Mr. Mom Is One of His Roles : CSUN's Henderson Has Full Schedule

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The blueberry muffins are burning, Tianna is crying, and there is still spaghetti to make, dishes to wash and a sociology paper to write. Yet Ralph Henderson does not panic, no more than he would freak out if Darnay Scott ran a pass pattern his way.

Henderson, a husband, father, student, and arguably the best cornerback in Cal State Northridge history, handles his roles with a quiet resolve. His days are long and wearisome, and there is no end in sight.

Tianna, his 2-year-old daughter, demands most of his time. But she also provides most of the comic relief. Bottled, she would be a one-girl anti-depressant, wiping out the daily pressures of making the rent, covering All-American receivers such as San Diego State's Scott, and passing exams.

Her smile says, "I know I'm cute." Her laugh is infectious. She sings and dances on cue and talks as incessantly as the parakeets her father breeds.

On a typical day, Ralph gets up at 7, and cooks breakfast for Tianna and his wife, Danielle. After Danielle leaves for her job as a clothing store manager, he gives Tianna a bath, helps her get dressed, and carries her, piggyback style, to the day-care center on campus.

After his classes, he literally picks her up and takes her to their apartment in the married-student housing complex adjacent to the football field. After she naps and snacks, he takes her to practice.

While he works to defend the run, she runs around the sidelines playing with injured players, trainers and Coach Bob Burt.

After practice, Ralph hoists her on his shoulders again for the short walk home.

In the kitchen, like the secondary, he is all business. With three burners percolating simultaneously, he heats up marinara sauce, boils noodles and sautes garlic. In the oven, the muffins begin to rise.

Between the stove and the sink, Ralph roams, with a stir here and a swipe of a dirty sauce pan there. Meanwhile, Danielle plays with Tianna.

After dinner, Ralph and Danielle read her a story and put her to bed. Then, Ralph hits the books.

Often, the weight of his responsibilities staggers him.

"It is overwhelming, but you do what you have to do," he said. "There are times (Tianna is) scheming and housework has to be done and papers have to be written and basically, you stay up all night."

Ralph is particularly sensitive to Tianna's needs because his parents' divorce 12 years ago prevented him from being with his father, Ralph Sr., every day.

"Somehow that makes me want to be that much better of a father to my own child," he said.

Occasionally last spring, the pressures of fatherhood adversely affected Ralph at practice, but Burt hasn't seen that strain this fall.

"He's turned it into a positive," Burt said. "Tianna brings responsibility, but at the same time she's a breath of fresh air out there."

Burt often watches over Tianna.

"We're not Notre Dame," he said. "We have to be flexible. Taking care of her so he can play is just one of the things that has to be done. It's like watering the grass."

In some ways, she fills the void created when Burt's 20-year-old daughter died a few years ago.

"She's a bright spot in the day," Burt said. "When those arms reach up and she smiles, it brings things into perspective for me and the players and Ralph."

During the opener at San Diego State, Tianna cried because Danielle would not take her down to the field to see Burt.

Although the Matadors lost, 34-17, Ralph made seven solo tackles, caused and recovered a fumble, broke up a pass, and was responsible for only one of Scott's seven catches.

CSUN secondary coach LeRoy Irvin believes Henderson has the ability and mental approach to play in the NFL.

"He acts like those guys (pros)," said Irvin, a five-time all-pro cornerback for the Rams. "He works hard and he takes the game seriously. He studies, he asks questions."

The only question is his speed.

"We know he can cover, we know he can hit, and we think he can run 4.4 or 4.5," Irvin said.

Henderson, a 5-foot-10, 200-pound senior from Westminster, makes ballcarriers and receivers pay when they venture to his side of the field.

"Some people say you're doing your job as long as you make the tackle, but I like to make an impact," he said. "I like to make the tackle and leave a little something behind."

In Northridge's first three games, he recovered two fumbles, broke up four passes, made one interception and returned it 48 yards for a touchdown, and made 17 solo tackles, 22 overall.

He was determined to distinguish himself in front of Danielle and Tianna on Saturday night at North Campus Stadium during CSUN's home opener against Sonoma State.

Just being with Danielle, her red hair and pale skin contrasting with his dark hair and dark skin, attracts attention, of an unwanted variety.

"You just look back when people stare," Ralph said. "I laugh some times. I'm sure they could hurt my feelings if they were bold enough to say something, but nobody says anything, they just look and keep walking."

While some people appear surprised by their union, Ralph doesn't.

"It's just who you are attracted to," he said. "I dated a lot of different cultures: black, Hawaiian, Cuban. You got one life to live, live it like you want. If someone doesn't like the way you live it, their life can't be that much better than yours."

Ralph believes American society remains intolerant of interracial relationships.

"It never gets better," he said. "There's always prejudice, people just keep it inside more. I'm just being real. Just because they don't say anything doesn't mean it gets better."

Danielle and Ralph met 3 1/2 years ago through a mutual friend.

"It wasn't love at first sight," Danielle said, laughing. "It was gradual. We don't have much in common, but he's just funny. He cracks me up."

Danielle dropped out of college after one year to support the family. She plans to return after Ralph earns his degree in leisure recreation.

By that time he plans to be playing professionally or working with children, an interest he developed while counseling high school dropouts.

"I talked to them and I was like a magnet," he said softly. "I gave them respect and they respected me. Kids are a good avenue for me. I like old ones, young ones, teen-agers, I like them all."

He has the same protective attitude toward the colorful parakeets he breeds. Before he chooses his pets, he stalks them, spending hours in the bird store determining which pair will make the best couple.

"The males try to kiss everybody," Ralph said. "You have to watch and see which male the females prefer."

At home, the choice has been made. Danielle and Tianna prefer Ralph.

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