It is the night before a game, and everyone knows to leave Trey Hendrickson alone.
“Oh, you don’t want to talk to him then,” his agent Harold Lewis says. “He’s normally a really big-hearted guy, but that’s danger, danger.”
What does he mean? Well, Hendrickson’s father, Collie, and brother Bo once traveled to Cincinnati to watch Trey’s game and came to his home the day before. It wasn’t long before Trey, normally a loving son and brother, told them to get a hotel room and showed them the door.
“He just goes off and focuses on his own thing,” says his understanding wife, Alisa.
Even if someone does want to talk to him, they might not get through.
The Bengals defensive end does not have his mobile phone at the ready. And he does not invite pleasantries.
“I tend,” he says, “not to have conversations that are unnecessary.”
Instead, Hendrickson goes through his game plan in his head, reviews how he will attack his opponent, and envisions sacks.
Then on game day, Hendrickson brings the energy of a supernova. He strikes with violence as if using a Bo Staff. He sacrifices his body as if he were a crash test dummy. He berates an opponent with uncivil words.
And then, an apology. “Hey, look, I’m sorry. Things got a little too heated out there.”
Finally, in the boys-will-be-boys locker room, there is teasing. “Hey, Blackout Trey, you remember what you did out there?” one says.
The question raises another question: Is Hendrickson too intense?
When Hendrickson was 6 years old, his reaction to losing a game of one-on-one basketball to his father was anger.
Board games like Monopoly with his brother Bo, 2 1/2 years his junior, often became heated. Think Top Hat and Scottie Dog as projectiles.
It wasn’t any different playing Rocket League and NHL on Xbox. Sometimes after logging off, one called the other with an apology, Bo says. Of course, the elbows were high in basketball. The brothers took turns throwing a baseball at one another’s glove to see who could make the loudest pop and the harshest sting.
As a junior at Apopka High School in Florida, Hendrickson drew interest from Division I teams as a defensive end. But his grades slipped and he was behaving immaturely, so he was kicked off his team. Eventually, Hendrickson worked his way back, first by serving as a student manager, then by switching positions. He became a third-team all-state tight end for the Class 8A state championship team.
At Florida Atlantic, Hendrickson went back to defense. He had 27 career sacks, but he was missing something. “He was just a bull in a china shop,” his coach Charlie Partridge told Nola.com. “And we had to rein that in.”
Hendrickson had difficultly staying on an even keel. Passion overcame focus too frequently. At times, he played like a downhill truck without brakes on a dead-end street.
His NFL career started slowly after the Saints selected him in the third round. In 11 games his second season, he was a healthy scratch. In his third year, Hendrickson broke his spinal scapula in the preseason. Instead of having season-ending surgery, he played through the pain and had his best season to date with 4 1/2 sacks.
In 2020, his contract year with the Saints, Hendrickson took his game to where it had not been with 13 1/2 sacks. He played in only 53 percent of his snaps, making his production especially impressive.
Then Hendrickson was a free agent, and an anxious one. The Titans, Vikings, Colts and Jets, as well as the Bengals, expressed interest during the legal tampering period. Two days before free agency began, he called Lewis for updates 37 times. “Thank God he made the decision before the official start of free agency,” Lewis says. “He would have worn a hole in the wood floor with all the pacing back and forth.”
Hendrickson was drawn by the culture coach Zac Taylor was promoting with the Bengals, the talent on the roster and the city of Cincinnati. He signed a four-year, $60 million contract, making him the team’s highest-paid player.
As other Bengals have gotten to know Hendrickson, they learned the 27-year-old is forever looking for a fuse to light. And that he never lets on if he is hurting. And that he uses loaded words like war and combat when talking about football. And that he admires the way Mike Tyson attacked in the ring.
In training camp, every one of Hendrickson’s reps was like the final seconds of the Super Bowl.
“He turns a gear on in practice that you didn’t see the first time I sat and talked with him, and he was happy-go-lucky,” Taylor says. “All of a sudden, it’s, ‘Who is this animal?’”
Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah, a seven-year veteran, says he has never practiced against a player as intense as Hendrickson.
Early in camp, a play was called in which Uzomah is assigned to seal off Hendrickson from the side. Uzomah executed it well, which did not sit well with Hendrickson.
Hendrickson: “What do you think you’re doing?”
Uzomah: “Bro, I don’t call the plays.”
Hendrickson: “Block me straight up!”
Then the other tight ends started chirping. The other defensive linemen got involved. And then came the offensive linemen.
The conversation continued from one practice to the next.
Hendrickson: “How about this? I’ll call the play next time.”
Uzomah: “OK, we’ll make it one-on-one.”
Both know where the line is and how to put their big toes against its edge without breaching it. Sometimes, Hendrickson and Uzomah just lock arms and eyes, grabbing each others’ jerseys and exchanging a series of “All rights?” until both let go.
Uzomah: “Let’s go and do this again the next play.”
Hendrickson: “Next play, you better bring it.”
Immediately after practice, Hendrickson will approach Uzomah in the locker room.
Hendrickson, with a different tone: “Hey, what’s up? We good?”
Uzomah: “Uh, yeah, cool.”
Says Uzomah: “The switch is turned off.”
That’s where the Blackout Trey nickname comes from. Hendrickson berated an opponent during one game, and Bengals safety Jesse Bates asked him about it afterward. Bates said, “What happened, did you black out?” Jokingly, Hendrickson said yeah, he blacked out.
