To countless kids, EJ Henderson is more than just a former Viking – he is a leader and a mentor.
Henderson hung up his cleats two years ago, but the Pro Bowl linebacker in no way retired from having an impact. Still residing in Minnesota, he now focuses on investing in the lives of Twin Cities youth.
As a way to work with local education programs and also engage a younger age group, Henderson started Youth Pro Fitness and Nutrition, otherwise known as YoPro. The organization partners with local community education and youth programs and is a mobile organization that travels to a location and uses its gym or field space to run the program, which highlights a 60-minute structured fun fitness and a kid-friendly nutritional curriculum.
On June 25, Henderson hosted a free YoPro experience for kids ages 7-13. The event took place at Eden Prairie Center and featured a multi-station curriculum to test the kids' physical fitness levels. Henderson explained the importance and intentionality of focusing on this age group.
"We want to introduce [these kids] to fitness and a healthy lifestyle before they reach highschool," he said. "Their brains are like sponges right now—at this age, they're able to pick up a lot of information, process it, and save it as they get older."
YoPro partners with Sport Testing, a company that uses wireless equipment to take accurate assessments of athletes.
"Evaluations are important in anything you do, and fitness is one of those areas we can evaluate," said Mark Ellis, a Sport Testing representative.
Each child that participated in Wednesday's event wore a wireless bracelet that downloaded times and measurements for each of four stations: a 10-yard sprint, a 5-10-5 shuttle run, a vertical jump and a base-reaction drill. The information gathered from each assessment was then used to create a fitness profile for each child.
"YoPro staff will have access to this data to hold themselves accountable and see how their program is progressing," said Ellis.
Around 50 kids participated in the fitness assessment, and they all clearly enjoyed trying each fitness challenge with a variety of YoPro coaches. It was no surprise, however, that the former Viking proved a crowd-wide favorite. Henderson spent the evening moving from group to group to coach the kids, passing out encouragement and high-fives to each and every participant.
Evan, 12, and Shae, 10, Oldenburg had a great time at their first YoPro event.
"It was so cool to meet EJ," exclaimed Evan. "I would definitely come back to another event!"
Shae expressed that the vertical jump was his favorite assessment.
"I got a pretty good score on that one," he said, smiling.
Parents appreciated the event, as well. Jill Oldenburg said she brought her sons to the event because she wanted to learn more about the YoPro organization and give the boys a fun way to get motivated about fitness on their own.
"They love football," Jill said, "and it's always so nice to see an athlete that's interested in working with kids."
While some kids were experiencing Henderson's organization for the first time, others were repeat visitors. Connor Filippi, 11, participated in a YoPro event last summer that took place at Winter Park and involved Henderson as well as Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway and former defensive tackle Kevin Williams. Filippi said this event was just as fun as last year's.
"My favorite event [this time] was the 5-10-5 [shuttle]," said Filippi. "It really worked on agility and was fun to have to run back and forth."
In addition to the physical activity, the kids were given bottles of water and fresh fruit to reenergize and remind them of the importance of a healthy diet.
Another highlight of the event came after the assessments were finished, when the students were given the opportunity to take photos with Henderson and get his autograph. The kids were all smiles as they posed with the 6-1 linebacker. One young boy proudly asked his mother to snap a photo of him shaking hands with Henderson.
"The event went well," Henderson said. "The kids were excited and wanted to go through all the routines. We got some good numbers from the group, so we'll be able to get them some results on their fitness levels. The kids are always great to work with."
*Henderson would like to thank the following YoPro sponsors for making a free event possible for the youth: Kowalski's, Scheel's (sporting goods), OSR Physical Therapy, and Jackson Medical Equipment. *
In addition to YoPro, Henderson runs the EJ Henderson Youth Foundation, a non-profit organization that focuses on improving the health and fitness of urban youth. The program recently relocated to north Minneapolis, where it runs a fitness center. To learn more information about the foundation, visit *http://www.ejhyf.org/.*