The young men who took home the Heisman Trophy in each of the past six years epitomized the seismic shift in perception and conventional wisdom that has transpired in the game of football throughout all levels of the game.
If Shakespeare was a football fan – and was, of course, alive – he’d probably look upon the landscape of college football and the recent winners of the Heisman and then surmise, “The quarterback’s the thing!” The dual-threat nature of men like Cam, RG III and Johnny Football were not only captivating audiences, but creating a stranglehold on the stiff-armed Holy Grail that’s going on its ninth decade of being awarded to the collegiate game’s best player.
Tonight, under the bright lights of Times Square, marked a return to yesteryear, when the running back was “the thing.” And especially given his last two games, lifting the Alabama Crimson Tide to the College Football Playoff and to the title of probable favorite to take home the national championship, running back Derrick Henry is definitely more than just a mere player.
Henry, a junior, became the first back since 2009 to win the Heisman Trophy, carrying five of the six voting regions to win the award over another running back, Stanford do-it-all performer Christian McCaffrey. Quarterback Deshaun Watson, the other finalist who led the Clemson Tigers to the only undefeated season amongst teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, finished third.
“”I’m just so thankful to have this trophy,” Henry said in front of the assembled greatness of college football royalty.
Henry not only led the Heisman balloting, he paced all FBS players in carries (339), rushing yards (1,986) and rushing touchdowns (23). The rushing yards broke a conference record once held by Herschel Walker, while the rushing touchdown total tied the SEC mark first achieved by Tim Tebow (then tied by Auburn’s Tre Mason).
Both Walker and Tebow were previous Heisman winners, and Henry, when talking to A Lot of Sports Talk during the media availability on Friday, pointed to other Heisman winners like Earl Campbell and Eddie George as running backs that inspired his running style when looking at old footage of great running backs in the past.
The race to win this year’s award seemed to be a neck-and-neck affair, with McCaffrey putting up mind-boggling numbers in the second half of the season on his way to setting the FBS record for all purpose yards in a season, breaking former Heisman winner Barry Sanders’ mark in 1988. But over the last two games, Henry’s case for the award was just as loud and as clear, rushing for 460 yards combined on 90 carries in a must-win game at Auburn to clinch the SEC West and against Florida in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game. Those games, along with his consistency throughout the season, caught the interest of the Heisman voters, both positive and otherwise.
Could that heavy workload compromise him and the Crimson Tide as they get ready for their College Football Playoff semifinal against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Eve?
“Everybody always asks me about carries; what I thought about it, how I felt,” said Henry. “But when you got teammates who love you and care for you, it don’t matter how you feel or how bad it hurts. You’ve got to make sure you’re making those guys happy by helping them win and getting a victory.”
As much emotion that’s already built in when winning college football’s most prestigious individual on-field performance award, Henry’s heart was also with two people who were not physically able to share in his greatest night.
In the post-award news conference, Henry mentioned how meaningful it was to win the award after former teammate and running back Atlee Tenpenny was killed in a single-car accident in Mississippi two months ago.
Some of Henry’s family members were present in New York, but Derrick’s grandmother, Gladys, who was instrumental in helping to raise Derrick, could not attend as she is currently in a Jacksonville hospital after undergoing a tracheotomy and dealing with other respiratory ailments. Five generations of Gladys’ family surrounded her at her hospital bed to watch the ceremonies and presentation, according to AL.com.
“Without her, I wouldn’t be who I am today,” Henry said.
Henry joins current New Orleans Saints’ running back Mark Ingram as the only Crimson Tide players to win the Heisman Trophy. Ingram and Alabama followed up that momentous occasion in 2009 by winning the BCS National Championship at the Rose Bowl against the University of Texas. Henry and the 2015 edition of the Crimson Tide next play in the College Football Playoff Semifinals against Big Ten champion Michigan State.
[Cover photo (Derrick Henry) courtesy of Mike Stobe/Getty Images]