Mario Henderson was loved by everyone. It was hard to dislike him.
At 6-foot-7, Henderson was physically a tower. And of course he played at FSU and in the NFL. But he was humble, bringing himself and his experiences to the level of his high school students and players at Fort Myers’ Dunbar High.
“Mario was well loved by the Dunbar Tiger family,” Dunbar principal Carl Burnside told the Osceola. “He said he wanted to give back and one of the ways to give back was coach high school kids.”
Henderson, an FSU offensive lineman from 2003-06 who went on to play in the NFL, passed away on Tuesday. His cause of death is not known. He was 35.
FSU defensive lineman James Chaney, who is now a coach at Lehigh Acres, announced the news on social media Wednesday morning.
Henderson was a basketball standout at Lehigh Acres before instead focusing on football. His size, athleticism and quick feet caught the attention of college coaches and he was leaning toward attending Clemson before Burnside, an FSU graduate, mentioned to longtime FSU assistant coach Odell Haggins that there was a prospect in Southwest Florida the coaches should evaluate. Haggins made a visit and coach Bobby Bowden later made the offer in January 2003. Henderson signed a month later.
He developed into a starter later in his career for FSU’s final two games of the 2005 season (the ACC championship game against Virginia Tech and the bowl game vs. Penn State) before starting all 13 games in 2006. played in the NFL from 2007-10 with the Oakland Raiders and in New Orleans in 2012. In September, Henderson posted on Facebook a photo of his name and the No. 75 on a brick, a replica of what would be outside the Raiders’ new stadium in Las Vegas.
He later played pro football in a few leagues, wrapping up with the Arena Football League’s Tampa Bay Storm in 2015. A native of Lehigh Acres, Fla., he also was an assistant coach at Fort Myers’ Dunbar High from 2014-19 and was an ESE teacher.
“There was probably not a kinder, gentler spirit than Mario Henderson,” Burnside said. “He was just so patient.”
Henderson also took classes online and earned his bachelor’s degree in the spring of 2018.
Burnside said Henderson had severe back problems and was not coaching or teaching this school year. Even though Henderson was not at school he was in frequent contact with players, many of them as recent as Monday. Burnside said a few weeks ago that Henderson bought 500 wings for students, having a relative bring them to the school to enjoy.
Reflections from Henderson came in from across the FSU community. Players were stunned to hear of Henderson’s passing.
“It’s tough,” said FSU linebacker and current Louisville assistant coach Derek Nicholson, who played with Henderson in 2005 and ’06. “I just got off the phone with my brother (A.J.), telling him. He was shocked. As well as I am. Being teammates and being close, that’s your brother.”
On Twitter, a number of Seminoles were emotional at the loss of their good friend.
Said defensive tackle Travis Johnson: “The hurt and pain I feel right now.”
Said another defensive tackle, Everett Dawkins: “Used to come back and show love all the time, wasn’t expecting this. Rest In peace.”
Arrangements for Henderson’s service are still being made by his family.