In the early days of the NFL, when Bronco Nagurski was terrorizing the league, New York Giants coach Steve Owen, asked how to stop the Chicago Bears fullback, said, “with a shotgun, as he leaves the dressing room.”
You’d have to modernize that quote when talking about Derrick Henry in his Heisman Trophy-winning season, substituting, perhaps, AR-15 for shotgun, but you get the idea. It was the rare tackler who took him on solo.
As a boy, Henry was an example of the adage that it takes a village to raise a child. Born when his parents were 15 and 16, and with his father leading, as they say, a troubled life, Henry’s upbringing included love from two aunts, his high school coach and, chiefly, his grandmother Gladys.
At Yulee High in Yulee, Florida, Henry starred in basketball and track and field as well as football, posting a personal-best time of 11.11 seconds in the 100-meter dash and running on the 4×100 and 4×400 relay teams.
On the football field, he set a Florida high school rushing record with a 510-yard performance against a school from Jacksonville, and averaged 327.8 yards per game as a senior, finishing the season with 55 touchdowns.
Henry also set the national high school career rushing record with 12,124 yards.
Derrick Henry’s high school resume was comical:— B/R Gridiron (@brgridiron) October 14, 2020
⬛️ 40 straight 100-yard games
⬛️ Never ran for under 100 yards
⬛️ Avg'd 250+ rushing yards
⬛️ Ran for record 502 in a game
⬛️ 9.2 YPC as a senior
⬛️ 12,124 career rushing yards
⬛️ 153 career touchdownspic.twitter.com/q0yrElO0Ml
ESPN listed Henry as its top athlete (a category for players without a designated position) in the nation, and a five-star recruit.
Rumble & Roll Tide
When the 2015 season started, the list of contenders for the Heisman Trophy might have been the most formidable ever, and included Deshaun Watson, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette, Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, Dak Prescott, Myles Garrett and Kyler Murray.
But it was TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin who was the early favorite, with odds of +625. (Spoiler: that didn’t work out, and Boykin ended the regular season at +5000).
Henry was +2500, with eight players considered better bets. Christian McCaffrey of Stanford, whom you’ve heard of, and who would eventually finish second in the Heisman voting, wasn’t even listed as the season began.
The Crimson Tide was so laden with talent in the backfield when Henry arrived in Tuscaloosa that it wasn’t until T.J. Yeldon left for the NFL that he became the feature back.
Game one, a big win over Wisconsin, 147 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns, good start. Three more TDs against Middle Tennessee State, not quite as impressive, but good.
Six weeks into the season, Alabama was 4-1 and Henry was +2000 to win the Heisman, while Fournette was -250 and Elliott +900.
Derrick Henry was something else at Alabama🔥 pic.twitter.com/hLWeUeKaKC— College Football Report (@CFBRep) July 27, 2023
But a victory over the Arkansas Razorbacks propelled Henry to an impressive stretch of performances, all of them in victories.
Coming into the SEC Championship game against Florida, Henry was -465, Deshaun Watson +400, Dalvin Cook +1500, and Christian McCaffrey and Ezekiel Elliot both +1600.
Marching to the trophy
Henry by now had a reputation for getting stronger as games went on, while others faltered, and the same seemed to apply to his season.
He had 44 carries for 189 yards and a touchdown to beat Florida, as Alabama earned a berth in the College Football Playoff.
But first, a trip to New York to pick up the Heisman Trophy.
Henry prevailed over finalists McCaffrey and Deshaun Watson, with 1,832 total points, including 378 first place votes. McCaffrey was second with 1,539 points (290 first place votes) and Watson third with 1,165 points (148 first place votes).
With a 293-point advantage, Henry's win was the closest vote since Baylor's Robert Griffin III beat Stanford's Andrew Luck by 280 points in 2011.
Although not a finalist, Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield finished fourth in balloting with 334 points.
With 870 Heisman voters divided into six regions, Henry won five of those regions, with the Far West region won by McCaffrey.
Henry became the first Alabama player and running back to win the Heisman since Mark Ingram won the trophy in 2009.
Henry thanked the Crimson Tide offensive line in his acceptance speech and addressed questions about his extensive workload during the season, during which he carried the ball 339 times, including 90 times in the last two conference games.
"Everybody's always asking me about carries, what I thought about it, how I felt," Henry said on NFL Network. "When you've got teammates like that who love you and care for you, it doesn't matter how you feel or how bad it hurts or what hurts you. You've got to make sure you're making those guys happy by helping them get a victory."
In the CFP semifinal, Michigan State proved no challenge. The score in the Cotton Bowl was 38–0, which only gave Henry time to run for 75 yards and two touchdowns.
But he was needed for the whole game in Alabama's 45–40 victory over Clemson in the championship, and Henry ran for 158 yards on 36 carries with three touchdowns.
He led the NCAA in rushing attempts, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and points scored.
In the years since Henry’s Heisman season, it has become fashionable in some quarters to argue that, in actual fact, Christian McCaffrey was the top college football player in 2015, and that he didn’t win because east coast voters had gone to bed by the time Stanford played its games.
This would be a much better argument if Henry hadn’t scored 23 touchdowns to McCaffrey’s eight rushing scores on the season, and if USC’s Caleb Williams hadn’t won the Heisman in 2022, playing his games, if memory serves, in the Pacific time zone.