Just down the road from Georgia, Yulee, Fla. was once known as a “lottery town.” Since you couldn’t play the lotto in the “Peach State,” heading south to Yulee was the solution.
Now, it is a growing community, flush with a new high school - Yulee High - that graduated its first class in 2007. After years of dormancy, with no high school in town since 1965 and clearly no high school football program, the Yulee Hornets, led by junior star running Derrick Henry, now are a source of pride in the once sleepy town in Northern Florida. In his sophomore season, the Georgia commit, who teammates and friends call "Shocka", tallied 2,689 yards and 38 touchdowns and has over 5,000 yards and 65 scores in his career.
The 6-foot-4, 232-pound Henry has always been a big back, and a big boy, according to longtime coaches and mentors Pat Dunlap and J.T. Medley. Dunlap and Henry met when Derrick was entering the sixth grade, as Henry ran through the Pop Warner team Dunlap was coaching at the time.
“My first impression of him was just how he simply handled my team,” Dunlap, now the running backs coach at Yulee under head coach Bobby Ramsay, said. “And we were a good team.”
Medley also met Henry around that time, and began coaching him at Yulee Middle, noting just what kind of athlete he had on his hands at an early age.
“Coming into sixth grade he was big,” Medley, a middle school science teacher and the wide receivers and tight ends coach at Yulee, said, “but it was the summer heading into seventh grade that he jumped to about 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds. I worked him hard and he was over six-foot and 180 pounds by the end of middle school. Going into high school it was clear there was something special here with Derrick.”
Dunlap and Medley have worked with Henry for years now, and Henry credits them with helping foster his and the Hornets’ growing identity in the competitive landscape of Florida high school football.
“From my coaches we’ve learned that you need to have a different work ethic to be different,” said Henry, who was one of only two juniors at Nike’s The Opening this summer. “In order to change the program, and really build a program at Yulee and put us on the map we had to be different – we had to show a work ethic and dedication so that the next class keeps this going. We have a lot of pride for Yulee, and with the football team we can help show that.”
Henry is close with Medley and his family, and spends a good deal of time at his home, playing with his younger son, who Henry mentors and plays video games with. At times, Henry’s home life hasn’t always been stable, and Dunlap and Medley have been there for him to make sure that school and football remain priorities in his life, especially as he becomes one of the top recruits of the 2013 class.
“Coach Dunlap has been with me since I was young,” Henry said. “He’s been with me from day one; working with me and supporting me. Coach Medley taught me to have a strong work ethic and a mentality to always be positive and believe in my goals and myself. It’s a blessing to have coaches and mentors like this in my life.
“The goal this year is to put the Yulee Hornets on the map,” Henry said. “We have a tough schedule, but we are proud of that, we aren’t just some small town you can forget about.”
The Hornets, despite a loss in their first game that saw Henry rack up 181 yards and two touchdowns, continue on their road to recognition, led by the imposing and impressive tailback.
Next up is Georgia powerhouse Buford (Buford, Ga.) on Friday night in a border war that will be aired on ESPNU. It's just another step towards making Yulee proud.