EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- When E.J. Henderson was wheeled out of the trauma unit at an Arizona hospital, a titanium rod in his left leg where his thigh bone used to be, the Minnesota Vikings really didn't know what to do next.
In all their research, they couldn't find an instance of an NFL player who broke his femur in a game, let alone one who returned to play after the injury.
"You don't see these injuries in professional football," Vikings head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman said. "You see them in car accidents. We really couldn't find any documented cases in the NFL when we looked into it."
Former Minnesota Wild player Kurtis Foster went through it, but hockey is so different from football in what it requires of its athletes, so it was difficult to determine if the plan he used would work to get the Vikings' middle linebacker back on the field.
So Sugarman and assistant athletic trainer Tom Hunkele set to work to put together a rehabilitation program that started from the most basic of movements -- Henderson simply getting range of motion back in his leg -- and took him all the way to the point where he was ready to once again chase down tight ends in the open field and collide with running backs in the hole.
"Maybe not a medical marvel," Henderson said Friday. "I think we did a good job of putting together a femur fracture rehab. There wasn't one out there before. I'm definitely proud of the work we've done."
On Dec. 6, 2009, Henderson collided with Vikings teammate Jamarca Sanford during a game at Arizona, and the linebacker's left femur essentially snapped in half and flopped grotesquely as he fell to the ground.
It was an extremely rare orthopedic emergency, Sugarman said, and Henderson quickly went into shock from the pain. Medical personnel couldn't give him an oral pain killer because he was going to immediately have surgery. His leg was put in a splint, and Henderson was rushed to a local hospital, where a trauma surgeon went to work.
"You could just see the pain in his face," Sugarman said. "He wasn't saying anything."
Henderson remained in Arizona for a few days before he could be transported home. Once he arrived in Minnesota, he went to work determined to return to the field by the 2010 season opener.
"E.J. was truly one of those where I remember telling the staff at the end of the year, 'This could be a career-threatening injury for this guy. We're not really sure. We're not sure if he's going to be able to get back to the function and the level that he needs to do his job,'" Sugarman said.
The long, lonely days started with the slightest of motions, little leg lifts to get the blood flowing and made a very gradual progression that included simple taps of his toes in the pool to basic strengthening exercises.
"We set up all these landmarks, and he surpassed all of them," Sugarman said. "Whatever landmark we set, he just blew right by it."
In the dead of winter, while most of his teammates were soaking up the sunshine in their offseason homes, Henderson was at Vikings headquarters, hurling himself through the grueling rehab process.
"The first few weeks were ridiculous. ... It's a pretty lonely feeling come February or March and everyone else is gone and here you are trying to fight your way back," Sugarman said. "You've got to be pretty strong mentally to be able to conquer that. He just never wavered. There never was a day where he had any doubt that he would be ready for our first game this year. That was the goal."
Incredibly, Henderson achieved it, starting at middle linebacker in the season opener at New Orleans. He hasn't missed a game since. He is second on the Vikings with 80 tackles and leads all NFL linebackers with three interceptions.
Henderson shrugs it off as if he came back from a sprained ankle.
"My job was just to report how I was feeling. Never be scared to say I'm a little sore today, let's back off," he said. "But all the X's and O's, they did it. The medical staff and I just followed the routine and reported what I was feeling, and it worked out great."
No one in Minnesota can really believe it.
"He's coming along, and I still can't believe he's doing what he's doing," said Vikings interim coach Leslie Frazier, Henderson's defensive coordinator the past three years. "None of us thought, even now, he'd be out there."
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick has received all the press for his return from federal prison, but it would be hard to find a better feel-good story than Henderson when it comes to naming the comeback player of the year.
"It would definitely be a nice reward," Henderson said of the award. "It's hard to look at those things when you're 5-7 and going through what we've been through. But it would definitely be a sweet reward and a little pat on the back for all the hard work."
The Vikings' medical and training staff have presented Henderson's groundbreaking case, and the rehab program, both locally and nationally. It has been written up in medical journals and is being studied for future reference, providing a road map for how to deal with such an injury.
And they've given it a nickname -- the Henderson Protocol.
"That's our joke, but I think that's what it is," Sugarman said. "I challenge anyone to top it. I think the medical staff in general, we're pretty proud of this. It's a remarkable comeback."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press