Long before Derrick Henry became a star for the Tennessee Titans, one win from a Super Bowl, he was a stud running back at a small high school outside Jacksonville, Florida.
As a freshman at Yulee High, he already was 6-foot-3 and more than 200 pounds.
And really, really good.
"My perfect run," high schooler Henry said in a 2012 TV interview, "is probably getting through the hole trying to run over somebody, [use] three or four stiff arms, bounce off probably one of my linemen, and just beat someone to the outside and score.”
As a senior in 2012, Henry shattered the longstanding high school record for rushing yards. Three years later, he won the Heisman Trophy at Alabama.
“The entire time Derrick was playing high school ball," his high school quarterback said, "he was preparing himself for the next step."
Here's a look at Henry's epic prep football career, in the words of his high school coach, teammates and others:
Jake Green, Yulee High School linebacker and defensive team captain, Class of 2011: “Everyone from this county to the next county and all the way to Jacksonville knew who he was before his freshman year.”
Bobby Ramsay, Yulee High School head coach, 2008-2016: “I was hired in 2008, the year before he got there, and I was 28. My first head job. I thought I had all the answers. I knew [the team was] bad, but I saw us practice and I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ I hired my running backs coach, Pat Dunlap, the middle school offensive coordinator, and we were talking, and he says, ‘We'll be all right next year when Derrick gets here.’ I think, ‘…Cool, some 7th grader?’ After spring football one day, I’m leaving practice discouraged and our middle school was right across a ditch from the high school, and I see the kids. Maybe 5-foot-6, 5-7, 5-5, then 6-2. I say, ‘Oh. That’s Derrick. Maybe we’ll be alright after all.' ”
Green: “In Pop Warner, we knew it. I definitely watched the man grow up. He was a close friend of mine. Everyone here, we called him his nickname, 'Shocka.' In Pop Warner, he was the first person ever to give me a stinger in my shoulder. We were doing Oklahoma drills, 1-on-1 tackling drills, and this kid in Pop Warner, he was already almost 6-foot-1 but real skinny and fast. We had to pop up, tackle the guy in front of you, and unfortunately for me, it was always him on the other side. He gave me my first stinger, and I thought I broke my arm. The feeling started down in my toes.”
Justin Barney, sports editor of WJXT4 and News4Jax.com, former Florida Times-Union sportswriter: “Talking to his family often, I remember his aunt saying he was so big as a kid. When he was 2, he looked 5. When he was 5, he looked 10. It was staggering to see how big he was. He was dunking when other kids couldn’t touch the rim. But I don’t know anything extreme. I don’t know that he lifted a burning car off a kid.”
Green: “I believe he got offered to go to Bolles [a private school in Jacksonville] — and if you go to Bolles, you get offers and rings — but he was loyal to his home. Instead of being our rival, he chose to fight them and stay with us and be the underdog. That right there was where I gained my respect for him. I know other people, if they were to get the same offer, they wouldn’t have stayed. It says something about his character.”
Even with Henry’s prodigious talent, he was still just a freshman for Yulee, and the Jaguars already had a returning starting running back. Henry’s hold on the starting position seemed tenuous at best.
Conner Petty, Yulee High School quarterback, Class of 2011: “I remember going into the season, there was a question, ‘Who is our running back going to be?’ It seemed like there might be some speculation. He got thrown into varsity, and his first game, he has 190 yards and six touchdowns. In the first half.”
Ramsay: "I took him out at halftime, and I really don’t know why I did that. Maybe the only time I ever did that.”
Petty: "I remember coach Pat [Dunlap], who passed away from lung cancer recently and was very close with Derrick ... being on the sideline [that day] saying we needed to pull him. He was saying this is going to be a Boobie Miles situation.”
By Week 2 of his freshman year, the Yulee coaching staff fully understood the kind of talent it had in Henry. At that point, the coaches didn’t just hand the keys to the car to Henry. They rebuilt the car to take advantage of Henry’s talent.
