The new coach had been on campus for only four months and likely hadn’t yet learned everyone’s name – never mind that of an undersized, non-scholarship walk-on.
But Tom Hennessey had been around long enough for the both of them. He had three years’ experience in the grind – getting the least and last reps, doing the scout-team grunt work, showing the extra spark in drills, selling out on special teams.
Three years’ experience in making a first impression.
So one afternoon during Idaho’s 2013 spring practices, Hennessey was headed into a defensive meeting when Paul Petrino stopped him in the hallway. The new coach said he liked everything he’d seen – the hustle, the focus, the commitment. Said there’d be some scholarship papers to sign. Clapped Hennessey on the shoulder and walked back to his office.
“It was so nonchalant,” Hennessey said. “It kind of floored me.”
Many a coach would prefer to drop that kind of news on a player in front of the whole team, leveraging the emotion of the moment. Across the border at Washington State, Dennis Erickson once blew his whistle at practice after a good play to award a walk-on a ride on the spot. It’s a way to drive home the message of work and reward with a little theatre – and a chance for the coach to be a hero instead of a heel.
“But that’s not Coach Petrino’s style,” Hennessey said, “which I appreciate.”
His own will in the pursuit of playing time has never been a pretense. He’d just as soon not have it exploited for the sake of someone else’s show.
Tom Hennessey doesn’t need to be anybody’s prop.
The validation is enough.
But when you pay enough dues, you’re bound to become an object of some appreciation. And here, in his fifth year in the Idaho program, Hennessey’s perseverance is a necessary example for his Vandals teammates in the art of keeping on keeping on.
It’s homecoming at Idaho, with Saturday’s game against New Mexico State yet another chance for the Vandals ditch some leaden baggage – the 13-game losing streak that’s the longest in the Football Bowl Subdivision. There’s some anecdotal evidence that they’re on verge: a handful of one-possession games that have turned on one snap or drive in the fourth quarter this season. That’s in contrast to the numbing slog of blowouts that started back in 2012 and continued a year ago as Petrino launched his makeover of the program.
“We’ve learned how to fight and compete – we just haven’t quite learned how to finish and win,” Hennessey said. “We haven’t had a game where we’ve given up and caved in, and that happened a few times the past two years. We’re mentally tougher now.
“And we’re just flat out playing better.”
And suddenly, Hennessey has a major role in the middle of it.
After working his way into slots on Idaho’s special teams over the past three seasons, Hennessey showed up in the starting lineup at safety last weekend at Georgia Southern, playing most of the game and coming away with seven tackles. It wasn’t necessarily the happiest of circumstances: starter Chris Edwards, a junior college recruit expected to be an impact player, left the team. Another starting safety, Jordan Grabski, has been sidelined with a bad ankle for several weeks.
But however it’s happened, it’s certainly an opportunity well-earned. And valued.
“When you start out as a walk-on, you don’t even expect to make the team let alone ever start on offense or defense,” said Hennessey.
If your Vandals memory is long, you’ll remember another Tom Hennessey figuring prominently on the Idaho defense. That’s Hennessey’s father, a guided-missile linebacker in the mid-1980s who’s still UI’s top single-season tackler – twice an All-Big Sky performer who didn’t have a scholarship offer from another school.
His son took him one better: Idaho was the only Division I school who invited him aboard with the status of “preferred” walk-on – though invited or not, he was going to show up at Idaho anyway.
“And I told him the uphill battle it would be,” said his father, now a cattle rancher in Mountain Home, Idaho. “Scholarship guys are going to get 10-15 chances to your one. But if you want it bad enough and keep after it every day, you’re going to prove them wrong eventually – and I’ve never seen anyone, at least back in my day, work harder at it.”
And the reality is, the challenge fit Hennessey’s personality.
“You can’t have any self-doubt,” he said. “There has to be a chip on your shoulder, or you’re not going to make it.”
That doesn’t become any less true just because the coach puts you on aid.
“If you think that way, you’ll lose your edge – and that’s what got you the scholarship.
“So I pretty much still think of myself as that walk-on guy.”
Still trying to make that clinching impression.
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