What it’s like to feel the wrath of Derrick Henry

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  • Derrick Henry
    Derrick Henry

Derrick Henry’s first victims watched just as the rest of us did. From living rooms and bars, on TV screens and smartphones, all across Florida. They watched, on two consecutive Saturday nights, as the running back who once sped past them – who bulldozed them and juked them and stiff-armed them into oblivion – did all of that to the best football players in the world.

They watched Henry power the Tennessee Titans past the Patriots and Ravens, into the AFC championship game. As he did, a few of them shared a laugh. Others perused social media, and saw America asking a pertinent question.

What would happen if a normal human being tried to tackle Derrick Henry?

And they, the architectural designers and construction material salesmen and nurses who were once Henry’s high school opponents, realized they held the answers.

“It felt like you were tackling a big four-wheeler,” says Michael Dudzinski, once a 170-pound linebacker at rival West Nassau High School, now a golf resort assistant.

“It’s like tackling a brick wall or a good-sized tree,” says Dalton Bradley, Henry’s former teammate.

“It felt like a freight train or something,” says Cody Cosper, a three-time opponent, now a drill instructor in the Marines.

Around a decade before Henry was swatting away Earl Thomas and outrunning Marcus Peters, these men bore witness to his greatness. To highlights that belong on PlayStations. To the most prolific high school career of any running back, anywhere, ever.

But the 12,124 yards and 153 touchdowns over four years tell only half the story. To get the other half, Yahoo Sports spoke with more than a dozen of those normal human beings who played or coached with or against Henry back in Northeast Florida. They told of justified intimidation and outright absurdity.

“You know, as a coach, I don’t get infatuated with players, I’m never really starstruck,” says James Thomson, then the head coach at Gainesville High School. But with Henry?

“I remember, distinctly, telling him after the game: ‘You’re going to win a Heisman.’ ”

A monster since middle school

Derrick Henry has been abusing would-be tacklers with his vicious stiff arm since his days at Yule High School, where he rushed for more than 12,000 yards and 153 touchdowns. (Courtesy of Cole Willis)
Derrick Henry has been abusing would-be tacklers with his vicious stiff arm since his days at Yulee High School, where he rushed for more than 12,000 yards and 153 touchdowns. (Courtesy of Cole Willis)

The legend of Derrick Henry begins even before he ducked into his first class at Yulee High School. Before he ran for 2,465 yards and 26 touchdowns in 11 games as a freshman. Before everybody in little Yulee knew his name.

“Believe it or not, he was probably 6-2, at least 215 pounds in middle school,” fellow Nassau County native Cole Willis remembers. “I think I got dunked on a couple times,” he says of his junior-high basketball duels with Henry.

On football fields, the future NFLer doubled as a nose tackle. He’d line up across from Dudzinski, who at the time was an undersized center – “barely, not even 100 pounds.” Henry, at roughly twice Dudzinki’s size, would romp past him.

He’d bear down on quarterbacks like Ben Venerdi, who remembers one particular sack vividly. “It was so insane,” he begins. “It felt like I got 3 yards, but I think I lost 5. And he actually hit me, and then he picked me up, and set me back on my feet.

“I’m not that small of a guy,” Venerdi continues. “I was a normal-sized middle-school kid – 5-7, or 5-6-and-a-half. … I’m not small enough for that to be normal.”

While Willis’ 215-pound estimate might be slightly exaggerated, Henry’s stature was extraordinary – and immediately noticeable to Bobby Ramsay when the first-year Yulee High head coach drove by the middle school field one day on his way home.

“When I got the head job in 2008, Derrick was in 7th grade,” Ramsay recalls. And his first Yulee team the following fall? “I mean, we were terrible. We ended up going 5-5, by the grace of God, but … I’m just trying to figure out a way for us to get 3 yards on a play.

“And then Derrick comes along.”

Trying (and failing) to tackle Derrick Henry

At 15 years old, Henry wasn’t just an immaculate physical presence. Wasn’t just 6-3 and 200-plus pounds with 4.5 speed and elusiveness. Wasn’t just humble and driven. He was enrolled at a school that opened in 2006, with a relatively small student body and therefore a 4A classification. He eventually brought Yulee the spotlight. This was not, however, big-time Florida high school football. His competitors were rarely Division I prospects. They were everyday kids, scrapping under Friday night lights, wholly unprepared for the “four-wheeler” careening toward them.

They were, for the most part, 5-9, 5-10. During warmups, “we’d just look over on the other side,” remembers Cosper, a linebacker at Fernandina Beach High School. They’d see Henry, “being 6-3, 230 pounds, sticking out like a sore thumb. Massive human being.”

Then Cosper and his teammates would try to tackle Henry. Often, they’d fail. In three games, from sophomore year on, he racked up 666 yards and nine touchdowns on 64 carries against Fernandina Beach. And those were relatively modest numbers. His senior year included single-game outputs of 510 yards and 485. His season-low was 189.

“He was almost like a machine,” says Dalton Delano, a West Nassau High School linebacker.

Some former Henry opponents struggle to put the experience into words. One of Marty Lee’s former players at First Coast High School used to tell him: “Boy, you had to bring the funk. If you didn’t bring the funk against Derrick, he was gonna truck yo’ ass.”

Says Delano: “You just kinda step in there, and get ran over, and accept your fate.” Plus bruises. And pain.

“Usually when you tackle someone, it doesn’t hurt you,” Dudzinski says. “Tackling him hurt. … Everyone was really sore after the game.”

Others say the physical pain Henry inflicted wasn’t anything abnormal. It was, however, “demoralizing,” says Venerdi, who played cornerback at Fernandina Beach. Adds Delano: “Mentally sore, I guess. There’s nothing we could do.”

