At midseason, LSU running back Leonard Fournette was considered the hands-down favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, and one-loss Alabama was just fighting to stay in contention for the national championship with a one-dimensional offense built around running back Derrick Henry. The Crimson Tide’s victory changed everything that night as Henry carried 38 times for 210 yards and Fournette was held to 31 yards on 19 carries.
Choking back his emotions when he accepted the Heisman Trophy at a ceremony Saturday night in midtown Manhattan, Henry said he was happy for the chance to fill the workhorse role for Alabama. “When you’ve got teammates who love you and care about you, it doesn’t matter how much it hurts,” Henry said of his NCAA-leading 339 carries. “You just want to help the team win.”
Henry was the clear-cut winner in the voting with 1,832 points, including 378 first-place votes, to finish ahead of Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey (1,539) and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (1,165). Alabama’s Mark Ingram was the last running back to win the award in 2009 and the only other member of the Crimson Tide to do so.
“The last 24 hours, I was just trying to relax because I was so nervous,” Henry said. “This was a dream of mine. I couldn’t have done it without my teammates and coaches. I love them so much.”
Henry’s heartfelt gratitude was apparent in his acceptance speech as he thanked family members and a long line of coaches who supported him, especially Alabama associate head coach and running backs coach Burton Burns, who has been a mentor to him.
When he was a freshman, Henry tweeted about his hope of winning the Heisman Trophy, adding the hashtag “#goals.” He spoke this week of his admiration for previous winners and at the end of his speech last night, he added, “To all the kids who are watching, I hope I’m someone you can look up to. Don’t be afraid to pray. Keep God first. If you believe it, you can achieve it.”
Quarterbacks have dominated the award in recent years, winning 13 of the previous 15. The only two running backs to win in that stretch were Ingram and USC’s Reggie Bush, who had to vacate the 2005 award after it was discovered he accepted improper benefits from an agent.
Henry said Ingram had been in contact, including Saturday morning before the ceremony. “He told me to call if I needed advice, and he congratulated me on the awards that I’ve won,” said Henry, who also won the Maxwell Award as the nation’s top player and the Doak Walker award as the top running back.
Henry led the nation and broke former Heisman winner Herschel Walker’s SEC rushing record with 1,986 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns. The Heisman winner possesses a combination of power and speed. He said he runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4 to 4.5 seconds, but he took a pounding because opposing defenses often stacked the box with eight and nine defenders.
Ordinarily, Alabama coach Nick Saban likes to rotate two or three running backs to avoid wearing them down. But an injury to backup Kenyan Drake made that impossible, and a low-production passing attack didn’t relieve pressure on Henry, who carried the ball 96 times in Alabama’s final two wins over Auburn in the Iron Bowl and Florida in the SEC title game to help the Tide reach the College Football Playoff semifinals against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl.
“Derrick did as much as anyone could have done or ever has done for any of our teams,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “He really stepped up and did a great job. You can’t have a better guy to do it with than Derrick Henry.”
Henry downplayed his role in the LSU game, saying, “All I wanted to do was help the team win and let everything else take care of itself.”
But when asked if he should thank the defense for stopping LSU’s Fournette cold, Henry lit up. “They take pride in stopping the run,” Henry said. “That whole week, the defense was hungry. They tried to take me out in practice. They were relentless.”
No more relentless than Henry has been this season in terms of leading his team and achieving his Heisman Trophy goal.