Catch Up with the Jets Linebacker Jim Gehman
What can you say? Mike Hennigan preferred tackling over tractors.
With the Lions for three seasons, the linebacker was waived injured at the end of training camp in 1976, which led to him spending the final four years of his NFL career with the Jets.
"I left Detroit and headed for Iowa, which was my home. I was in the farm equipment business with my dad. I was going to learn the business. I talked the whole way (to my wife) about hey, it was a nice career. It was a short career, but I was all set," Hennigan said.
"I got home and my mom and dad said, 'Where have you been? The Jets have been trying to call you for the last 24 hours.' Of course, back then we didn't have cell phones. So, after talking for the 14-hour drive about not playing, I told my wife, 'Well, I'm going to New York.'"
Claimed off waivers by the Jets, Hennigan hadn't healed enough to pass their physical exam.
"They wanted me to sign a waiver," he said. "I wasn't very sure of what that waiver consisted of, so I didn't sign it. And again, went back home. But after sitting there and watching that first game, the Jets were in Cleveland and lost, I thought, 'Well, I don't know what this waiver consists of, but I'm going to go ahead and sign it and get back into the NFL.'"
Already into the season, Hennigan found himself contributing mostly on special teams. The Jets as a team, meanwhile, found themselves struggling with the first of back-to-back 3-11 seasons.
"There were only seven guys if I'm not mistaken who were left over from the Super Bowl team," Hennigan said. "So, it was a real young team and it was a good job by some of the older players just trying to stay positive and work our way through it.
"And I think Walt Michaels was maybe a factor, at least defensively. He was the defensive coordinator initially and then became the head coach, and he was the guy who the linebackers looked up to and thought a lot of."
In 1978, Michaels' second season, New York did work its way through it and posted an 8-8 record.
"We really picked up some pretty impressive offensive explosive people like Wesley Walker and some of the receiver corps," Hennigan said. "I think the steady play and the big play of the skill people on offense probably helped us as much as anything because we were just a solid defense, but not any really big names. (Joe) Klecko and those guys started to show some of their greatness, but the linebacking corps other than Greg Buttle didn't have a lot of fame going with them."
With the Jets for four seasons, active for three, what's among Hennigan's fondest memories from his time in New York?
"I think it was the people that I got a chance to meet," Hennigan said. "There was a couple of things that happened that were big games. I got a few big plays like interceptions, and there were always some big hits. But for the most part, it was just the pride and the friendships that I developed."
Before suffering a career-ending knee injury, Hennigan made 12 starts in 1978, and collected all three of his career interceptions. Including one off of Baltimore quarterback Bill Troup, which he returned 53 yards.
"I still don't know how that happened," Hennigan laughed. "I think even being involved kind of as a fullback in the kickoff return team, one time they kicked a low one to me and I actually have somewhere in the records, a (22-yard) kickoff return. And I never would have pictured that happening."
What makes Hennigan most proud of his playing career?
"I think just the pride of being able to be a part of the NFL, and then gradually learning that I was capable of competing at that level," he said. "My biggest dilemma was that I didn't stay healthy. I had four surgeries, on both knees and both shoulders, and the last one kind of forced me out.
"I did learn to play hurt and that was just a part of the way things went. There were times where I couldn't finish a season. I think players played with injuries a little bit more maybe back then because they weren't diagnosed as thoroughly as they are nowadays.
"I finally got to the point where I thought, 'Well, I got the seven years in I needed for my pension and I was going to have a hard time competing,' and just went ahead got into business with my dad."
The timing could have been better when Hennigan joined his dad fulltime in 1980 at the International Harvester dealership that they owned. Farmland was growing more expensive and interest rates were rising.
"I wasn't raised on a farm, didn't really know a lot about the farm equipment business. I just wanted to be with my family at that time, and that's why I moved back," Hennigan said. "Farming was just tough. And I just told my dad, 'I think I'm going to go back down south and try to get into coaching.' And the funny thing was, he said, 'Well, if I was a younger man, I'd go with you.'"
After helping at spring practice at his alma mater, Tennessee Tech, Hennigan went on to coach at East Tennessee State, Western Carolina, Memphis State, and Temple, before returning to Tennessee Tech as its defensive coordinator. After 10 seasons, he became the school's head coach for the next 10 seasons before retiring in 2006.
"What I enjoyed the most, again, was probably the people," Hennigan said. "And I enjoyed being an assistant coach. The last 10 years as a head coach, it wasn't really something I was aiming to do or wanting to do, but it just kind of happened. It was a good experience, it was a good job, but I actually enjoyed the association with going out on the field and working with the individual linebackers and drills and things like that way more than the administrative things that the head coach does."
Making their home in Cookeville, Tennessee, Hennigan and his wife, Leslie, have three sons: Michael, Zac, and Taylor, who have all followed him into coaching; a daughter, Morgan Bennett; and 11 grandchildren, with No. 12 on the way.