Barney: “I’ve done this since 1998; my first game was Week 2 of the '98 season, and at that time, there was a guy name Ciatrick Fason. I think he beat the area record of 6,912 yards set by Willie McClendon. He was a four-year player, big back, ran hard. Having covered him, we've seen a pretty darn good running back, and I don't know if we'll see someone comparable. Then a guy named Maurice Wells came in — later signed with Ohio State — and he was the only guy to hit 3,000 yards in one year. After that, Tim Tebow came along, and he started a spread phase here, and I thought, ‘We’re never going to see a four-year back again.’ Then Derrick came in, and he was otherworldly.”
Clayton Freeman, Florida Times-Union sportswriter: “Through his first month, he had 730 yards and 10 touchdowns. I’m pulling up an article from 2009 now: 'Henry is a freshman but certainly doesn’t look or play like one for the Hornets. The 6-4 bulldozer at 215 pounds is punishing opposing defenders. … He's in that Brandon Jacobs mold. [Jacobs played for the New York Giants.] He also has deceptive speed for as big as he is. It gets late in games, and I can tell opposing defenses are tired of tackling him.' The size, the speed on top of the power and the way he kind of sledgehammered defenses to death — that really hasn’t changed very much.”
Ramsay: “He understood the game really well for a ninth-grader. One game late in the year, I called timeout. We’re trying to score to win it, talking about plays, and the offensive coordinator suggested something. Derrick said, ‘Coach, we did that two weeks ago and they got us.’ I was like, ‘Oh yeah, how’d you remember that?’ Players who are that good, they see the game a little differently.”
Petty: “Our offense was built to do anything. We could line up in spread, empty if we wanted to. That was in the playbook. But when you have a running back like that, it makes play-calling pretty easy. I jokingly tell people it'd be 3rd-and-15, and instead of running play action or a pass, it was a toss [to Henry]. Only I’m not joking.”
Corey Fuller, East Gadsden High head coach, coached playoff games against Yulee in 2011 and 2012: “That was the message: We’re gonna stop him. His junior year, they had some five other D-1 players with him, too. But when you’re that size, with that speed, it’s just what you want in a football player. One guy wasn’t going to stop him. You had to put all 11 on him. I think we tried a 5-2-4 or a 6-1-4 [defense] on him.”
Barney: “A lot of times, we'd see six down lineman or six linebackers. You knew he was coming every time, and you couldn’t stop him. He had 462 carries as a senior, and 462 times, defenses knew he was getting the ball.”
Petty: “One of my biggest memories playing with him is we played one game my senior year, and we kept running the ball, gashing them, and I told coach every time I roll my fake, no one is there. Coach calls 424 Smash, but he tells me secretly, 'Don’t hand it off.' I remember playing the fake — I didn’t hand him the ball, he didn’t know what was happening and he was mad — but it still worked. I ended up going 80 yards for a touchdown.”
Fuller: “They got in Wildcat and just ran everything through him. But if you see the stats they put on MaxPreps, we’re the one high school that held him to one touchdown. And we actually got a fumble out of him. He might not say it was a fumble.”
Other schools were not that lucky. As a freshman, Henry finished his first season with 2,465 yards rushing and 26 touchdowns. And that was just the start.
Ramsay: “He was tall, probably as tall as he is now, but only about 205. A little gangly as a ninth-grader. He hadn’t gotten into lifting yet. But freshman year to sophomore year, you could physically tell a big difference. I remember thinking he can't get more jacked than he already is. Then he goes to Alabama, and he’s even more jacked than he was.”
Green: “It wasn’t until my senior year, his sophomore year, that I noticed a huge difference in his physical attributes. Freshman year, he was tall, skinny, toned. Going into sophomore year, this man done got some grown-man weight. He got huge. It was a different person. He was a monster. Same work ethic.”
