This marks the 30th anniversary of USA TODAY recognizing the nation's top high school athletes and we've been digging into the archives and checking in with ALL-USA honorees from the past three decades. Today, we catch up with 2005 ALL-USA player C.J. Henry from Putnam City (Oklahoma City), who is an outfielder with the Evansville (Ind.) Otters.
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C.J. Henry spent part of his offseason rebounding as his younger brother, New Orleans Pelicans player Xavier Henry, took practice shots.
These days, C.J. is doing a bit of rebounding himself, though not on a basketball court. Five years after he left baseball to play college basketball, he's hitting .341 to lead the Evansville (Ind.) Otters of the independent Frontier League.
"I am kind of surprised to be playing as well as I am," Henry says. "It has clicked a little bit sooner than I thought it would. I hadn't played baseball for more than four years. That would be a huge concern for anybody. When you take that much time off, you expect your skills to decline. I was just looking for an opportunity to play."
Henry, who is 6-3 and 205 pounds, was an All-State basketball and baseball player at Putnam City (Oklahoma City), when he was drafted No. 17 in the first round in 2005 by the New York Yankees. In his four seasons as an outfielder, he never hit higher than .253, averaging .222 over four seasons. He left baseball after hitting .234 with the Tampa Yankees of the Florida State League in 2008.
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He then began a peripatetic journey to play basketball at three colleges in four years. In 2008-09, he was a redshirt walk-on at Memphis, sitting out the season because of a broken foot. The next season, when then-Memphis coach John Calipari left for Kentucky, Xavier was released from his letter of intent to the Tigers and signed with Kansas. C.J. transferred and had to sit out a year because of NCAA rules. Though their father Carl and mother Barbara (then Barbara Adkins) had played for Kansas, the Henrys were criticized for the move.
"People viewed me and my brother as bad people," C.J. said. "All we wanted to do was play on the same team."
In 2009-10, their one season together, Xavier averaged 13.4 points a game while C.J. played in only 13 games and averaged 3.1 points. Though he transferred the next year to Southern Nazarene in Bethany, Okla., C.J. said he had no hard feelings toward Kansas.
"We had six or seven players on that team who are currently in the NBA," he said. "Finding playing time on that team wasn't easy. Everybody on that team loved each other and we competed every day in practice. I had a great time."
Because Southern Nazarene is an NAIA school, he was able to play right away and he averaged 13.0 points per game in his only season with the Crimson Storm. He still had eligibility left but decided to give pro baseball another try. When no major league affiliates showed any interest, Henry worked out at his old high school at Putnam City before he landed with the Otters.
"He would come out three or four days, sometimes five days a week, said Putnam City coach J.W. Gillette. "He just had the natural ability. When he would hit, it would make a different sound than everybody else. The ball would jump off his bat. He has as much natural baseball ability as anybody I've seen and we've had four or five first-round picks come out of our school."
At 27, Henry said he's better equipped the ups and downs of playing baseball every day. He's even learned to deal with the travel, which isn't exactly up to Division I standards.
"The bus rides don't bother me that much," he said. "I read, play cards with guys and get to know my teammates. It's not that bad. Baseball is so mental. I have more patience now and know how to carry myself as a professional. It's completely different than when I was 19."
Though Frontier League players make as much as $1,600 a month or as little as $600 a month, it's not a dead end toward making the majors. Since the Frontier League was founded in 1993, at least 24 players from the league have reached the majors.
Two weeks ago, Otters first baseman Andrew Clark was signed by the Yankees and sent to their Class AA team in Trenton, N.J. Clark was the Otters' leading hitter when he was called up. Henry, now the Otters leading hitter, says he is concentrating on being patient for his own chance to advance.
"When it happen, if it happens, I am just out here trying to get better every day," Henry said. "It will happen when it is supposed to."
Follow Jim Halley on Twitter @jimhalley.