Coaches would urge players to meet Henry before the line of scrimmage. Because, as Lee says, “if he got in that open field, y’all ass was in trouble.” And because, as Cosper says, “his stride was like four of ours.” They also taught players to go low to avoid Henry’s “legendary,” “signature” stiff arm. But all of that was easier said than done.

“Even if you got close, he kinda threw you out of the way,” Willis remembers.

Gunnar Cox, a Yulee defensive back who’d battle with Henry in scrimmages, remembers the stiff arm as “vicious.” And he has an anecdote to prove it. “My senior year, I started wearing contacts,” he says. “And Derrick would actually poke me in the eye and mess up my contacts, consistently. And I had to tell him to stop trying to stiff-arm me in practice, ’cause I couldn’t see.”

Friendly fire and business decisions

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) scores a touchdown on an 11-yard run against the Los Angeles Chargers in the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/James Kenney)
Derrick Henry's monster 2019 included 1,540 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns. (AP)

Henry never let up, not even against his own team. Although full-contact practices were rare, especially in-season, teammates experienced versions of what opponents did. “It ain’t no joke,” says Bradley, a quarterback who took practice reps in the secondary. “It’s literally like tackling a human being-and-a-half, in a sense. He’s just so massive.”

Adds Zane Cruz, a former Yulee linebacker: “It’s like tackling a freakin’ defensive end” – but one with 4.5 speed.

Coaches, Cox says, would instruct players to refrain from going low on Henry. “But then he starts running full-steam ahead. We had one DB, he said, ‘I’m not gonna tackle him, it’s just not even right. I gotta worry about a game this week.’ ”

This was the final aspect of the Derrick Henry Opponent Experience. So many teenagers were made to look silly. Some, instead, steered clear of the embarrassment.

“Some of the corners,” Dudzinski says, were “scared to tackle him by themselves. … You could see the little hesitance – like, ‘Ooooh, not jumping in there.’ ”

Lee points to one of Henry’s games against First Coast. “He had one run where he broke about four or five tackles,” he recalls. “Then once he got into the secondary, I always kinda think that one DB said to himself, ‘You know what? Maybe I just let him run on by me.’ ”

Adds Travis Hodge, then the head coach at Fernandina Beach: “If you got him right at the line of scrimmage, or behind the line of scrimmage, [players] would be more aggressive. But the kids knew, when he got to the second level, and it was you and him – all of a sudden, they might trip, or take a [bad] angle, or mis-time their angle.

“They’d make a decision: I got a date with my girlfriend tomorrow. I don’t want to get hurt.”

‘There’s nothing we can do!’

Hodge remembers the second and final time he had to prepare for Henry. He remembers ingesting hours of film. He pored over more than a dozen Yulee games, in search of clues, hints, anything that might allow his overmatched team to slow the freight train. He saw the standard antidotes: Put eight in the box. Ignore the quarterback. And so on. Not much of it worked.

Hodge had joked with his assistants about lining up with 13 players until referees noticed, but decided against that. He had, though, recognized some trends, including a tendency: Henry would often run left when he took a direct snap.

Then he flipped on tape from a game against Gainesville High. He saw Henry take a direct snap. “This linebacker goes to hit him,” Hodge says. “He comes through the hole, he hurdles the kid – and he’s probably 5, 6 feet in the air. He lands, and as soon as his foot hits the ground, he makes a move on another kid and then goes 80 yards.”

Hodge paused the clip. Called his wife. “What am I supposed to do?!” he exclaimed.

No, seriously: “Am I supposed to take the time I normally spend preparing for a game? Or do I just say, ‘You know what, I’m gonna enjoy my wife and kids a little bit more? Because there’s nothing we can do!’ ”

Sure enough, when gameday arrived, Yulee went to the wildcat. Henry took a direct snap. He ran left. “We put a little stunt in, and we get him off track,” Hodge recalls. “He goes to the left, we got people there. Then he backs up and goes to the right. And then makes four people miss and goes 80 yards.

“And my athletic director’s standing behind me. I’m like, ‘What do you want me to do? What do I do?’ ”

‘I feel a little bit better about myself’

Dumbfounded coaches. Demoralized players. That’s what Derrick Henry left in his wake back in Nassau County on his way to Alabama and eventually the NFL. One year, coaches chewed out kids at halftime for missing tackles. The next, they watched the Sugar Bowl and realized Oklahoma couldn’t tackle Henry either.

Nowadays, they all root for him – first and foremost, because he was a likeable kid whose success fosters regional pride. But there’s also a sense of contentment that fills a few of them when Henry gashes the greatest defensive mind in the history of football, then a week later bullies the best safety of the 2010s. When his towering frame and steel-like arms overwhelm pros just like they overwhelmed Average Joes a decade ago. Back then, Casey Thiele, the West Nassau coach, would think to himself: “If we had Division I linebackers, or pro linebackers, we’d definitely be able to stop him.” Now, he realizes: “Well, they don’t stop him either.”

What was once demoralizing, in a way, is now a badge of honor. Delano has a small Henry-induced scar on his shin that he calls “kinda cool.” Willis, this past Saturday, dug up a picture of himself on the wrong end of a Henry stiff arm and posted it to Facebook. Dudzinski found a clip of him using “a little wrestling move” to bring Henry down and showed it off to some friends.

Nevermind that the 6-3, 240-pound menace went on to ravage West Nassau for 455 yards and 5 TDs that day. Because pro defenses, on the grandest stage, are doing only marginally better.

“I can tell you,” Venerdi says, “that watching SAM and MIKE linebackers miss tackles on him in the NFL … I feel a little bit better about myself.”

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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