Bates ran with it, spreading the nickname through the team and even sharing it with the media.
But Hendrickson doesn’t black out. What he does is the opposite of blacking out — he becomes keenly aware of everything he’s feeling and everything his opponent is trying to do to him. “I’m always coherent, actually to the point where most of the things I say are well thought out,” he says.
Opinions from across the line are of no concern.
“I’m a firm believer that the product you put during the week is going to result on Sundays,” he says. “Call me old school, but that contact can’t be simulated any other way but to hit.”
Hendrickson has grown close with fellow defensive end Sam Hubbard. They sit next to one another in meetings and go out to dinner weekly. But their relationship is rooted in competition. And at the end of practice, they compete in a half-gasser. They even compete at sleeping.
“We are always trying to beat each other’s sleep scores on our sleep-tracking app,” Hubbard says.
The Bengals have thrived with the addition of Hendrickson — and his intensity. He has 12 1/2 sacks and has had one in nine straight games, a Bengals record and the longest current streak in the league. But his impact is about more than that.
A football team is like a terrarium in that it is a closed ecosystem. Everything in it either induces everything else to either thrive or wither.
Hubbard already has five more sacks than he did a year ago. Last season, the Bengals had a winning percentage of .250. This year have won at a .538 rate. Their defense allows 22.5 points per game after giving up 26.5 points in 2020.
Hendrickson has something to do with all of it. Hubbard says Hendrickson has brought a physicality to the defensive line. Uzomah says he doesn’t have enough praise for him.
“He’s relentless,” Taylor says. “That’s really what we want our defense to be defined by. Trey Hendrickson is that definition. And sometimes, it’s good to have that interaction between him and the offense. You need that in practice. You need that energy, that confrontation.”
A 10-day Caribbean cruise with two friends seemed to be a fabulous way to commemorate the conclusion of Hendrickson’s high school days. “We were a bunch of single dudes on a cruise,” he says. “Our expectations were high.”
And then, shortly after he boarded, his expectations became higher.
Seventeen-year-old Alisa Chernomashentsev was celebrating her graduation with her mother when she crossed paths with Hendrickson.
“We locked eyes,” she says.
“It was over for me,” Hendrickson says. “I was like, ‘Guys, go have fun. I’m going to see what this girl is about.’”
He spent the next 10 days feeling butterflies in his stomach that were not caused by the rocking of the boat. But after the ship docked, he returned to his home in Apopka, Fla., and she went back to Jacksonville. Then they attended different colleges.
Six years after the cruise, in June of 2019, Hendrickson texted Alisa to say hello. Neither was dating anyone, it turned out. They had dinner and talked about the good times on the cruise. Before long, they were talking about the future.
“He had to grow up and experience life,” she says. “But when we came together again as adults, it was God’s timing, and it was just perfect.”
Alisa and Trey Hendrickson celebrate their engagement in June of 2020. (Polina Pigulevsky photo)
On July 5 of the following year, they married.
Hendrickson’s career began in 2017. It began again in 2020.
In his first three seasons, he had 6 1/2 sacks. In his last two, he has 26 sacks.
The difference? Alisa.
“You would think all of the work you put in as a football player would be in the time you are in the building, or the time you are watching film, or the time you are giving to the game,” says Hendrickson, who has had more sacks in the past two seasons than anyone except T.J. Watt and Myles Garrett. “It’s much more than that. The hours outside of the building are almost the more critical hours, where advantages are won or lost in the NFL. With the perspective Alisa helped me gain, I figured out there is a lot of room for growth in my personal life and my walk as a football player.”
Alisa, who is pursuing her Doctor of Pharmacy at Lipscomb University, grounded Hendrickson and helped him find balance. With her help, his eating and sleeping routines became more disciplined and regimented. He gave up video games after realizing they prevented him from optimal rest and recovery.
What was most significant to him is she helped him grow his faith through regular prayer and Bible studies.
“I didn’t have a true relationship with Christ,” Hendrickson says. “I lost my way for a bit. … I knew of him, but I didn’t pursue him as I do now. Alisa brought it to my attention. With the love we have, I can feel so many powerful things I’ve known my whole life coming to fruition. She’s helped accelerate a fire my parents lit beneath me.”
After a sack, Hendrickson points to the sky.
Alisa trained for 11 years as a figure skater and was a fencer at the Air Force Academy. She understands competitive passion and does not discourage intensity. But she has helped him funnel his intensity so it works for him, not against him.
So Mr. and Mr. Hendrickson compete with one another. She usually dusts him on the golf course with her disciplined swing. He gets the better of her at the bowling alley.
And then there is ping-pong.
“If the paddles aren’t being thrown, it’s not a good time,” Hendrickson says.
He can go from holding hands to throwing paddles.
He can go from spitting fire at an opponent to offering a heartfelt apology.
He can go from knocking a quarterback silly to praising God.
Is he too intense now?
Not if he’s on your side.
(Top photo: Ian Johnson / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Dan Pompei is a senior writer for The Athletic. Dan has been writing about the NFL for nearly four decades. He is one of 48 members on Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors board and one of nine members on the Seniors Committee. He was one of 25 voters on the hall of fame’s Centennial Blue-RIbbon panel. He was given the 2013 Dick McCann Award by the Pro Football Writers of America for long and distinguished reporting. He is a contributor on WSCR-AM in Chicago. Follow Dan on Twitter @danpompei.