Alabama running back dreamed of winning Heisman Trophy long before he began college
By MARQ BURNETT
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Sitting at the breakfast table during his sophomore year of high school, Derrick Henry in some way envisioned Saturday night.
J.T. Medley, one of Henry's youth coaches and a father figure, remembers the two having their daily conversation about life and sports while chowing down. But as Medley tells it, this particular talk took a different turn.
"His exact words were, 'My goal before I leave college is to win the Heisman,' " Medley said. "I was shocked at first. I was looking at him kind of in awe of a 10th grade kid talking about winning the Heisman in college."
While it may seem like a feel good story given the current circumstances, Medley isn't the only one Henry told.
Bobby Ramsey, who coached Henry at Yulee (Fla.) High, remembers Henry discussing the Heisman as one of his ultimate goals.
Same goes for Henry's mother, Stacy Veal. Veal doesn't remember a specific story. But she knows her son has always wanted that 25-pound bronze statue.
"He would just be so excited and say 'Momma, one day I hope I can win it. I hope I can play good enough to get that kind of recognition,' " Veal said. "And I told him that if he kept dreaming big, kept practicing, kept putting his best foot forward and trusting in the Lord, anything is possible and no dream is too big. Here we are today."
Flash forward a few years, and the overgrown teenager from Yulee is now a man with a chance of accomplishing one of his childhood goals.
Henry is one of three finalists for the Heisman Trophy, which will be presented Saturday in New York. Henry joins Clemson quarterback DeShaunWatson and Stanford running back and return specialist Christian McCaffrey. ESPN will televise the 81st annual Heisman presentation from the PlayStation Theater at 8 p.m.
Henry leads the nation in rushing yards (1,986) and touchdowns (23). Henry broke Herschel Walker's SEC record for rushing yards in a single season, and has tied the record for rushing touchdowns in a season.
The latest odds have Henry as a favorite to win the award, according to BovadaLV.
"It'd mean everything, man. It'd be a dream come true," Henry said. "It makes my heart beat just thinking about it, man. It'd be a dream come true. It's been a lifelong goal, a dream of mine since I was a little kid, and just to be in that Heisman brotherhood would be unbelievable."
Henry shocks family
Born at Fernandina Beach, Fla.'s only hospital, Henry was an eight-pound, one-ounce baby to teenage parents, Stacy Veal and Derrick Henry Sr.
Because his parents were so young, Henry was raised by his grandmother Gladys Henry.
During an interview with ESPN, Gladys said Henry was the 15th child she raised but was definitely the biggest surprise. The unexpected news brought about Gladys' nickname for Henry: "Shocka."
"Because I was in shock when I found out he was going to come into this world," Gladys Henry told ESPN.
Henry credits his grandmother with raising him and instilling him with the work ethic he has today.
"Hard-working lady. Family lady, very family-oriented," Henry told ESPN. "Wants to take care of everybody. Wants to bless everybody. The woman that really raised me. She worked very hard throughout the week just so she could provide for me and my family."
Like most children, he was full of energy and preferred to be outside and loved sports.
Henry was average height until he hit 11 or 12 years old.
"You could see him start to spurt up then," Veal said. "He hasn't stopped since."
That's around the time Ramsey first laid eyes on the budding phenom. The two didn't officially meet until the summer before his freshman year of high school season. But Ramsey remembers driving by the middle school and catching a glimpse of the towering Henry.
Recently hired as Yulee's coach, things didn't go smoothly early on during Ramsey's tenure.
"I was kind of down in the dumps and wondering if I made the right decision to take this job. I was thinking 'This sucks,' " Ramsey said. "But when I saw him, he was like a stock having a good month on the chart. He just towered over everybody else. And I thought, that's the Derrick I've been hearing about."
Call it the Derrick Henry rule.
Because he was so much bigger and physically dominant than other middle school kids, parents in Nassau County had seen enough.
Pat Dunlap was the offensive coordinator at Henry's middle school before becoming the running backs coach at Yulee High School.
