When Derrick Henry was breaking all-time national records at Yulee High just north of Jacksonville, Fla., he was also a national recruit. He made his first airplane trip to Oregon and by his own admission quite scared. Fortunately for Alabama, he got back on a return flight and now he’s fine with airplane travel.
Good thing, too, because the Alabama star is making the rounds by airplane this week, first to Atlanta for tonight’s awards show where he, linebacker Reggie Ragland, center Ryan Kelly, and defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson are finalists for awards. The Crimson Tide leads all schools in nominations with Derrick Henry up for Maxwell (best player) and Doak Walker (runningback); Ragland for the Bednarik (top defensive), Kelly the Rimington (best center), and Robinson Outland (best interior lineman).
After that, Henry will be off to New York, where he is one of three finalists for the Heisman Trophy, the most well-known individual award in sports, given to the nation’s best college football player. That presentation is Saturday night.
Henry has been a reluctant conversationalist with media when the Heisman Trophy was mentioned as he became the national favorite for the award in the last month of the season. This week he opened up on the subject, but as is his wont continued to share the credit for any achievement with his teammates and coaches.
“I just never tried to focus on that,” he said. “I knew if I did what I was supposed to do, by how I played, how I prepared, and practiced with my teammates, everything would take care of itself. But I never really focused on that because I knew there’d be a lot of games left to play, and I was just focused on how I played.
“It was just about staying mentally locked in. It’s a tough league in the SEC, with a lot of great teams, and anybody can be beat. So I just wanted to stay locked in with my teammates and make sure we’re doing what we’re suppose to be do while working hard and getting better every week. Just so we can go out there and perform and play a great game.”
He did admit that winning the Heisman Trophy “would mean everything. It would be a dream come true. It makes my heart beat just thinking about it, man. 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 unbeleiveable.”
He also thinks about his Alabama team. He said, “This is a special place, so for me to bring the second Heisman here, it’d mean a lot to me, just to bring Bama that second Heisman. I love this place, and it’s the reason why I came here. It’ll be a blessing.”
Mark Ingram is the only Alabama player to have won the award, taking home the stiff arm trophy in 2009. Henry said he has heard from Ingram “a couple of times,” offering to share any advice for the situation. Ingram gave perhaps the most memorable and genuine acceptance speech in memory of Heisman Trophy presentations.
Henry said that being the Heisman winner would mean that it went to “somebody that works hard every day, gives his all every day, and just affects not just himself but other players, and makes other players better. And I feel like that’s what I try to do every day, just go out there and work hard. Because if you work hard you’ll get everything that you want. I just pride myself on working very hard, keeping God first, thanking Him for all my blessings and just affecting my teammates.”
As for special moments in his career, he said, “Every special moment. It’s a blessing to have this opportunity to play at this great university with my teammates and coaches, and just go out there and play on Saturdays. It’s a dream for me, so every moment is a blessing to just play football and go out there and do what I love. I have a lot of passion for the game, I love the game, so every day is a blessing to just go out there and play.”
His hometown plays a role in his Heisman quest. He said, “I’m very driven because I come from a small town and not many kids get the opportunity that I’m having. They’ve always been very supportive of me and with me staying at my high school, I want to give kids the opportunity like I have right now, and put my town on the map, like I try to do. They’ve all been supportive of me and it’s been a blessing.”
What does it mean for the little kids back in Yulee?
“I just want to set a good example. I know when I was little, I always looked up to players that played college football and wanted to be like them. So I’m just trying to do what I can for them to have someone to look up to. I just want every kid to chase their dreams, believe it, if they believe it they can do it and always keep God first. Because anything is possible when you have God.”
This week has included final examinations, and then the team will begin preparation for the College Football Playoff and Bama’s semifinal opponent Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 31.
As for time off, Henry said, “There ain't no days off. Even when you're off from football, you have school, so it's finals (this week).
“I just try to work hard every chance that I get. I feel like for you to be successful, you have to work for it. That's what I try to do. And here, we work hard in everything that we do -- the weight room, on the field, also in the film room. We just try to get better every day. I feel like that's instilled in you. Coach Saban challenges you every day.”