“Seeing him pulling off the same kind of runs he was against us in high school, us not being able to stop him and now him doing the same thing in the NFL, it makes us feel a little bit better, at least,” Willis said.
Before he became a Heisman Trophy winner at Alabama and this season’s NFL rushing leader, Henry established himself as arguably the best high school running back of all time. Those who played against him as teenagers still tell stories about bouncing off his 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame time and again, and eight years later, NFL players marvel at how difficult Henry is to bring to the ground.
It was the main question the Baltimore Ravens defensive players faced this week as they prepared to meet the Titans in Saturday night’s divisional-round matchup.
“[The Patriots] didn’t seem too interested in tackling him,” Ravens safety Earl Thomas III said.
Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who played with Henry at Alabama, added an extra weightlifting session this week to prepare for the punishment.
“It’s really going to take all 11 [defenders],” Humphrey said of Henry, who rushed for 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns in his fourth NFL season. “He’s 6-3, but he really has elite speed also. He can run people over here and there, but he also has the speed that if he gets to the edge, he can really outrun you.”
That has long been the scouting report on Henry, and his dominance this season has conjured up memories of his unstoppable rise on the Florida high school football scene.
At Yulee High in the Jacksonville area, Henry set the national high school football rushing record with 12,124 career yards, including 4,260 yards and 55 touchdowns during his senior season in 2012, which both stand as state records.
By the time he was a senior, Henry was benching 365 pounds, clean-jerking 315 pounds, squatting 500 pounds and deadlifting 550 pounds to go with 4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash. He amassed 510 yards and six touchdowns in one game alone that season, not to mention three 400-yard rushing games and another three 300-yard rushing games. He finished his high school career with 1,397 carries, including 462 during his senior season.
“I never worried about him getting hurt. I never really worried about him breaking down or anything like that. He just didn’t show wear and tear,” said Bobby Ramsay, Henry’s coach at Yulee. “He was never like, ‘Coach, I’m sore.’ That just never happened.”
It happened for Henry’s teenage opponents.
“I was real sore,” said Nate Bryant, a former safety at South Lake High who still counts the night he played against Henry in 2012 as one of his proudest moments in football. He remembers players being cautious about hitting Henry because of his size. "A lot of players worried about how to approach him or what kind of technique to use to get him down. It takes more than one player to tackle him. Derrick Henry was talked about a lot. For me to even get on the field and to even try to tussle with someone that big … it makes me feel good.”
Henry ran for 303 yards and three touchdowns on 42 carries that night. On a third and long early in the game, Henry ran a sweep to the right side. All 11 South Lake players, including Bryant, delivered hits on Henry. He absorbed every attempted tackle and broke loose for a touchdown.
“That’s the most amazing run I’ve ever seen,” South Lake Coach Mark Woolum said.
Ramsay watched as teams built exotic game plans week after week for Henry, sometimes using six-man defensive fronts. Some teams used onside kicks and fake punts to keep the ball out of his hands. One team, Fernandina Beach High, had a running joke that it would try to play 13 players on defense and wait until officials noticed. That plan was never enacted, and Henry added another national record that night by posting his 40th game of 100 rushing yards or more.
Like Willis, former Fernandina Beach coach Travis Hodge flashed back as he watched Henry’s performance against New England last weekend, taking to Facebook to broadcast to the world that, like Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, he couldn’t stop Henry, either. He will watch the Ravens try this weekend.
“If you had 11 guys on defense who could run with him, that’s where his strength and mental capacity took over, where it was like, you know what: ‘I’m not being stopped,'” Hodge said. “Doggone, here he is … fourth year in the NFL, and you see the same dadgum thing.”