NC State

How NC State gets fired up: You’ll want to hear this coach’s pregame pep talks

N.C. State safeties coach Aaron Henry works with Stephen Morrison (13) and Tim Kidd-Glass (34) before the Wolfpack's game against Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on Oct .14, 2017.
N.C. State safeties coach Aaron Henry works with Stephen Morrison (13) and Tim Kidd-Glass (34) before the Wolfpack's game against Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on Oct .14, 2017. ehyman@newsobserver.com

Aaron Henry is standing on a wooden bench in the cramped visiting locker room at Florida State. It might as well be a pulpit.

There is no collection plate to pass, but the N.C. State assistant coach has a football sermon for the players.

“I love atmospheres like this, man,” Henry says. “It’s just us!”

His deliberate cadence is picking up, so is his volume.

“It ain’t nobody else,” he’s shouting now.

Henry, only 28, is in his first year as N.C. State’s safeties coach, but he knows how N.C. State has come up short in big games like this against brand-name ACC teams.

“We’ve been so close, but close ain’t good enough, boys,” Henry says. “It ain’t good enough. I just ask you to go out there and leave it all on the line. Leave it all on the line, play for each other.”

N.C. State went on to beat Florida State, 27-21 on Sept. 23. In fact, every time Henry has given a pregame pep talk – the past six games – the Wolfpack has won.

“We have a superstitious staff,” junior running back Nyheim Hines said. “I think he keeps doing it now because he didn’t before the South Carolina game and we lost.”

Henry said he hadn’t thought about the correlation between the winning streak, six games with a trip to Notre Dame on Oct. 28 up next, and his pregame talks.

“I’m just a new guy trying to find my way,” Henry said in an interview this week. “It just started off as me just trying to motivate the players. Now they’re kind of looking forward to them.”

You can see why just in that 19-second clip of Henry’s speech before the FSU game from “One,” a “Hard Knocks” behind-the-scenes style TV show N.C. State started this season.

Henry, a former all-Big Ten safety at Wisconsin, has quickly turned into the breakout star of the show. Head coach Dave Doeren, like a growing number of N.C. State fans, looks forward to Henry’s speeches. Doeren watches them on the show, rather than in person in the locker room. He wants to give Henry, and all of his assistants, room to do their job.

“He has taken it on his own, and I’m proud of him for it,” Doeren said. “He’s doing a great job with it.”

Change in career plans

The original career plan for Henry, who helped Wisconsin win 11 games as a senior in 2011 (the year Russell Wilson was the Badgers’ quarterback), was to get into the ministry.

One of 10 children – but the only boy – Henry was raised by his grandparents in south Florida. His grandmother, Margaret Lee, took him to weekly services at a pentecostal church in Immokalee, Fla.

“There was a lot of jumping and praising and worshiping,” Henry said. “That’s just how I was raised.”

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N.C. State safeties coach Aaron Henry talks with Isaiah Stallings (22) and Dexter Wright (14) during the Wolfpack's victory over Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on Oct. 14, 2017. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

The word of the Gospel left an impression on Henry, so did his grandmother.

“When I was little, my grandma used to always tell us: There’s life and death in the power of the tongue,” Henry said.

Henry has found a way to combine his illocutionary skill with football talent. Instead of a minister, he became a coach. He spent two years at Arkansas as a defensive undergraduate for Bret Bielema, who was his college coach at Wisconsin. Last year, Henry was the cornerbacks’ coach at Rutgers for Chris Ash, who was Doeren’s roommate at Drake.

Doeren said he had tried to hire Henry in 2013, as N.C. State’s team chaplain.

“He has always been a tremendous leader,” said Doeren, who was an assistant at Wisconsin when Henry played there.

It’s crazy what words can do

When former safeties coach Clayton White left Doeren’s staff to take the defensive coordinator job at Western Kentucky after the 2016 season, Doeren went back to Henry. This time he was able to convince him to come to Raleigh.

Henry jumped right in.

“I knew we had a very, very special team when I got here,” Henry said. “This team is so freaking tight, dude. It’s unbelievable.”

And it didn’t take long for the players, not just the ones in his position group, to embrace the charismatic newcomer.

“I think he did a really good job of putting himself out there,” Hines said.

Henry doesn’t hold back when talking about his new players. He uses the word “love” frequently.

“That’s just who I am,” Henry said. “I wear my emotions on my sleeve when it comes to this game.”

Henry is starting to get warmed up. Even in an interview, he can turn a simple answer into a pep talk.

“I genuinely love these guys, and I want them to know that I love them,” he continues. “I really believe young men are going to play so much harder when they know that you care about them. All those speeches are is to let them know this coaching staff cares about them. It’s just crazy what words can do.”

We ain’t history! We now!

Words work when you have a way with them. Henry does, always has. He gave a pregame speech, about fighting back, his senior year after the Badgers lost two straight close games. The team won that day, and the next four games, to win the Big Ten title.

Henry only started giving speeches, as a coach, this season after he noticed there wasn’t one before the South Carolina game. Before the Marshall game, Henry decided he should speak up.

“I told myself I was going to try to get them going,” Henry said.

He did and then again the next week and every week since. He doesn’t prepare what he will say, either. Doeren gives the team a word of the week (discipline, perseverance, urgency), and Henry said he just riffs off of the weekly theme.

“If you speak positivity into these young men, and you speak resiliency, you speak hard work and just pride into them, they’ll do it,” Henry said.

He knows how to push the right buttons, too.

“What an amazing, amazing opportunity,” he said before the Syracuse game on Sept. 30. “You know historically, N.C. State has gotten up for the big games, and the not-so-big games they hadn’t done too well.

“We ain’t history! We now! Enjoy the now, fellas!”

On a six-game winning streak, and in the national rankings for the first time in Doeren’s five-year tenure, the team certainly is. And Henry, without the official title, has the job he has always wanted.

“He’s preaching,” Hines said. “I think I’m going to start calling him ‘Pastor Henry.’ 

Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio

Inside the locker room

A sampling of first-year assistant coach Aaron Henry’s pregame speeches, as transcribed from N.C State’s weekly coaches’ show “One.”

▪  Before the Louisville game on Oct. 5: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds. For this is the testing of your faith. And faith produces perseverance, so that you may be mature and complete and not lacking anything. It’s only through the struggle, fellas, that you are able to persevere.

“You guys have been through a lot of struggles here, historically. Now is the time. This is a special moment right now. Enjoy it. It’s special, enjoy it! You’re going to be able to talk about this to your kids. How bad do you want it?

“Like anything in your life, if you want to be great at it, go and get it. It’s yours. Perseverance. Perseverance. It’s not just a word. You guys have overcame so much and tonight is the story of perseverance.”

▪  Before the Pittsburgh game on Oct. 14: “You don’t rise to the level of the occasion, you rise to the level of your training and you guys have been trained very well. (Strength coach Dantonio Burnette) Thunder has done a great job, coach D (Doeren) has done a great job training you guys for this very moment.

“People don’t think you’re ready. People don’t think N.C State can constantly do this on the road, week in and week out. You guys have been trained for this very moment: live it, man. Live it. It’s special. Live it. Believe it. It’s special because it don’t come around often. It don’t come around often. It’s hard to come by. It’s very, very hard to come by.

“When you get in that moment, you cherish it and you believe in one another and you fight for one another. You look to neighbor to your left and say count on me. You tell him: count on me. You tell him: count on me. I love you guys.”

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