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Tough And Universal: After Being Shot, Former Football Star Herb Henry Takes Up Wheelchair Basketball

Photo by J. Tyler Franklin

Herb Henry grew up near Shawnee Park. He says from a very early age, he only wanted to be one thing: a basketball player.

“I fell in love with the game of basketball," he said. "Growing up directly across the street from Shawnee Park, I'd walk to the park every day. [Basketball] would be what I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

But in high school, when he hit his full height of 5’11”, Herb decided he should shift his focus.

“I realized that my basketball dreams were not going to carry me very far,” he said. “Although I could have played college ball somewhere, I don't think I would have made it to the NBA at my height. So I quickly realized I had to transition to football and play that as well.”

And Herb was pretty good at football. He played every position, and ended up getting a scholarship to the University of Louisville to play fullback.

“What better opportunity to stay at home and play for the team that just won the Fiesta Bowl?" he asked. "Started my first year under Howard Schnellenberger. Played every game, started the last six games, scored a touchdown against Florida State — did fairly well my freshman year and was looking to come back to have a really big career. That was the plan."

But that January after his freshman year football season, Herb went to a party at U of L’s Red Barn.

“Red Barn, got shot. The transition starts there," he said.

"When I hit the ground, I said ‘I can't feel my legs. I can't feel my legs.’ I knew it was hard for me to breathe because I had a bullet in my chest...but I just knew immediately. I was just like, ‘I can't feel my legs.’”

He was in the hospital for several weeks, then went to rehab. But he was never able to fully regain the use of his legs.

“I recovered and I had to learn how to do it all over again in a chair," he said. "It was frustrating to not be able to do what I used to be able to do. I was a pretty capable dude. To have to ask for help was a hard thing you know. Not anymore. I'm open to the universe. Anyone that wants to help — it's all about well-being, please do.”

At that point, Herb said he wasn’t sure what to do.

“I was lost. I had no clue," he said. "I was 18-years-old. I was doing something that I should not have been doing. So I have to take accountability for my actions, but at the same time, not be a victim of them.

"Yeah, when I went to that party, I wasn't an innocent victim. I was in an altercation that I initiated. I saw the signs. It was chaos. From the time we started from the football dorm, drinking alcohol underage, to the walk to the Red Barn, there were two or three fights. So it was heated the whole night. And I decided to get in one of those altercations, and this was the result.”

Since then, Herb has returned to his first love: basketball. He’s on a local wheelchair basketball team called the Spoke and Spires.

“Wheelchair basketball is my passion," he said. "It's where I get lost. It’s where I don't pay attention to anything or anybody but the game.”

He's also opened up his own sportswear apparel company — it's called Competitors' Edge — and is starting a nonprofit to promote wellness.

“I was just trying to find my way and I had a good foundation and I found out it's about not being afraid, not being ashamed," he said. "We feed ourselves and hide so much garbage and we hold on to things that we shouldn't hold on to. We're shameful about things we shouldn't be ashamed of, and it's time to stop. It's time to remove the disease in our lives.

"It's one thing at a time, one thing at a time. My mind gets all over the place. I gotta do this. I gotta do that. No. Let me do this one thing and let me be good at this. I mean be where I'm at. And then I'll move on to the next. Focus. Get you a sanctuary. Find you some purpose. And breathe."

Herb Henry's story is part of Tough and Universal: Stories of Grit, a partnership between WFPL and IDEAS xLab. A new story will be released every Friday through November 2; for more stories, click here.