The Making of a Monster: Derrick Henry's Rise to Football Superstardom

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterDecember 11, 2015

STARKVILLE, MS - NOVEMBER 14:  Derrick Henry #2 of the Alabama Crimson Tide walks the field after their 31-6 win over the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium on November 14, 2015 in Starkville, Mississippi.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Overwhelmed and buried in doubt, Bobby Ramsey pulled his 2003 Jeep Cherokee out of the Yulee High School parking lot after another uninspiring spring practice.

Having been on the job for only a few months, the program’s new head coach was still trying to wrap his mind around the enormous task ahead—wondering just how laborious the 2008 season might be.

As he began his short trek home, Ramsey gazed beyond the fence that separated the high school and middle school. There they were, a collection of seventh- and eighth-graders—his future players, if he lasted that long—scattered across the open field.

Then, suddenly, Ramsey saw him.

Derrick Henry and childhood friend Dillon Sites graduated fifth grade together; they also played on the same Little League team.
Derrick Henry and childhood friend Dillon Sites graduated fifth grade together; they also played on the same Little League team.Image courtesy of Monica Sites

“It looked like a stock having a good month on a chart,” Ramsey said, recalling the first time he laid eyes on the most prolific high school running back to ever put on pads. “He was so much bigger than everybody else. I just was not prepared for that.”

When he took the job at Yulee, Ramsey heard of a young man he knew only as "Derrick," a towering seventh-grader who would be part of the Yulee football program after the upcoming season. He didn't think much of it at the time—not with so much work to be done given the current team in place.

But there he was out in plain view: a semitruck among modest, fuel-efficient sedans. When Ramsey set his eyes on Derrick Henry for the first time, optimism opened up his passenger door and sat down.

“Oh, that’s Derrick,” Ramsey thought to himself as he cruised past the school. “I think there might be something to build on there.”

Since that distant introduction, Derrick Henry has rushed for more than 15,000 yards—first terrorizing Florida middle schools, then Florida high schools, and now some of the top defenses in the SEC and beyond.

This season, Henry broke Herschel Walker’s single-season rushing mark by running for 1,986 yards. His 23 rushing touchdowns tied the single-season conference record. And while the numbers by their lonesome tell a tremendous tale, it's his distinct, unyielding style that has captured a nation.

The Goliath many believed was too big to excel at his position—his first true love—never wavered on his desire to play running back. And now, having grown into an unconquerable force—like some sort of well-funded lab experiment gone horribly right—the 6’3”, 242-pound junior is on the cusp of winning college football’s most prestigious award.  

“Right now, it’s like a dream is truly happening. It’s something I’ve been dreaming about since I was a kid,” Henry said. “I’m just so blessed to be in this situation and have this opportunity.”

An Unfathomable Force

ATHENS, GA - OCTOBER 03:  Derrick Henry #2 of the Alabama Crimson Tide stands during a timeout against the Georgia Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Athens, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Monsters are not created overnight. It takes time. Patience. It takes years to get it just right. One has to see it through.

Early on, the signs were there. By the age of two, Henry would find a football if there was a football to be found. When Latrease Terry, Henry's aunt, would take young Derrick to the toy store, she would spend the entire visit chasing him down each aisle. Henry would run away from her like a would-be tackler, holding the football close the entire time. That was the first indication he had a passion.

Joining this passion were obvious physical gifts, something his family recognized not long after he arrived.

“Even in his early years,” Terry said, “he’s always been a big boy for his age.”

At the age of six, Henry decided to tease his uncle’s dog, a chow, for no good reason at all. There wasn't anything meanspirited about it. Henry was young and bored. The dog tolerated it for a while, although it finally reached a breaking point. When it did, it went after Henry, chasing him down the entire street.

“He ran home so fast,” Terry said. “That was the practice for the 40 right there. That’s something we talk about to this day.”

“I was terrified,” Henry said of the incident, sprinkling in laughter. “I ran for my life, I was so scared.”

Latrease Terry and Derrick Henry
Latrease Terry and Derrick HenryImage courtesy of Latrease Terry

Increasing age was accompanied by increased size. With that size came natural strength—the kind of force that is graciously gifted without the helping hand of a single weight. 

Although his passion was football from the onset, he dabbled in other sports. In fact, before focusing his full attention on football, Henry was a heck of a baseball player.

