As a senior left guard at run-and-shoot Hawaii, 6-foot-5, 300-pound JR Hensley often paved lanes wide enough for a midsized sedan.
Months later, a camera-toting Hensley could be seen at an Oklahoma auto dealership taking photos of similar vehicles.
This wasn’t what Hensley envisioned as a means of income in 2019 when he helped Hawaii earn a West Division crown in the Mountain West Conference, notch 10 wins, rank fifth in the country in passing and reach its third bowl game in four seasons.
A devastating knee injury sidelined Hensley – a three-year starter and team captain – his final four games, derailing his hopes of becoming a fringe NFL prospect.
During his recovery process in the subsequent winter and spring, the coronavirus pandemic slowed down Hensley’s rehab, canceled the 2020 Canadian Football League season and killed the reborn XFL, another avenue Hensley was considering.
So Hensley, an Edmond, Oklahoma, native, returned home and got a day job as he planned his next move.
“Sometimes I would take photos of these crappy old Hondas,” said the jovial Hensley, a fun and lively figure during his time at Hawaii. “And other days it would be nice cars, like a Porsche.”
But the Indoor Football League soon gave Hensley a shot at revival.
Hensley signed with the Spokane Shock last year as he recovered from his knee injury, giving the born-again IFL franchise a big and dependable body along its offensive front.
The 24-year-old is adjusting to indoor football but is enjoying a rookie season he wasn’t sure was possible.
“With the extent of the injury, I didn’t know how I would come back,” Hensley said.
“I basically used that COVID year as my recovery year. I’m at my best now, just a little lighter than I was in college.”
The second-ranked Shock (4-2) host the defending IFL champion and fifth-ranked Sioux Falls Storm (4-3) on Saturday at Spokane Arena, a month after downing the Storm 50-32 in South Dakota.
Both teams are aiming for the United Bowl championship in September, a trophy the Storm have claimed seven times in the past 11 seasons.
Hensley experienced three bowl games in college – three Hawaii Bowl appearances – under former head coach Nick Rolovich, who resurrected the Rainbow Warriors’ program in four years before moving on to Washington State.
The Cougars finished 1-3 in a strange, abbreviated and coronavirus-adjusted schedule in 2020, Rolovich’s debut season in Pullman, but Hensley is confident that Washington State is in good hands with Rolovich.
“Rolo is a players’ coach and training them to be good men,” Hensley said. “He cares about his team and community and will do everything he can to get the fans in the stands.
He is a little off the wall, too. He has his silly moments, but he is always has a method behind his madness.”
Rolovich appeared to have a similar respect for Hensley, who said his time at Hawaii was the greatest experience of his life.
“I think JR Hensley is (a leader),” Rolovich said in a 2018 interview with Hawaii media. “And he’s outspoken … so you know he stands out a little bit.”
When Rolovich was hired at WSU in early 2020 to replace the departed Mike Leach, he brought several Hawaii assistants with him, including Craig Stutzman (co-offensive coordinator), Brian Smith (co-offensive coordinator) and Mark Weber (offensive line).
Weber was also high on Hensley in college.
“He’s a good leader out there, vocal leader with game experience.” Weber said in 2018. “He’s worked very hard to become fundamentally sound with his hands inside with trying to play at pad level.”
Hensley considers himself a WSU fan and has been in touch with his former coaches. The coaching staff plans to make the 75-mile trip north to watch a Shock game this season, Hensley said.
“I’m in a great program here with he Shock,” Hensley said.
“It’s a step up from college, but it has that sense of community. And to have my college staff close to me here in Washington is great.”
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