Kenny Stewart, Yulee High offensive tackle and nose guard, class of 2012: “Derrick knew what he was going to do and how he was going to do it. When Alabama, Georgia, Florida came calling, it wasn’t a surprise to him. It was something he set in his mind. He was totally focused on the prize. He didn't do extra activities. He focused on what he wanted to do, and everyone around him supported him.”
Petty: “The entire time Derrick was playing high school ball, he was preparing himself for the next step. That’s what separated him from other people. He's just superstar caliber. And when he got to college, he was prepping for the NFL. He's always getting ready for the next step.”
Ramsay: “The thing about Derrick — I think he's good about seeking out wisdom. He seeks out people who have his best interest in mind, as opposed to thinking he's got it all figured out. When recruiters would come around, I just reminded him, 'Keep working hard, don't get a big head.' I think he heard it enough that he listened. It worked out.”
Green: “He had other guys with the same kind of potential throughout his career. High school, middle school. There were a few guys of his caliber, and they were the types to be big-headed, to show up late. One thing I've always said about that man is he's earned everything he's gotten. He was in the weight room before everyone else. After the whole team is done, you’d see him in the weight room, doing his own thing. One of the hardest-working people I surrounded myself with. He may have instilled that in me. Working side by side with him as the leader of the defense, with him as the leader of the offense, I learned a lot from that guy.”
Stewart: “It was jaw-dropping. You’re talking about a guy who worked out three hours a day, sometimes three times a day. He lived in the weight room. You’ve got guys in the NFL who get weaker as the game is going on, and he’s getting stronger.”
According to those who played with Henry, coached him and coached against him, it wasn’t the strength or size that separated Henry, though. It was his 4.5 speed — speed that sometimes went unnoticed.
Ramsay: “People slept on the fact he had really good speed. He’s actually a speed guy.”
Petty: “We ran the four-by-one [4x100-meter dash] together in track, and I was the anchor. I just want that on the record. He wouldn’t tell you any different.”
Barney: “The misconception about Derrick is he ran over people. There were a ton of those, yes, and you'd hear about the stiff arm. But every carry, he was not trucking six, seven people. This kid was outrunning guys. He wasn’t a fullback banging in the middle, knocking people down.”
Let’s clarify that: He was banging in the middle, knocking people down.
Stewart: “Head-to-head, that stiff arm was nasty. He was a power guy, a run-through guy. The one thing about him, he ran so well because he hated to be tackled. He did not like hitting the ground.”
Green: “His signature move, that stiff arm. That move has been lethal his entire career. I’ve been on the opposite end of that a few times, face right in the dirt.”
Stewart: “That stiff arm. I tell you right now. I think about it every time I see it on TV. You’re coming at him with so much force, and me being older, I tried to put it on him, and it was like stopping a train coming.”
Green: “One hit I remember in particular. I was a middle linebacker and I was called to blitz the 'A' gap, and I didn’t know that Derrick's assignment was to run in the 'A' gap. It was like both of us full speed in this little gap. We collide. Not sure how I did it, but the second we hit, it was a stalemate. I was like. 'Oh, my God,' that was one of the hardest hits I’ve taken, but I feel good about myself because I tackled this man.”
Ramsay: “Last practice, senior year, I don’t know why, but for some reason, the defense decided to start talking sh** to him. They cheap- shotted him. I said, ‘Y’all need to chill now. I'll cut him off the leash.’ It kept up, and I shut practice down after about 12 reps. I thought, ‘He's going to kill somebody.’ He was just lining dudes up and just dropping a shoulder. I was like, ‘We're good. He's ready to play. We're fine.’ I'll never forget that. How stupid could you guys be? I wasn't Derrick's enabler by any stretch. I didn’t coddle him. But I told the defense, ‘If I was y’all, I wouldn’t be dumb enough to make him say I’m gonna get some.' "
With Henry’s size and speed, puny high schoolers had little chance at stopping him, much less staying in his way. And it wasn’t just on the football field.