In one particular Little League game, Henry sent a baseball into orbit. It soared over the 200-foot fence that fell well short of containing him. And it kept going. And going. It flew over another fence positioned behind the field—this one constructed even higher—that guarded the school’s buses. This fence also failed.

Henry’s home run finally returned to the atmosphere and landed and smashed into one of the buses.

“That was the talk of school for a good week,” childhood friend Dillon Sites recalled. “No matter what sport he played, he excelled. He had all the tools to be successful at everything—the size, the strength and the speed. He had it all.”

When it came to football, the difference in size was even more jarring. Playing Pop Warner, Henry often carried players half his size around the football field, scoring touchdown after touchdown. He could not be tackled, and it reached a point that opposing teams wondered how this full-grown child was allowed to play.

“He was much taller than a lot of the kids, and a lot of parents didn’t think it was fair just because of how much bigger he was,” Terry said. “We couldn’t do anything about his height.

“Well, they’re the same age. Sorry.”

A Legend is Born

Image courtesy of 247Sports

His future coach couldn’t resist. After Ramsey caught a glimpse of Henry from his driver’s side window, he had to see his future back up close. So he attended a game. When he did, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

“It was comical. You couldn’t see the football when he carried it,” Ramsey said. “He would drop it from time to time, and then he would pick it right back up. His arms were so big that he couldn’t cover the points of the ball. I don’t think he was ever tackled honestly. You would watch two or three plays and then leave. It was just ridiculous.”

One year into his coaching tenure at Yulee, Ramsey welcomed Henry to the varsity team. Instantly, he was a fixture of everything they ran on offense. He was the centerpiece.

At 205 pounds, Henry was a shell of the Atlas statue he is today as a high school freshman—especially in his lower body. Even at that size, he was a chore to bring down. And that size didn't last long.

With a handful of older teammates guiding him along the way, Henry began to push his body. He became a willing prisoner of the weight room, something that has stuck with him all along. His body transformed. 

The finished product started coming into focus.

“I love the weight room, and I love working hard,” Henry said. “You work hard, you’ll be rewarded.”

By his sophomore season, Henry was nationally recognized. His playing style and production spread well beyond opposing teams within the state. The stories of a monstrous young back traveled to college campuses from coast to coast. Soon everybody had a “Derrick” story.

Ramsey recalled a particularly absurd moment when his team was backed up on its goal line after a string of penalties, setting up 3rd-and-40. He wanted something safe, something he made sure to remind the offensive coaches through the headset.

So they called a sprint-draw to Henry, the safest play they had. After breaking through the line, Henry methodically lumbered to midfield and picked up a first down. Reciting the play, Ramsey couldn't help but laugh.

When Yulee High needed a quick score, they didn’t suddenly change the offensive philosophy. In fact, it was quite the opposite thanks to one player.

“I think we were the only team in America that ran an inside zone in the two-minute drill,” Ramsey said.

The production multiplied, and the legend grew louder. As Henry became one of recruiting's most fascinating storylines, his body began to benefit from the work being put in. The 205-pound kid with a tremendous head start morphed into a 238-pound block of athletic steel.

By his senior year, Henry was squatting 500 pounds, benching 350 pounds and deadlifting 550 pounds. His deadlift could have been bigger, according to Ramsey.

“The bar just couldn’t hold any more weight,” he said.

By the time he graduated, Henry had racked up 11,982 rushing yards, breaking the 50-year-old national high school record. That's 6.9 magnificent miles for those keeping track at home.

He totaled 4,261 rushing yards as a senior alone. His game-by-game performance that year, as outlined by MaxPreps, is more video game than reality. 

Derrick Henry's Senior Season
OpponentCarriesYardsAverageTouchdowns
Gainesville3133610.843
Potter's House Christian1524216.134
South Lake413037.395
Jackson4551011.336
Glades Day3536210.346
Fernandina Beach1620112.563
First Coast352156.143
West Nassau3545513.005
Trinity Christian Academy452425.383
Hamilton County2140419.246
Taylor County574858.516
East Gadsden431894.401
Bolles433177.374
MaxPreps

However, despite the absurd production, there were questions pertaining to Henry’s future at the position. Because of his unique (see: tall) build, some wondered whether he was too big to play running back at a power program.

