NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In his fourth season, Derrick Henry put it all together. The NFL's leading rusher is physically gifted -- at 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, he's bigger than most running backs, yet he has the speed to break a long run -- but that isn't what sets the Tennessee Titans' star apart.
Conditioning, stamina, work ethic -- that's why Henry continues to run strong late in games and deep into the season. His 997 second-half rushing yards are the fourth-most in the past 30 seasons, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Slowing him down will certainly be a priority for the New England Patriots on Saturday (8:15 p.m. ET, CBS).
"It's never going to be perfect, but you're shooting for it," said Henry, who finished the regular season with 1,540 rushing yards. "You're just trying to be the best at what you do. That's just how I always think. Man, you can have all of the talent in the world, but the hard work overrules that. When you work hard, it's definitely going to show. That's why with any athlete, we have struggles, and we have adversity, but as long as you work hard and keep your head down, you will always prevail."
That drive isn't necessarily something Henry was born with. He was taught by his family at a young age.
"There's always going to be adversity in life," Henry said. "I saw it growing up."
Henry looks back on his life and sees that his family never gave up when times were hard. That's where his intense work ethic comes from. He flashed a smile when he mentioned his relationship with his grandmother, Gladys Henry, who helped raise him along with his grandfather. She gave him his nickname, "Shocka," because his parents had him when they were young. Henry's dad was the youngest of 14 children.
Growing up, Henry did everything with his grandmother.
"We had a special relationship," Henry said. "I couldn't do anything without her, and she couldn't do anything without me."
His grandfather died in 2000, and then it was up to his grandmother to make ends meet. Her drive to provide was an example for Henry as he worked his way through the football ranks.
"She had to continue to work and provide for us as a family," Henry said. "Watching her get up when she didn't want to, she worked at the Holiday Inn cleaning the hotels, so we had food on our table, clothes on our back and a roof over our head. That's what I will always remember. It's what she instilled in me. Always work hard. Always keep God first. Prayer is powerful. That's what I believe in, and it's what I will one day teach my kids."
Titans running backs coach Tony Dews said Henry is his own worst critic. Dews said the fourth-year back came to him in the offseason with areas in which he wanted to improve. Dews studied tape of running backs to find ways Henry could improve.
"Derrick is really conscientious about everything," Dews said. "He wants to be the absolute best at everything. He and Dion [Lewis] are very competitive with each other. Dion has done a really solid job over the past couple of years in pass protection, so they share things, and obviously, Derrick doesn't want to be outdone by Dion, so it becomes a competitive thing.
"The biggest thing about Derrick is when he watches himself and sees something he doesn't like, he wants to correct it. I would say that is what motivates him -- watching himself as much as anybody else."
Henry has gotten better as a receiving option out of the backfield. His 18 receptions for 206 yards and two touchdowns during the regular season were close to his receiving numbers from the previous two seasons combined (25 receptions, 235 yards, one TD).
Tennessee's passing game, fueled by quarterback Ryan Tannehill and rookie wideout A.J. Brown, has been a big part of the Titans' success. But Henry's 549 yards and six touchdowns in December have been arguably as important. His coaches and teammates have the utmost respect for the work Henry puts in during the week.
"The one thing that I tried to figure out a few years ago was that I don’t think I have to motivate him," coach Mike Vrabel said.
Added center Ben Jones: "Seeing him in person and how hard he works, he's grinding every day. He wants to be the best guy on the field, and you want to block for a guy like him. He's just a physical specimen out there. He's a monster."
Opposing coaches have noticed, too. Despite the sore hamstring, Henry gained 103 yards on 18 carries and scored two touchdowns last month in a pivotal victory over the Oakland Raiders.
"This man will not get tired," Raiders coach Jon Gruden said via conference call. "He won't do it. I'd like to see the GPS numbers on this guy. I mean, he can run fast for a long time. He can run hard for a long time. There's no tag-team wrestling. He doesn't have to reach over and get another back to get him out of there. He can go and go hard. He's a great back with incredible stamina. The more you give it to him, the longer the game goes, the better he plays. He reminds me of Eddie George that way."
It's not just self-reflection and hard work that get Henry hyped before he takes the field. Music plays a role, too. He listens to a song by Meek Mill called "King" before every game, something that has become a tradition for him. The title of the song fits Henry, who goes by the name "KingHenry_2" on Twitter and "last_king_2" on Instagram.
The name of the song also fits the king's ransom Henry is likely to receive after his contract expires after this season.
"I ain't worried about that," Henry said to a reporter in May about money. "Next question. No concern for me. This is football. I fell in love with it before the money. I love this game."