Petty: “He wasn't even in basketball, and he'd still ball out. I never watched him play baseball, but apparently he was really good, too. Derrick was just an amazing athlete.”
Henry, though, didn't care much for the word "athlete." He bristled at the thought of being moved to defense. He was a running back. He wanted to deliver the blows, Ramsay said, not take them.
Barney: “I'd ask him all the time, ‘ESPN has you rated the No. 1 athlete,’ and he’d say, 'What is an athlete? I am a running back.' He hated to even be mentioned as a defender.”
Freeman: “Back when he was being recruited, there were people who thought he'd be a defensive player. I saw him a few times in late-game situations, critical situation, they'd bring in him on defense. I'd see him come off the edge, and he’d do what he does so well as a ball-carrier, he'd get his arms out there. He'd get face-mask penalties out there with that stiff arm.”
Petty: “That joker would tell people he was 6-foot. Running backs can’t be tall, right? Look, I overlooked him, too. It’s easy to say look at the talent he’s going against [and] when he goes to ‘Bama, he’s not going to be that good. Then he got to ‘Bama, and it was, ‘He’s not going to be that good in the NFL.’ ”
Barney: “Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama were the only three teams who offered him as a running back. Might have been one more. For every team that wanted him, most wanted him as a linebacker or a defensive end. He hated even having defensive film of him presented. It was really a sore spot.”
Freeman: “Oct. 22, 2010, he runs for 270 yards [actually 288] and three touchdowns, but they were losing in the fourth to University Christian. He came in on special teams and blocked a punt. Woe to the high school punter who sees Derrick Henry charging their way. That gave them the lead, they put him on defense, and he sacked the quarterback to end the game.”
By late in his sophomore year, Henry was a known quantity. After two years, he had 5,253 rushing yards; after three years, he had 7,863. Going into his senior season, with Texan Ken Hall’s national rushing record in sight — a record that had stood for nearly 60 years years — Henry was especially motivated. He rushed for 4,261 yards as a senior, finishing his career with a national-record 12,124 yards.
Freeman: “He had some amazing games. The classic one was 502 yards against Jackson, Sept. 21, 2012. Just one of those games you can’t comprehend. I’d watched him four times in 2011; I was very well aware of what he could do. I also covered Jackson the previous year and knew Jackson was very vulnerable to the run. I figured he might run for 330 or 340. He had 190 yards in the first quarter. The first play of the game, Jackson stopped him for a loss of 2. The second play, 70 yards and a touchdown .... By halftime, he has 339 yards, and I’m calling into the [news] desk, letting them know what might happen. By the end of the third, he’s up to 443, then 478. The crowd is just going crazy. In those days, Yulee had these aluminum bleachers, [and] it was shaking like I’ve never seen before. Finally they get the ball back at the 24-yard line one last time, and the record is 501. He has 478, and everyone who could add knew what that meant. Boom, boom, boom, he gets 14, 8 and 2, and he's got his touchdown and his record at 502.”
By the time of his record-breaking performance that day, Henry wasn’t just a known quantity in Yulee, he was a nationally recognized recruit on his way to breaking the national rushing record. Rarely could he walk around town without being recognized. He’d go on to even greater fame as a Heisman winner for Alabama, before blossoming into arguably the NFL’s best back this season. But to his friends, he’s still the kid from Yulee.
Green: “Especially in high school, after any practice or any game, everyone went to the local McDonald's, and we hung out ‘til we figured out what we were doing. A lot of McDonald’s and video games.”
Freeman: “After the game against Jackson, I go to McDonald’s to file my story. I’m almost finished and Henry himself comes in wearing his No. 2 uniform. The noise you heard in that restaurant… It must’ve been the loudest McDonald’s in the world. It was like a fire marshal’s worst nightmare. That atmosphere, there is nothing I’ve seen quite like that.”