ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. —
The thought of leaving high school early was mentioned as an aside to Derrick Henry
about two years ago. Nothing more. That's what ignited it.
Henry, the 6-foot-3, 242-pound man-child tailback out of Yulee (Fla.)
, is the nation's most prolific high school runner — ever. He was the eye of the storm for his team while chasing and breaking Ken Hall's 59-year-old national rushing record
, and now he's enrolled at Alabama. An early start, bypassing the second semester of high school to enroll, and a move more and more supremely talented high school football players are making.
For Henry, being honored this weekend by the prestigious Philadelphia-based Maxwell Football Club as its High School Player of the Year, there was no doubt.
"I saw players doing it and [Yulee] coach [Bobby] Ramsay thought it was a good idea to get a head start on school," said Henry, the proud owner of a career 12,232 yards rushing, now the iconic mark in high school football history, eclipsing the old standard of 11,232 yards set by Hall, of Sugar Land (Texas), from 1950-53.
"I'm getting a head start toward working on my degree in business, because football is not forever, and once it's done, I'll have something to lean on."
While it's not for every player, Henry certainly thinks enrolling early is a good idea.
"I would recommend other kids do this, too," he said. "Anytime you get a head start on your degree, that's always good. Some kids want to go through college three-and-out, and they'll have their degrees. To me, that's a blessing. If you want to be a freshman, starting early is a good thing. I couldn't wait to get started."
But there are some adjustments by which high school seniors making the leap have to abide. Like Henry, they were once on top of their world, now they're entering a far larger, far different world than what they left.
"It is different," Henry said. "I am at ground zero again, trying to work my way up. Anytime I can learn by watching or being in the weight room, talking to some of my new teammates, anything I can do to get better, which helps me out as a player, I'm willing to do it to be successful. I get teased sometimes [by the upperclassmen], but they see in my eyes that I really want to improve through my work ethic."
Henry said the most drastic life change is time management. No one is there to wake him up and drive him to school every morning. No one is there to remind him to do his homework. He's doing that on his own.
"Getting to class, going to workouts and everything, that's been the biggest adjustment," Henry said. "I wanted to make this move for a while, to start early. The benefit of starting early is learning the system at Alabama and playing in the spring game. In college, you have so many meetings and you have to learn so much, In high school, you may have one or two film sessions. There's more to learn and there is more expected."
Henry plans on going home in May for his high school graduation, but will pass on his senior prom and that second semester of his senior year with the friends he grew up playing football with.
"There are a lot of sacrifices you have to make," Henry said. "I will graduate with my class. I do give up a lot, but I'm willing to sacrifice those things to get ahead of this challenge."
Former NFL All-Pro and Super Bowl-winning running back Ricky Watters couldn't believe Henry's size. He thought Henry was a defensive end. It boggled Watters, a Notre Dame and Bishop McDevitt (Harrisburg, Pa.)
star, that someone that tall could be that fast.
"He's a man — he's at Alabama, and they just keep getting better and better, don't they?" Watters said, laughing. "Henry is huge but I understand he runs a 4.4, and he's going to be a phenom. I like the way Derrick spoke and carried himself. If I had a chance to leave McDevitt early, I probably would have started Notre Dame the second semester of my senior year.
"Leaving early for college isn't for everyone. You have to be ready for it. I'll tell you what, I, myself, I would have been ready to leave. I had to learn so much about life when I was at that age. The step up in dealing with the talent is very, very large. You're used to being the best, now everyone around you is good. Also, leaving your house and not being around your loved ones and support system every day, that's the hardest thing.
"Sometimes, you get homesick. You get used to jelling with the team, getting used to going to class, and working out, you're used to that. Taking orders from coaches, you're used to that. Being away from family and friends, people you've been around your whole life, that's the challenge."
Watters said he and Jerome Bettis are talking about going back to Notre Dame to work on finishing their degrees.
"I hope the best for Derrick," Watters said. "I like the way he carries himself. He looks like he has the maturity to deal with everything that's thrown at you at a major college program."
Henry doesn't mince his words. He plans on playing — and contributing as a freshman.
"That's why I'm here," Henry said. "The guys at Alabama are great. They play to win national championships. It's the reason why I came here, to win a national championship and continue to get better. I want to play as a freshman and show some character."Joseph Santoliquito is a frequent MaxPreps contributor and Philadelphia-based writer. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org