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Canyon's Amoni Henderson: It’s better to laugh than cry

Canyon volleyball player also plays the saxophone and writes and performs comedy

Posted: June 6, 2013 9:28 p.m.
Updated: June 6, 2013 9:28 p.m.

Canyon High volleyball player Amoni Henderson teaches Bible study was the school's prom king this past year. Dan Watson/The Signal

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Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories in which The Signal recognizes high school athletes whose greatest achievements go well beyond the playing field.

Amoni Henderson knew he wanted to go out with a laugh.

So when the Hart Indians boys volleyball team walked into their gymnasium for the final regular season volleyball match of the season, they were greeted with an unfamiliar sight.

On the opposing bench stood Henderson — 5-feet, 8-inches, dressed in the familiar Canyon Cowboys garb.

Draped over his shoulders, though, sat a cape.

“Our final match of the year was at Hart High School. He was just named prom king not more than a week before that and on the bench, he’s sitting on the bench wearing his prom king robe,” says Canyon head coach Brandon Johnson. “He would do things like that to make sure things were light and having a good time.”

It was another example of a constant in his life — laughter.

Such a simple action; such a profound impact.

His story begins at the Boys and Girls Club in Burbank, then an 8-year-old being picked on, even assaulted, simply for being different.

The other children judged him for his intelligence and his skin color.

A coach at the club pulled him aside, inviting him into another room where a group of children were performing stand-up comedy.

Henderson believes she was just trying to help him in that moment.

She ended up helping him for life.

“I don’t know how, but I ended up doing (comedy) for some time, now,” he says. “That’s how it all started. She kind of saved me from being picked on and pulled me in.”

***

It’s natural to project emotions; to be picked on and thus pick on others.

Henderson never fell into that trap.

His is a story of respect; of understanding; of giving back.

Over the years, he’s taken an active role in his church, learning valuable lessons that he believes have made him a more compassionate and understanding person.

He teaches Bible study and leads youth groups at Turning Point Church in Panorama City.

“I feel like that really helped me. The reason people pick on other people is they’re self-conscious and insecure about themselves and my church really gave me security in myself and gave me confidence so I didn’t have to go that route.”

His parents tried desperately to help their son.

“That was definitely hard for him and for me, for his whole family,” says his mother Tina Henderson. “That’s not anything you want your children to go through, and we definitely tried to do what we could. We’ve moved several times and talked to teachers and principals and all kinds of stuff and other kids, but it was definitely difficult.”

The bullying finally went away when Henderson moved to Santa Clarita for his fifth-grade year at Pinetree Elementary.

But his story took another difficult turn.

The bullying was gone, but loneliness took it’s place.

He decided to get involved in his new community — making new friends along the way.

He played basketball. He took up the saxophone in the fifth grade and after many tears and much frustration, learned to play the same day.

In high school he joined a ska music group named the Set Match Run — but it was always laughter that brought him closest to those around him.

“Laughter inspires me. When I was getting beat up and picked on that’s what saved me, and that’s how I could relate to people in a world where I didn’t have any friends,” he says. “I could still talk to people of all ages.”

***

As if by chance, Henderson needed one more elective his first semester at Canyon High School. So he turned to the ever popular “eeny, meeny, miny, moe.”

As he continued with the nursery rhyme, cycling through the available class offerings, he found the course that would continue to shape his life to this day — theater.

“I landed on theater, so I did the intro-theater class my first semester and auditioned for (a play) my second semester, ‘Guys and Dolls.’”

The experience opened his eyes.

A year later, his theater teacher, Kristen Pechacek, was starting a sketch comedy team.

The team was for juniors and seniors only, but the then-sophomore Henderson attended a workshop anyway, writing his own sketch as practice for when he could try out for the team the next year.

“He came to every single workshop, and there were a ton of them,” Pechacek says. “He just sat there waiting, the only person not participating but sitting there so dedicated and absorbing everything.”

Pechacek decided to put him on the spot, telling him to perform his sketch in front of everyone there.

“I was shocked and nervous and didn’t know what to do. I performed it and I ended up on the team — illegally, I guess,” he says jokingly.

What began by chance; a simple game of “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” to aid with a decision — is now a life ambition.

“I plan on auditioning with the Groundlings in their next audition season,” he says of the famous Los Angeles improv group. “(Saturday Night Live) gets their people from three places. Two are in Chicago, so those are out. So Groundlings is here in L.A. and that’s what I want to do.”

At the same time, he’ll be attending Pepperdine University on one of the most prestigious scholarships in the country.

The Gates Millennium Scholar Award is presented to minority applicants who display strong leadership and academic skills.

Henderson more than fit the bill.

Out of thousands of applications, only 1,000 students, including Henderson, won a full-ride scholarship through graduation to any university in the country for which they could get accepted.

His goals are high — but if anyone could accomplish them, it’s Henderson.

“He said something to me on the last day of school,” Pechacek says. “He said, ‘I promise you front row seats at Saturday Night Live.’ To me, that wasn’t a cute little thing to say. I was like, ‘I’m expecting that.’”

***

Henderson found out he had received the Gates Millennium Scholarship the day before he received another honor — an honor that showed just how many friends he now had.

The kid who was bullied, beat up, and lonely was voted prom king of Canyon High School.

“It’s amazing to me, too. When he started talking about it, he had no intention of really becoming prom king,” Tina says. “It was just one of the things he does, little things like that ‘Let’s stir the pot, see what we can do and see what happens out of fun.’ The fact he actually won was amazing.”

It was a signal of how popular Henderson has become among his peers.

“In my mind there’s two types of popular,” he says. “There’s one type where it’s cliquey and you have your group of friends, everyone knows your group of friends and you’re just a part of your group. But I try to be really friendly toward everyone and kind. I’m loud and just try to be a peacemaker and make everyone happy and make them laugh.”

His peacemaker mentality is most evident in his role as head trainer for the Canyon Action Team — a student run group whose purpose is “for people to understand other people and realize that they’re not the only people in the world,” he says. “And that everyone has a story, that’s the phrase that comes out of that program every year.”

Henderson’s story is one that always reverts back to the same common theme — laughter.

“It would be easy to mistake laughter in his life for being surface or it might imply he doesn’t take things seriously,” Pechacek warns. “I think he takes humor very seriously, if that makes sense. It’s a huge part of how he’s artistic. He’s a brilliant comedic writer well beyond his years.”

He’s also wise beyond his years in his ability to manage a multitude of commitments.

Time is certainly sparse for Henderson, but somehow he always manages to get things done — often times to the amazement of those closest to him.

“I don’t know (how he does it). I didn’t see him much,” Tina says with a laugh. “He would mention things in passing, ‘Oh I have this speech I have to give for leadership. I’ve been leading for three years.’ I’m like, ‘You do that?’ So much stuff we’re not even in the loop with all the amazing things. I’m grateful.”

The surprises are sure to continue as Henderson continues to write his own story.

A story that now reads athlete, actor, musician, comedian, counselor, volunteer, trainer and scholar.

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