At recruiting camps, Henry was one of the few players who hoped he would actually measure smaller than he was. If so, it meant fewer questions about holding onto his dream. Although he sprinkled in some defense, Henry knew where he wanted to be.

Bobby Ramsey and Derrick Henry
Bobby Ramsey and Derrick HenryImage courtesy of Bobby Ramsey

“I would say three out of four teams liked him as a running back. The fourth would have said defense,” Ramsey said. “Most schools didn’t overthink it. Could he have been one hell of a defensive end or outside linebacker? Hell yeah. He’s like a duck in water in a three-point stance. But I know he’s one hell of a running back.”

Having heard about a back from Florida generating significant buzz, Nick Saban decided it was time to see the young man in person.

With an assembly line of physical running backs set in motion at Alabama, Saban was searching for the next Mark Ingram, Eddie Lacy or Trent Richardson. So he traveled to Yulee, only to discover something completely different.

“I went to his school, and they were having spring practice,” Saban said. “He was a freshman or sophomore then, and I just saw him walking by. He was about as big then as he is now, and I just couldn’t believe he was a freshman or a sophomore.” 

The Monster Season

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 5: Running back Derrick Henry #2 of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates with his team after defeating the Florida Gators 29-15 in the SEC Championship at the Georgia Dome on December 5, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. C
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Having carried the ball 44 times the day before and 90 times in the previous eight days, Henry spent the Sunday following the SEC Championship Game working out. He got a massage. The workload for the back is extraordinary, although his recovery is actually somewhat mundane.

“He’s been doing this since he was 15,” Ramsey added on the workload. “This isn’t anything new.”

There is no magic elixir beyond the obvious care Henry puts into his body and the recovery. The robust number of carries, in a lot of ways, is where he's most comfortable.

“By Monday, I am ready to go,” Henry said. “I don’t get tired. I try to stay mentally locked in. I try to stay hungry. I try to stay focused and keep finishing.”

You see, creating a monster is not nearly enough. That's the part most people get wrong. They skip a step.

In order for this truly exceptional phenomenon to be maximized, he must have the appropriate mindset. And to figure out just exactly what the mindset is, I posed a relatively simple question to the Heisman finalist.

You’re in the open field and there is one person standing in your way. You can juke him, run by him or run through him. 

What do you do?

There was no hesitation in his response—no pause to convince himself that what he was about to say is how he actually feels. This answer was predetermined long before the question was ever asked.

“I’m trying to run through you,” Henry said. “I’m trying to make you feel everything that I’m bringing. That’s the mentality you have to have as a running back. The defense is trying to knock the mess out of you, and I’m trying to do the same.”

TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 10:  Derrick Henry #2 of the Alabama Crimson Tide rushes past Santos Ramirez #9 of the Arkansas Razorbacks at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 10, 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Linebacker Reggie Ragland knows this mentality firsthand. He’s seen it and felt it up close—perhaps even too close at times.

The senior, one of the best defensive players in the nation, has spent the past three years colliding with Henry in practice, getting a glimpse of what the competition dreads each and every Saturday.

“It’s a handful,” Ragland said on tackling Henry. “But I’m used to it now. Every time Derrick runs the ball, you have to bring everything you’ve got. You have to hit him hard and gang-tackle him. You have to be physical on him and stop him from running. If you don’t wrap up, he’ll break every tackle.”

This season Henry has literally carried Alabama to the verge of yet another national championship, and he’s done so with flash. The beauty of this brutish style has no comparison. It is violent and deliberate. It is also entirely original.

Henry has speed that will never get the full appreciation it deserves—not with the kind of extraordinary destruction he uncorks on every carry.

This is all by design. After carrying the ball nearly 2,000 times over the past seven years—running right through those souls brave enough to willingly stand in his path and running right by those who doubted this experiment from the start—Henry is on the verge of football immortality.

“Years ago, I was telling him that I couldn’t wait until he held that Heisman,” Terry said on Henry. “It’s very exciting for everyone that he’s made it this far. We’re just so happy for him.”

It's up to the voters now. They are the ones to decide whether Henry will make a large, distinguished hunk of bronze look smaller than it ever has. Whether or not history is made Saturday, those who caught a glimpse of the running back from Yulee—regardless of the level they watched him workrealize they may never see anything like him again.

Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand.

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