YULEE, Fla. —
Not long ago, say students and teachers at Yulee (Fla.)
, their hometown was Smalltown, USA.
A step child of the Sunshine State more appreciated by and associated with peachy Georgia, a state a mere 11 miles to the north.
"It used to be dirt road with one red light," said senior Lesley Skipper.
Said senior football lineman Jack Dobrie
: "Talk to anyone from First Coast or North Jacksonville and they would say 'who or what or where is Yulee?' Then they would say 'oh, that's that little gas station town I pass through to get to Fernandina Beach.'"
Said Yulee athletic director Candace Hicken: "Frankly, much of the state, let alone America, had never heard of Yulee."
But that was B.D. — Before Derrick
Subdivisions began popping up about the time Yulee star running back Derrick Henry
started to generating buzz as a force on the gridiron in middle school.
A super duper Wal-Mart was built. Soon followed a great big Target and Starbucks wasn't far far behind.
But Henry, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound bonafide man-child with speed and power, brought in camera crews, national media and major college football coaches from every corner of the country.
"From USC to Notre Dame to Michigan to Texas to Florida State to Miami — they've all been here," Yulee Middle School athletic director Michael Franzese said.
And then came the week that the ESPN cavalcade arrived in late September. Yulee played Glades Day in arguably the greatest matchup ever of prep tailbacks, Henry versus Kelvin Taylor, son of former NFL great Fred Taylor.
For the first time on campus, tickets were pre-sold and gobbled up. Fire officials, police and extra security were called in. A stadium that normally seats 2,000 jammed in 3,000. The city basically shut down.
"They brought in vans, trucks, lights – you name it," Hicken said. "It was like they brought in a movie set and it put our boys, our school and our city front and central."
Yulee had arrived.
"We were on the map," Hicken said. "My family in Tampa said, 'Wow. Nobody heard of Yulee before but now it's a big name."
And now this. Rushing records, raising Derrick
Tonight at 7:30, Yulee will be at the center of the sporting universe again as Henry goes after high school football's most prized national record – the career rushing mark of Ken Hall, who all but put Sugar Land, Texas on the map 59 years ago.
Henry needs 102 yards to surpass the magical mark of 11,232 yards set from 1950-53 and 24 hours before the big moment, standing just outside the stadium he'll likely break it at, the calm and thoughtful senior considered what might have been.
What if he had taken a different path and left Yulee for a private school like Bolles, the preeminent power in Jacksonville, which had landed so many other elite athletes from Nassau County.
"When I was in the eighth grade, I took a look at the private schools," Henry said. "I imagined myself there, but I couldn't. This is where I was born and raised. I'd been here since I was a little boy. All the sports I played growing up was right here in Yulee.
"I figured I might as well stay put right here and help to put my town on the map and make something out of it."
Henry's reach stretches far beyond the nearly seven miles of rushing yards he's piled up or the scholarship he's secured to Alabama or the possible first state title in any sport Yulee could win.
Folks around the community will no doubt recall his state-record 510 rushing yard game against Jackson (Jacksonville), retell the night he outdueled Taylor on national TV with 363 yards and seven touchdowns or just simply recount his remarkable imposing build and freakishly athletic skills.
But for most around this once-dirt road/one-traffic light town, Henry will be remembered for his loyalty and being a strong mentor and role model.
"He's just a kind, gentle, young man," said school secretary bookkeeper Carol Rose. "Before I ever knew him as a football star I knew him as a human being and he's all good and he's never changed. Every day he pokes his head into my office and asks me how my family and I are doing. Kids don't normally do that. He's just a sweetheart."
A third-period TA in the office, he answers the phone "Teacher's assistant, how can I help you?"
"That's just not something you might expect from the star athlete," Rose said. "He's very loyal to this town, to his home and school and team. It's never about what's best for him but what's best for the team."
Said front desk receptionist Gina Powell, whose son Jake played basketball with Henry and is affectionately known as his second mom: "He's just a big teddy bear – a sweet heart of a big kid. We're all proud of him."
Said Skipper, who was a water girl for the team for two seasons. "He treated us all the same. He's like a big brother to me. He's boosted our school up, he gives us drive. He's someone we really look up to, a great role model."
He's also helped build an identity.
"When I'd tell people before I was from Yulee, they'd say, ‘Where's that?'" Skipper said. "Now they know and that's cool."North and South, straight and narrow
Henry says he's just paying back the community that largely raised him. Like most record-setting backs, he pays credit first to his unappreciated offensive linemen. But his gratitude spreads much wider, across the plush 23-mile, 11,000-resident community that helped shape him.
His parents were ages 15 and 16 when he was born, so he was raised largely with his grandmother, who nicknamed him "Shocka," not for his athletic prowess but his rather unexpected entrance on earth.
His mom and dad have been in and out of his life and beyond grandma, his aunts have "spoiled him rotten good," Powell says with a twinkle in her eye. "That's when I have to step in."
Many others have stepped in also, especially a pair of assistant coaches, J.T. Medley and Pat Dunlap, who first met Henry in the sixth grade on a Pop Warner team.
They taught him much more than how to run North and South, but also how to walk a straight line, look people in the eye, be respectful and studious, curious and grateful.
These were all lessons grandma taught but Medley and Dunlap reinforced everyday while outsiders were judging and evaluating him. They pushed Henry to push himself and never be satisfied.
He calls them both father figures and best friends.
"I can talk to them about anything and when it comes to me, they'll always give the right advice," he said. "They'll always be there to support me."
Ask any linebacker and he'll tell you Henry already has very good balance. So will apparently any teacher, administrator or teammate.
"Always yes sir and no sir," Franzese said. "Always even keeled in victory and defeat."
He's rushed for more than 100 yards every contest of his four-year career, a national record 44 straight games. He shows that same drive and consistency every day in school as well, in the classroom, addressing kids and adults.
He's a jewel outside of school as well, community members say, consistent, solid and punctual.
"Just a real solid kid in every sense," said Nassau County native Bethany Lute, a waitress at Murray's Grille, Henry's favorite eatery. "He's someone a community could be proud of even if he wasn't a football star."Protect and serve
Even though all 11 tacklers are keying on him, even though all eyes are on him wherever he goes in Yulee and beyond – Henry seems to put his best foot and massive leg forward.
And for an 18-year-old, drawing that much attention, can't be easy. He makes it look so however.
"He seems to spend more attention at being a good human first, then a good football player," Franzese said. "That's very refreshing."
Henry simply point and draws from Yulee, his rock, his foundation, and his anchor.
"Everytime I go out on Friday night I feel like I'm protecting it," he said. "I try to represent it the right way. This has always felt like home. I just feel like Yulee is a part of me."
Even when he leaves, he won't be gone, said Kristopher Maxie, a 5-6, 140-pound eighth-grade running back at Yulee Middle.
"He definitely inspires me on and off the field," Maxie said. "Especially on it. My dream is to break all his records and be even better than he is."
When told of Maxie's plans, Henry simply smiled and nodded.
"Good for him," he said.
Good for Yulee.