montana a 31-27 win over South Dakota State on Nov. 9.
The previous week, he caught a game-winning touchdown catch in overtime of a 51-48 victory over Sacramento State. He also had a TD catch in OT of Montana’s 21-14 win over Cal Poly.
A less mature player would bask in his game-changing glory. Henderson’s outlook mixes confidence and reverence.
“I expect to do something every time I have the ball,” he said. “You have to have that approach. But I’ve also learned that more goes into it than just what I do. The blocking has to be perfect.”
Life’s path to the end zone is never straight. Obstacles can come from unseen angles.
Henderson has learned that with some agility, and a few good blockers, it can be a triumphant journey.