SOUTH BEND — Wait a minute. By virtue of winning the Honda Sports Award for women’s soccer, shouldn’t Notre Dame’s Melissa Henderson be regarded as an elite athlete?
“Elite? I’m not in the elite class,” the junior forward said. “Maybe good ... uh, not good; average. What our team did was the important thing.”
Good thing Henderson didn’t have a vote.
Ask Irish coach Randy Waldrum, that’s vintage Melissa. Humble, almost to a fault.
Midseason. The Notre Dame’s women’s soccer team, ultimately destined for the national championship, was just starting to realize its potential. Waldrum had a vision for the team. He also recognized the missing piece to the puzzle.
Not that her play had been a problem. Waldrum recognized, stealing a line from U.S. Army propaganda, she wasn’t allowing herself to be all she could be.
“About midway through the season, I remember a conversation we had,” Waldrum said. “She was hurt (a minor injury); practice was going on. We’re sitting there on (a tractor), and I challenged her.
“I said, ‘There are two awards (Honda and Hermann) that have your name on them. It’s up to you to go take them.’ That helped her on the right path. It was like saying, ‘It’s OK for you to be as good as you can be.’”
Actually, that heart-to-heart talk fueled another chat, which was even more pivotal. Henderson had a pow-wow with teammates/friends Jazmin Hall and Jordan Snyder.
“I was really worried, because I didn’t want anybody to think I was trying to take on too much,” Henderson said. “I wanted to make sure everybody knew that everybody on the team has as much to do with our success as anyone else.
“I remember asking them, ‘What would y’all (her Garland, Texas, accent slips through) think if I tried to take it on a little more?’ I don’t want to take on something unless everyone felt comfortable. They told me they want me to take it on. They were glad I brought it up to them.”
From those chats, a star was born.
Seventeen goals (sixth most in the country) were nice, but it’s the 11 assists that bring a smile to her face. It was her assist on Adriana Leon’s goal against Stanford that was the difference in the national championship game.
“I was raised to see us all as equals,” Henderson said. “We all have the same opportunities. I don’t like to take away from others’ opportunities. I would rather have an assist than a goal.
“I want other people to experience what (scoring a goal) feels like. It’s more exciting when everybody’s part of it, rather than doing it yourself. It’s not fun that way.”
Refreshing. Strange, but refreshing.
The slender but sturdy 5-foot-8 Henderson, who is deadly accurate on her shot from either foot, destroys every stereotype of the egocentric star athlete.
“She’s very quiet,” Waldrum said. “We have to keep telling her how good she is, over and over. It’s hard to get her to turn on that animal instinct. She’s just now starting to realize her potential.