The scene at Target on a recent Thursday around 10 p.m. is surreal. At a time when the store would normally be at its slowest, something unusual is taking shape. There is a line of college students wrapped around the building, waiting to enter for a midnight back-to-school sale. Inside, before students are even allowed in, something else is already happening. The moment you cross the threshold, you can feel a thumping sound coming from the middle of the store and a distant voice yelling “WE’RE IN TARGET! IT’S ABOUT TO HAPPEN, Y’ALL!”
Deep in a section usually filled with baby clothes and nursery furniture, racks have been moved to provide a makeshift dance floor, and that’s where we find the eye of the storm: former Vol quarterback Sterling “Sterl the Pearl” Henton.
He’s set up a small P.A. and is already full-throat screaming and dancing behind his DJ controller as the first students take a look. They are visibly tentative because the scene is undeniably bizarre and intense, but Henton is unfazed. After a half-hour of blasting songs to an empty dance floor, the first student surrenders to Henton’s infectious energy and begins to dance. That student is then joined by a friend, and then a dozen friends, and suddenly, there is a huge party in the middle of Target.
Henton is dressed in all orange, all the way down to the Beats™ headphones that he’s using to blend selections of old-school funk, modern rap and dance music, and up-tempo country, whipping the big-box department store into an awkward yet amazing mess. It sounds like a dream, to be in the baby section of Target while a former Tennessee quarterback is playing the “Cha-Cha Slide” and screaming at you to “turn up,” but it is very real, and actually pretty normal for Henton. He now serves as the DJ at Neyland Stadium, pumping up Vol fans and players during games with his upbeat mixes.
Growing up in Passaic, N.J., music was a big part of Henton’s life. He tells of a childhood that would make most any hip-hop fan’s head spin. Henton began DJing in the fourth grade, staying up until midnight to listen to Mr. Magic and DJ Marley Marl on the radio (the only hip-hop radio show in New York at the time), regularly watching the Sugarhill Gang rap in the park in Hackensack, seeing MC Shan (who would be the subject of BDP/KRS-One’s legendary diss track “The Bridge Is Over”), and buying $5 mix cassettes from legendary NY DJ Kid Capri outside of old Willie Burger, a historic location for the early New York rap scene—and on and on and on.
Henton, as a teenager, also began rapping under the name “Money Maker,” and was even presented with a $500 deal to cut a single. Somebody had other plans for him, however.
“My mother said, ‘No, you’re gonna go to college and play football,’” recalls Henton, who, outside of his rap adventure, was on the rise as a heavily recruited high-school quarterback. His arrival in Knoxville was not a sure thing until he saw Tennessee’s memorable long-shot defeat of the Miami Hurricanes in the 1985 Sugar Bowl , with Jeff Powell “running like nobody was supposed to catch him.” Without that performance by then-coach Johnny Majors’ Vols, Henton’s life would’ve been much different.
“I was ready to go to Syracuse,” he says. “That ’85 Sugar Bowl was the game that got me to come to Tennessee. That and the weather.” Sterling had never been south before. He left home in a snowstorm but arrived in Knoxville to a pleasant surprise: “70 degrees in February? Let’s go!”
Shortly after arriving in Knoxville, Sterling’s life would take another turn. A late-night encounter at the Cumberland Avenue Krystal with a fellow freshman named Eddie “E-Ray” Messer would forge a lasting friendship built on a mutual love for rap and hip-hop culture. The meeting would also lead to an idea.
“One day when I was at my desk in my office at WUTK, two students show up at my door, wanting to ask me about our Saturday night rap show,” says WUTK station director Benny Smith. “I will never forget the look in their eyes, and right away, when they started their pitch, I knew they were pumped about it. Rap was starting to get huge, and I loved it and wanted to make sure that our show was growing, too. Rap was becoming hip-hop, and not just a form of music, but a culture. These two guys who showed up at my door that day knew it was bigger than just music, too.”
The duo’s show, Club 90, would begin its 10-year run on the Knoxville airwaves in 1989, and Smith credits them with building the station’s reputation with rap powerhouses such as Def Jam Records, RCA/Jive Records, Ruthless, Priority, and The Source magazine.
Meanwhile, Henton’s football career was stop and go, due in part to waiting for his turn as starting quarterback behind Jeff Francis and falling occasional victim to frustrating injuries. When at the controls, Sterling was a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback. When asked for an ultimate on-field moment, he doesn’t hesitate to respond.
“At UCLA, 1989. It was my birthday, and I got in
front of the team and told them that I didn’t come all the way to California to lose on my birthday. We were underdog by a lot of points, but we just decided that we were not going to lose.”
The former QB recalls the widespread attitude among fans and journalists that Tennessee was headed for a moral victory by giving it their best shot against such a strong team. Instead, inspired by the fans who had traveled all the way to Los Angeles, they put on a show, embarrassing the Bruins, 24-9. “After the game, we ran over to the corner, where our fans were, and we just wanted to high-five everyone in orange and just do whatever we could to say thank you,” he says. That game would be listed among the top 10 all-time Tennessee games by Bleacher Report in 2010.
After his time at UT, and while still maintaining the radio show, Henton had a brief career in professional football, playing in Canada for the British Columbia Lions and back in America’s arena league with the Orlando Predators. More injuries led to his career being abbreviated, but Sterling insists that “in my mind, I could get out there with them right now,” and when he says it, you believe he could, too.
In the wake of his football career, Henton continued his involvement with Knoxville’s Beaumont Elementary School’s track and dance teams. In 1992, Sterling and the dance team would help raise funds to keep local D.A.R.E. programs active. Henton also continued Club 90 and found success as a performing DJ. The former quarterback has done DJ appearances across America, Canada, the Bahamas, and as far away as Indonesia. He says he has DJed behind rap icons such as LL Cool J, Snoop Dogg, and Erykah Badu, among others.
With Henton’s life in the music industry prominently in the forefront, and his time at Tennessee becoming just a fond memory, the former signal-caller was asked to DJ a football recruiting event several years ago, and a new idea started to form, one that would bring “Sterl the Pearl” back into the Big Orange landscape. That idea would also bring together his two journeys, as an athlete and as a DJ, in a most poetic way as Neyland Stadium’s in-house DJ.
So Henton can now be found on Shields-Watkins Field inside Neyland Stadium, where he was once a player, now doing what he did for a decade in the basement of the Andy Holt tower: playing records and pumping people up. On gamedays, just like the midnight show at Target, Sterling Henton is already inside, turned up and ready to jam.