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Seantrel Henderson opens up on his battle with Crohn's disease, drug suspension

Seantrel Henderson knows what people think.

He’s aware that when his name scrolls across ESPN’s ticker, followed by the words “suspended four games for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy,” a collective response of “big surprise” is groaned by Bills fans.

Issues with marijuana are why Henderson is in Buffalo in the first place. A player with his skill set wouldn’t have slipped to the seventh round of the 2014 NFL Draft otherwise.

The top-rated player in the 2010 recruiting class coming out of high school in Minnesota, Henderson was billed as a future first-round draft pick destined for multiple Pro Bowls. But there were at least three suspensions at Miami, all of which he admitted at the NFL Scouting Combine were related to weed. Some teams took him off their draft board entirely, but the Bills took the low-risk gamble of using a seventh-round pick on him.

If he screwed up again, the Bills could cut him, no harm, no foul.

But this, Henderson insists, isn’t that.

This was simply a matter of seeking relief for a disease that was ravaging his body. After being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease last year, Henderson dealt with excruciating pain. During two separate surgeries, doctors removed more than 80 centimeters of his infected intestines.

“I’ve got doctors telling me this is the No. 1 medicine that would help your disease,” Henderson said this week. “You try to tell that to the league and it seems like they didn’t care too much.”

Common sense would suggest the NFL adopts a drug policy that addresses medicinal marijuana. But common sense and the league are often allergic to each other. It’s why a player can stay in a game after launching himself into the head of a defenseless opponent, but get kicked out if he dances after scoring a couple touchdowns.

Henderson’s not looking for a pity party, though. He says simply the league “had to do what they had to as far as disciplining me.”

But he takes exception to the idea that his suspension was just a matter of falling back into old, bad habits.

“That wasn’t the case at all,” he said. “I hadn’t even been thinking about marijuana until it was brought up to me by a doctor. Since I’ve been in the league, I’ve been in the program. I got drug tested three times a week. There’s no recreational use. There’s none of that.”

So Henderson sat for the first four games of the season. The Bills waited a week after he was eligible to return before activating him, but made him inactive in Week Six against San Francisco. Then, a cyst on his back meant he was held out of a trip to Miami for Week Seven.

“It seems like if it wasn’t one thing, it’s another,” he said.

On Thursday, however, he was able to practice fully, another step in his recovery.

“It’s been a good long while for me,” he said, “but I’m back now, getting ready to go.”

Henderson’s suspension is behind him, and so too, he hopes, is his fight with Crohn’s. It’s a battle he felt like he was losing for a long time. Henderson’s condition was revealed shortly after he was hospitalized in Philadelphia last December, when the stomach pain simply got too much to endure. But it existed long before that, all the way back to training camp in the summer of 2015, when the sharp pains felt like stab wounds to the gut.

Henderson’s first surgery came in January. Listed at 6-foot-7 and 331 pounds, he dropped all the way down to 281.

That’s hard. So many of these guys have been Superman all their lives, and to go through something like that I’m sure was devastating for him,” offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn said. “It was scary at one point.”

Before he had his first surgery, doctors had a warning.

“I was told that I was supposed to have my ileostomy bag for the rest of my life,” he said. “They were trying to help me find ways to play with it, and how I could strap it around my stomach. It was like, somebody could just punch me in the stomach, and here comes all this fluid coming out. That would have kept me away from playing.”

He was in the hospital for almost two weeks, and had to return three separate times after that because of bleeding. The period from that point until he had a follow-up surgery in April was one of the toughest of his life.

“I was in a very low place in my head, because I couldn’t do the things I would usually do during the offseason,” he said. “I didn’t want to be around anybody. It just had me real, real down and I didn’t like being like that.

“I couldn’t use the bathroom for three months while I had the bag. I wasn’t in a good place with myself because I was really insecure. Things like that make a person want space.”

Henderson had very little contact with the Bills during that time, which seems like blame can be shared on both sides. He admits to wanting privacy, but at the same time would have answered the phone if someone from the organization called.

“I know I reached out to him. The team chaplain reached out to him,” Lynn said. “It was sad to hear him say that, because people in this building definitely care about him.”

Henderson said the support of his teammates, even if it was just a “how you feeling?” text, did help during his darkest days.

“All my teammates man, everybody’s got my back,” he said. “Everybody on the outside has their own opinion on whatever. People can say what they want. I didn’t get any of that from my teammates, because it’s the bond that we all have together, especially with the O-Line. There’s five of us, but we’re all one.”

“There was no, ‘Trel, you dropped the ball, come on Trel, you’re doing what you used to do in college.’ There wasn’t none of that. It was, ‘hey, we’re here for you if you need me.’ ”

Crohn's is an inflammatory bowel disease that can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract, which runs from a person's mouth to his or her anus. Symptoms include abdominal pain, weight loss and diarrhea. If affects up to 700,000 Americans, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America. There is no cure, although surgery helps to preserve the working portions of the GI tract, and changes to a person’s diet can reduce the risk of complications.

That has meant no gluten or dairy for Henderson, along with certain vegetables like broccoli, corn and tomatoes. Thankfully, there have been no more flare-ups.

“I’m not trying to think about any of those things any more because I’m on the up and up right now,” he said.

Henderson isn’t all the way back yet. Lynn said he weighed in at 307 pounds last week, which is still well below his listed playing weight.

“He’s a small man playing in a big man’s body,” he said. “He has a ways to go to get his strength back and get back to where he was at, but he’s working hard at it and it’s good to see him back healthy.” I’m happy for him, because before he got hurt, he was turning into a hell of a player.”

Henderson led all players in the NFL in performance-based pay as a rookie when he started all 16 games, but his performance leveled off in his second year. The Crohn’s diagnosis certainly helps make sense of that.

“He’s hit a road bump, but hopefully he’ll have a long career beyond this,” center Eric Wood said. “It’s a life-threatening disease and it’s something he had to take seriously, and he has. I’m sure he wishes he was out there with the starting unit and he probably thinks he should have been at this point, but that’s a serious ordeal that he went through. He’s still putting on strength and getting his body back right. I’m a big fan of Seantrel Henderson and I’ll be rooting for him.”

Perhaps when all the weight and strength is back, Henderson can push Jordan Mills for the right tackle job ­– Lynn suggested as much Thursday – but for now, being able to practice with his teammates is a step in the right direction.

“When I say, I’m really happy to be here it’s because I’m not somewhere sitting at home by myself, not interacting with anyone, which is how it was,” Henderson said. “I feel way better now, happy to be back here in Buffalo with the guys. Everything is better.”

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