Or maybe it’s because he just needs some solid footing. That’s why there’s his own realm, one that strikes a balance between college academics and Division I wrestling, between confident and modest, between the guy Henderson has to be on the mat to excel All-American-style and the guy he wants to be away from it.
“Everybody’s like, ‘Evan, how do you do all this stuff?’” he said a few hours later, his chair swiveling amid the bang and clatter of the Stallings-Evans Sports Medicine Center. “Well, I’m always in Evan World. I’m always in my own sense of mind.”
Wrestlers shouldn’t plead insanity, said Robert Henderson, Evan’s twin and a fellow UNC wrestler. It’s the way they’ve been coached, the way they’ve been brought up. It’s in their chromosomes. They have to get to where they want to go.
Evan Henderson nods in agreement.
“If you can make it through wrestling, you can do wrestling for a little bit, even have a little inkling of what’s going on in their heads and the kind of people some of the top guys are — you’ll understand that it’s a lifestyle,” Evan Henderson said.
It’s true. The sport becomes a wrestler’s biological metronome. They must meet their prescribed weight class to the exact pound, and if there’s excess, it has to go before a bout. It just has to. They torture themselves losing weight, Evan Henderson said, but a voice in their head tells them to anyway.
The voice began rattling around Henderson’s head 20 years ago. He grew up in New Florence, Pa., a small town 50 miles east of Pittsburgh. Everybody knows everybody, and wrestling is in the drinking water.
Henderson and his brother took up wrestling in kindergarten. Evan Henderson didn’t like it at first. It took three years of “getting our butts kicked” to start getting serious about it, he said. They would become two of the state’s top junior wrestlers, and Evan Henderson catapulted ahead of his brother at The Kiski School in Saltsburg, Pa.
“Everybody strives to be what he’s trying to do,” Robert Henderson said. He flashes a sheepish grin. “I always try to knock him down a couple pegs.”
His twin is there to make sure Evan World stays on its axis, lest Henderson’s chatter knocks it askew. Naturally, he’s an interpersonal communications major.
“He’s a talker about everything,” associate head coach Cary Kolat said.
Not that kind of talk. Not the off-putting chirping or puffed-peacock talk.
On road trips, Evan Henderson will plan every moment of his day. He’ll know what he’ll eat for breakfast and what he’ll do before going to bed. He’ll tell all of his teammates and coaches about it in breathless detail.
“Told you I could talk the paint off the walls,” he said, laughing.
It’s not that kind of talk. Friends will ask him how he did in a match. He usually says, “OK,” even after he’s emasculated an opponent. He abides by a quote from one of his favorite wrestlers: “It’s not attractive to be famous.”
Along the way there’s self-flagellation, perhaps the sensation of being a sacrificial lamb. Wrestling, unlike any other sport, requires coaches to be willing participants in a wrestler’s development. They don’t just motivate and teach — they fight their pupils.
One practice bout with Kolat, who wrestled for the U.S. in the 2000 summer Olympics, ran Henderson’s face through a cheese grater. That’s OK, Henderson said. It’s part of the deal.
“To be a good wrestler, there’s some screws loose,” head coach C.D. Mock said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Henderson is up early and in the wrestling room of Fetzer Hall, a crucible of sauna-like air and gladiatorial teeth-sharpening little more than the team’s first meet of the season. Thirty-five wrestlers became a tangle of arms and legs, an interpretive dance with a primitive twist — smother or beat or slam the other guy into submission.
Sophomore Cody Ross locks with Henderson in an unfriendly embrace. They knead each other like Play-Doh into positions that would make gymnasts squirm and ballerinas faint. A constellation of sweat dots the mat beneath their feet. A teammate leans over a garbage can and throws up.
“It’s not a fun sport,”Mock said. “There’s very little about this that’s relaxing or enjoyable. If you stop and enjoy it, somebody starts banging on you.
“If you’re going to go through this, you might as well win.”
Evan World features a kind of autopilot drive to get to where Evan Henderson wants to go. He’s already made stops at the sport’s most glamorous destinations. A three-time state champ in high school. The country’s top high school wrestler in his weight class by senior year. And, added to the itinerary last year, All-America honors and a sixth-place finish in the 141-pound weight class at the NCAA Championships.
The next stop for Evan Henderson is in a different stratosphere. Win two NCAA championships, move on and win a couple of world titles. Not one, he stresses. A few of them. And there’s the Olympics, wrestling’s mecca. It’s still a dream of his.
“We’re always working to the top,” Evan Henderson said. He’s still swiveling. “I’m not saying other people don’t have that type of ambition, but it’s embedded in wrestlers and ingrained in our skulls that you gotta make it to the top.”
The next peak comes in less than a month, his first chance since nationals in March to see the core of Evan World in his opponent’s eyes.
“Sometimes, I don’t think anything,” he said. “I’ll stare and see what their expression is. I know they’re worried, but I try to blank everything out sometimes. Whatever happens, happens.
“I love the sport, but it means nothing and it means everything to me.”
It’s now 10:45 Eastern Standard Time, or time for a late breakfast in Henderson time. Evan and Robert exit the medicine center together, and Evan World spins out the door with them.