Touching down after a transatlantic flight from his native Austria, Christoph Henle and his Swarco Raiders teammates stepped off the plane in Houston and took a good look around.
Skyscrapers, freeways, masses of people. Monstrous high school football stadiums that were plush enough for college teams. It was everything a middle school kid from Innsbruck who had recently quit soccer to play American-style football could have dreamed about and more.
Henle’s club football team beat a Houston middle school all-star team on that trip. They also got to see the NFL’s Houston Texans play, firing up Henle’s imagination.
“That was my first introduction to Texas,” Henle said. “We stayed there for like three weeks, all the players stayed with different host families. We beat that (middle school) team, so I guess the standard is pretty good in Austria. We got to see a Houston Texans game. That was my first time in NRG Stadium.”
On Thursday night, Henle will visit NRG Stadium again, this time as a freshman tight end for Baylor when it faces Vanderbilt in the Texas Bowl.
That middle school boy who was just learning how to play football so many years ago has grown into a 6-6, 251-pound man who has earned a starting role for the Bears. To say that he’s excited about playing in an NFL stadium that he visited as an intrigued kid from Austria doesn’t even begin to convey the emotions he’s feeling.
“I think it’s a perfect fit for us, and I really can’t wait to play,” Henle said. “I was just so happy that we got to stay in state. A lot of the people from the team are from Houston. I know a lot of seniors are from Houston. So that’s going to be awesome for them to hopefully go out with a win.”
The fact that Henle has become a starter as a Baylor freshman is a wonder in itself. After senior Jamie Jacobs went out with a career-ending injury during the summer, Baylor needed Henle to play immediately, and he’s developed into a solid blocker while making five catches for 47 yards.
Henle’s development was accelerated by enrolling at Baylor last January and going through spring training after graduating early from The Oakridge School in Arlington last December.
“Him getting here midyear helped a bunch because he really understood the offense,” said Baylor tight ends coach Joey McGuire. “He’s a really, really mature kid. You’re talking about coming over and living (three years) away from his parents and then coming a semester early. That was big.
“With Jamie getting hurt, he had to step in. The one thing you see about Christoph right now – his future is so bright – but you see a kid that no matter what happens, each snap he’s going to step back in there and bust his butt for you.”
While American football is nowhere near as popular as soccer in Austria, it’s a growing sport. Henle grew up watching Super Bowls with his friends in Innsbruck. So when his father, Wolfgang, suggested that he give the game a shot he jumped at the chance.
The physical nature of American football appealed to Henle. He could play a lot rougher within the rules of football than he could with soccer.
“I started playing soccer when I was 6 years old maybe to 11 or 12,” Henle said. “I was always the roughest one on the team. I was always a little chippy. My dad, who had been to America a couple of times, said why don’t you try American football. It was the prime of American football in Austria where multiple clubs opened up, and a club in my town opened up, and I decided I would try it. The next day I went to practice and I loved it, and I’ve been playing it since then.”
Innsbruck’s Swarco Raiders played club teams throughout Austria and neighboring Germany. The more Henle played, the more skilled he became and he felt comfortable playing against any competition.
“We played teams from Vienna, the Danube Dragons, the Graz Giants, the Berlin Eagles,” Henle said. “There were a couple of teams in the regions around us that we used to play. But it’s not like we’re in Texas with I don’t know how many hundreds of high schools that you can play against. We played the same teams. We probably played six or seven games.”
As Henle was entering 10th grade, his club team coach, Florian Grein, helped find a school in America that Christoph could attend to play football at a higher level.
“He found out that a guy that he ran into was a high school coach over here,” Henle said. “Somehow in the conversation there was this kid in Austria who really wants to come to America. They exchanged numbers and I got in contact with the school. One thing led to another and he found me a great host family, and that’s how I ended up here.”
Henle played at Southwest Christian School in Fort Worth as a sophomore before transferring to The Oakridge School in Arlington for his last two years of high school.
His host family, Rusty and Audrey Stehr, quickly learned how large of an appetite this growing exchange student had.
“After church, we went to breakfast and he got an omelet, bacon, sausage, a waffle, biscuits and gravy,” Rusty Stehr said. “Then we told him he could go back again. So he got back with the exact same thing except the waffle. He’d devour anything. I looked at Audrey and said, ‘We’re in trouble.’”
Though he missed his parents back home, they made occasional trips to the United States to see their son and take in favorite cities like San Francisco and New York City.
