Can Chad Henne handle the pressure?

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

He rarely can be stopped from singing, much to the chagrin of close acquaintances, who deem his vocal stylings unfit for anything but amusing American Idol outtakes. Yet you probably won't catch him singing one particular song. It is four verses and 143 words, many unprintable.

It begins:

"Chad Henne is a joke ..."

It is a tribute of sorts, penned and performed by The Dead Schembechlers, an Ohio State-based punk band. The title? Same as the opening line, with an expletive tossed in.

"Ah," Henne says, smiling. "That's a good song. My fiancee has that on her play track when she works out. She thinks that pumps her up."

Yes she does.

"It's one of the biggest motivations ever," Brittany Hartman says. "And it's funny, because he takes that so easily."

Like just about everything ... but playing quarterback.

Henne has always taken that seriously, and never more than now, as a second-year Dolphin. That's why he was at the Davie facility "probably six weeks before everybody else was here" this offseason, according to coach Tony Sparano, who marveled at the improvement in everything from strength to coverage identification. That's why the Dolphins positioned him as their quarterback of the future, though second-round pick Pat White may provide a push. That's why incumbent Chad Pennington has been so laudatory, declaring that Henne has an "it factor."

Someday, Henne will replace Pennington, perhaps at this season's conclusion, when Pennington's contract expires. Perhaps before. If you're trying to project how he'll handle a role that requires far more than throwing passes, it's worth reviewing how he handled four seasons starting at Michigan, where he was subject to parody and scrutiny. It's worth asking the person who knows him best.

"I took it all much harder than he did," Hartman says. "He has a very even temper. He doesn't get stressed out. That's why he is in this position."

He was her brother's best friend in West Lawn, Pa., from third grade forward. They were friends, too. In ninth grade he asked her out for real after they saw Save the Last Dance together. They plan to marry in July 2010.

So Hartman's seen it all. Seen him signing autographs as a teen at Wilson High, where Kerry Collins once starred. Seen him break state records. Seen him step into a starting and starring role as a college freshman, winning the Big Ten, going to the Rose Bowl.

"Everything went above and beyond planned," Henne says. "Of course, at first, everybody loves me."

Or, as college and current teammate Jake Long puts it: "Oh my God, in Ann Arbor, Chad was God."

He was treated that way at every campus bar. That came at a cost. Everyone was watching every move, waiting for a slip.

"That got old," Hartman says.

"Throughout my career, it was always watch my back, know who I'm hanging out with, control myself and be the leader," Henne says. "There were a lot of distractions. I'm not going to say I was a good kid, but there were a lot of things that I got into that I realized after that freshman season that I had to get my mindstraight."

So, as a sophomore, he moved out of the dorms, to a house with Hartman and five female friends.

"For the girls, he was the big brother and protector," she says. "For him, he wasn't with all the other guys, telling him to go out. We learned to stay in and have fun, watch movies, have game nights. That year was huge, in his attitude and everything."

Still, Saturday afternoons presented pressure to live up to his freshman standard. Henne's statistics were solid throughout his career, and he capped an injury-marred senior year with a Capital One Bowl MVP award against Florida. But Michigan scores by a different statistic: record against Ohio State. Henne was 0-4.

"If we don't win a Big Ten championship or contend for a national championship, as a Michigan quarterback, you get all the blame," Long says. "Chad took a lot of stuff. He never got frazzled by it."

Now Henne expects that difficult experience to help, whenever he becomes an NFL starter. "I think I should be well-prepared for taking the stage and knowing how to handle myself on and off the field, and being in the community and learning to give back," Henne says. "We always talk about not being a celebrity quarterback. I'm not that kind of person. I'm kind of a low-key, small-town guy."

So don't expect any demands to start. He says he is comfortable waiting, learning. Pennington, who is teaching Henne the nuances of watching tape, says his understudy has been "unbelievable" at handling a "very awkward situation for him, too. It is very hard to play if you feel the guy behind you is trying to undermine what you're doing. And I've never felt that, from Day 1, with Chad."

Nor did John Beck. They remained friends while competing for the No. 2 job last year. Henne won it, and threw 12 passes, all in mop-up duty at Arizona. He felt reasonably confident but still mechanical, simply working through progressions: "Then you realize watching the film, that maybe I could have looked off this safety, maybe I could have made this throw." He thinks he did "pretty well," though he found mental errors that outsiders missed. He speaks of a "drastic difference" in his comfort with the offense now.

Someday, it will be his offense. Maybe his town, too.

"I think he's going to take it with a grain of salt, like he does with anything else," Hartman says. "He doesn't think of himself as better than anybody. That's what I love about him, is he hasn't changed since we were kids. He's very easygoing, quiet, go with the flow, and he'll be shy until he gets to know you. But when you get him in his element, he is hilarious. He's great at pulling out movie lines. He'll dance. He'll sing."

Not that he should. Certainly not that song.

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