"They actually developed a rule that if the middle school got up by more than 21 points, Derrick had to come out of the game," Dunlap said.
It didn't matter what time of the game it was. If Henry exploded for three quick touchdowns for a 21-point lead, his night was done. But if the other team scored, Henry could re-enter.
"It was more about a bunch of parents getting together and complaining," Dunlap said. "Obviously, if you have a kid playing against Derrick, you weren't happy because it wasn't fair."
Dunlap said he had three running backs ahead of Henry when he entered high school, so people assumed Henry would start on the junior varsity team.
But at Henry's first padded practice in high school, Dunlap remembers Henry running all over the first-team defense.
"Then I had three running backs transfer to different (schools)," Dunlap said. "They saw this freshman coming in and they knew their days were over."
There was no football history at Yulee when Henry arrived. The school had just opened four years earlier in Nassau County after splitting off from Fernandina Beach High School.
The times there are described as before Henry and during Henry. Before, there would be around 50 people in the stands.
During Henry's time, Medley said there would be 200 people wearing Henry shirts and another 2,000 fans in the stands to watch the young star work.
"He's obviously a great player, but people just light up when he's around," Dunlap said.
Dunlap describes Henry's freshman year as "ungodly," his sophomore campaign as "solid," his junior season as "huge" and a senior year that "you can't even make up."
Henry ran for 11,982 yards and 153 touchdowns, snapping Ken Hall's (11,232 yards) nearly 60-year record for the most rushing yards in high school history.
"That was wild," Ramsey said. "It's not something we focused on during that year because we couldn't even fathom him getting to that number. Fortunately, he broke the record on a long touchdown run in a playoff game at home. It all came together."
Henry's work ethic has been a thing of legend since he arrived Alabama. As an early enrollee, seniors described how Henry "killed" Alabama's dreaded "Fourth Quarter" offseason training program.
But Henry took working out to another level this offseason. During spring break at Panama City Beach, Fla.,Henry and some teammates set up cones on the beach to perform agility drills and other exercises.
This summer, Henry posted videos of himself flipping a tire and pushing a truck on a local track.
"When he came home from the track, he showed me the video and I could not believe," Veal said. "That just showed me that he had pure determination. He was determined that this was going to be his year. He was focused, he was motivated and he didn't let anything stop or distract him."
Not the media hype. Not talk of awards. Not opposing defense. Nothing could stop or distract Henry this season.
Henry's lowest rushing total of the season (13 carries, 52 yards, touchdown) came against Louisiana-Monroe. Leading up to the game, Henry dealt with tonsillitis and was limited in practice throughout the week so he received a light load in the contest.
Henry didn't rack up yards against the cupcakes on the Tide's schedule -- 216 yards and six touchdowns combined against Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Monroe and Charleston Southern.
Henry punished Alabama's SEC opponents and Wisconsin.
Henry opened the year with a 147-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Badgers in Arlington, Texas. Henry broke off touchdown runs of 37 and 56 yards.
"You knew from that moment on it was going to be a special year," Tide center Ryan Kelly said. "Every game he plays he is more deserving of it each week."
Henry continued the strong play during SEC games. He led the league with 179.2 yards per game and 13 touchdowns during conference play. He is one of three SEC running backs to have four 200-yard games in a season (Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson).
Henry averaged 69 percent of his yards (1,369) after contact this season (105.3 ypg yac).
"What Derrick has done for this team, because this team needs him to do what he does, I would say he's made as significant an impact on his team as any player that we've ever had," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
All of Henry's offseason work has led him to this moment. On Saturday, the boyhood dream could become reality.
"I've been playing football since I was 5 years old and every time 'NCAA (the video game) would come out, I used to always be one of the first ones to get it and my main goal was to win the Heisman in the game," Henry said. "So it's always been a dream of mine to be in the conversation for the award. It's a blessing to me."
-- Contact Anniston Star Sports Writer Marq Burnett at mburnett @Marq_Burnett.