Henle grew close to the Stehr family and became like a big brother to Rusty’s and Audrey’s daughters Olivia and Meagan.
“I really treated them like family and they treated me like I was family for them,” Henle said. “They welcomed me with open arms and were super supportive with school and they gave me a home. They still do. We hang out and talk all the time and I still have my own room.
“I think it was really exciting for Rusty to have a son. Obviously he loves his two daughters, but I guess it’s a little different having an older kid. I’m a single child, so it was awesome to have two siblings for a little while.”
The Stehr family had no trouble communicating with Henle since he spoke great English along with his native German language.
“I think I started learning (English) when I was about 12 years old,” Henle said. “I think the reason I kind of got into it is because we came over here so much, and my parents would talk English to me and kind of introduced me to the language that way. So I think that just helped a lot for me to learn it pretty fast.”
When Henle transferred to The Oakridge School, coach Phillip Farhat could see a budding talent who still had a lot of room to grow as a football player. Though he already had good size, he needed a lot of work in the weight room.
“Physically, he had god-gifted height and a good frame, but you could tell he hadn’t spent much time in the weight room,” Farhat said. “He needed a long way to go in that department, and he probably went from 210 to 235 pounds. The biggest thing he had to work on was his physicality. When he came in, he could always catch the ball and run. But where he really improved was being physical and blocking and trying to dominate his opponents.”
After making 41 catches for 579 yards and nine touchdowns as a junior, Henle began getting swarms of offers from college recruiters. Seeing his size and athleticism, they knew he had all the elements to play tight end at the college level.
Henle eventually narrowed down his choices to Baylor, Illinois, Kentucky and California. In July 2017, a recruiting video showed Henle picking up caps from each of the four schools on a hiking trail high in the mountains near his native Innsbruck.
At the end, he aligns all four caps and chooses Baylor.
Though numerous schools had already recruited Henle before former Baylor receivers coach Bob Bicknell visited him, he eventually felt it was the right place to play college football. It didn’t hurt that he was a fan of Baylor’s 2011 Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Robert Griffin III when he played for the Washington Redskins.
“Baylor was, to be honest, fairly late on it,” Henle said. “I think I had probably 13 offers before Baylor offered me. I was just catching some balls at spring practice, and I turn around and Coach Bicknell was right there. He just messaged me a couple times and was like, just come on down to camp. At that point, I had Kentucky, I had Cal, I had Houston, a bunch of big-time offers.
“I came down here for a camp, and after the camp Coach McGuire just told me to come up to the Highers (Athletic Complex) and just hang out for a little bit. Next thing I know, Coach (Matt) Rhule pulled me into his office and told me they were going to offer me. And honestly, like that same night, I was like yeah, I’m probably going to end up at Baylor.”
Henle’s senior offensive numbers at Oakridge didn’t match his junior stats as he made 24 catches for 348 yards and a touchdown. But Oakridge needed him on the defensive line, and he delivered a monster season with 55 tackles and 13 sacks.
“He played defensive end and was awesome,” Farhat said. “He was big and physical and hard to block and athletic, and did a great job rushing the passer. He was a great teammate, a great kid, and was easy to be around. He came over here to play college football, so he was a very driven, focused kid who was goal oriented.”
When Henle arrived at Baylor last January, he knew he had a big learning curve on the field and had to get stronger in the weight room. But he worked diligently and progressed at a fast pace during spring drills.
Still, he thought there was a good chance he’d redshirt as a freshman since Jacobs and redshirt freshman tight end Tyler Henderson were already on the roster.
“Playing at a 4A private high school in Texas, it’s nothing comparable to playing in the Big 12, obviously,” Henle said. “So it was definitely a little shock for me at first, but I think I made the adjustment fairly well and got used to it pretty quickly. Me and Coach McGuire talked all spring, and (he said) it doesn’t look like I’ll play, but prepare like you will and you have to be ready. But one thing led to another and we had a couple of injuries, and somebody had to step up and I was glad it was me.”
Henle proved throughout the regular season that he was ready to play and is thrilled to end his freshman year at the Texas Bowl. One of the first college games he attended was the 2015 Texas Bowl between Texas Tech and LSU soon after he began playing high school football in the United States.
“It was crazy, it was the second college game I ever watched,” Henle said. “The stadium was packed and it was just so cool for me to be there. I was like a little kid watching that game and I was super excited and I thought how cool it was to get to watch the game. Now I get to play in the bowl game, and it’s a dream come true for me.”