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Derrick Henry's decision to stay at Alabama paying dividends for all

On a cool afternoon in mid-December 2013, those closest to Derrick Henry gathered for an intervention of sorts.

J.T. Medley had felt him slipping. The longtime middle and high school assistant coach and father figure to Henry knew he was lost at Alabama and feared he was about to make an irreversible decision. So Medley called Henry's mother, father, high school coach and another assistant coach over to Medley's home in Yulee, Florida. Together, they decided to sit down and speak to Henry like adults.

Around the kitchen table, they were frank: You can't leave Alabama.

Henry, then a freshman, was unhappy. He was homesick for Yulee, adrift without his support system. At Alabama, coaches cursed at him on the practice field for the first time in his life. It wasn't enough that he was a five-star recruit with a once-in-a-lifetime ability to run the football; he needed to learn how to read the defense, catch the football and block. With three running backs ahead of him on the depth chart, he'd managed just 28 carries during the regular season. His dream of 1,500 yards as a true freshman had turned into a nightmare of self-doubt.

"His first instinct was, 'I want to leave, I don't want to be here,' " said his mother, Stacy Veal.

His head spinning about the possibilities of what to do next, his parents and former coaches tried to set him straight as afternoon turned into night. They weighed the pros and cons of transferring. If you leave, they said, you'll be a year behind, and in a year's time T.J. Yeldon, Alabama's starting running back, would be gone and the job in all likelihood would be yours anyway.

"You made a commitment," Medley told him. "You wanted to be the best. Just because things aren't going your way, you can't fold up shop and go."

But Stacy knew her son felt alone. He'd had a hard year adjusting and trusting the coaching staff, she said. Having been disappointed before, he was used to not letting people in.

"You can't complain and vent to us," Medley told Henry. "You have to man up and talk to them [at Alabama]. That's who you play for."

Henry listened, but when he left the house, everyone was unsure of what would happen next. So Medley picked up the phone and called Alabama coach Nick Saban. Stacy did the same. And according to both, Saban was surprised. The coaching staff had no idea their future star was so unhappy.

"That's part of growing up," Henry said. "You're away from home and you meet new people and adjust to new things. It's part of life."

* * *

Bobby Ramsay remembers seeing Henry on the football field in middle school and thinking it was comical how big and talented he was. But the story he always goes back to is Henry's first practice of high school ball.

"We were doing our inside run drill," Ramsay, the longtime coach at Yulee High, recalled. "We had three pretty good defensive linemen and they all three got through the line and all three got a shot on him about the same time -- one hit him around the thigh, one hit him in the midsection, one hit him up high. He struggled back to the line of scrimmage and it looked like Optimus Prime or Megatron going down in a fight. So I'm thinking, 'Oh man, he's going to throw the football and get pissed off.' But he gets up and hands the ball back to the coach, and I think, 'Good, we made it past that one.'

"Then we ran the same iso again and he busted through. The coach standing next to me at the time, we just looked at each other and didn't say anything, but we were both giving each other the look that, 'OK, I think we found our starting running back.' "

Henry has always been able to absorb a punch. At 6-foot-3 and 243 pounds, it takes a team to bring him to the ground. Combined with his natural agility and speed, he blossomed into the No. 1 athlete in his recruiting class. By his junior year, he was eyeing the national high school record for career rushing yards. When he found out he'd have to average about 300 yards per game as a senior to get it, he told Medley he'd make it happen. With 482 yards in a game against Perry County, he did just that, breaking Ken Hall's record of 11,232 yards.

"Very self-driven," Medley said. "Very self-motivated."

To this day, Medley doesn't know where that attitude -- the maturity, the focus, the overall serious demeanor -- comes from. But when you look at how Henry was raised, it begins to make some sense. The son of teenage parents, Henry lived with his grandmother, Gladys, who instilled old-school values in her home off a dirt road near the local high school.

"She's taught me a lot and she's still teaching me," said Henry, who has a tattoo of his grandmother's name across his chest. "Just always keep my head on straight, stay humble and keep God first."

He'd seen the consequences of not doing so. His father, Derrick Sr., has had numerous run-ins with the law, including several arrests for possession of marijuana and cocaine.

When he was in eighth grade, Henry had to find a better situation and moved in with an aunt. Two years later, he moved again, this time with Medley and his wife.

Sensing a possible future in football while also witnessing his father's mistakes, Henry saw exactly where he didn't want his life to go.

"It was just me being young and crazy and just running the streets and hanging with the wrong crowd as I grew up," Derrick Sr. said. "I told him: 'You don't need to do that. I mean, that's no life. You can wait and don't get started early. You have a chance to be somebody, not just sit around and let your life waste away.' "

"Guarded" is a word that comes up often to describe Henry's personality. In the small town of Yulee, he kept his circle tight.

"He is an extremely loyal individual," Ramsay said. "I don't want to say to a fault, but he's very loyal to the people close to him."

Of his father, Henry said: "He's still supporting me to this day. He still tries to make every game even though he can't. But growing up he always was at my game, any game I played."

When Derrick Sr. couldn't be there, the neighborhood had a hand in raising Henry. Everybody knew everybody in Yulee, Derrick Sr. said, describing it as a "little country town."

For the mostly lower-middle class unincorporated community, Henry became a torchbearer: a star athlete who took pride in representing Yulee. During an interview this week, Henry wore a green Yulee football shirt underneath his crimson Alabama polo.

"Everybody is like family there," he said. "I love being home."

* * *

Medley had a difficult decision to make after relaying Henry's frustrations to Saban, who told him that even before the phone call, they'd begun the process of elevating Henry on the depth chart.

But rather than tell Henry he was going to be the No. 2 back in the Allstate Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma, Medley kept it to himself. He did not want Henry seeing it as a reaction to his thoughts of transferring, rather than earning the spot on merit.

Against the Sooners, everything clicked. Henry gained 161 all-purpose yards and scored two touchdowns. After busting off a 43-yard touchdown run, a particularly excited foreign language broadcaster gave birth to Henry's now-popular nickname "El Tractorcito."

After the game, Medley said Henry told him: "You were right. One game can change your life."

"If he gets two carries in that game, he may be somewhere else right now," Medley said. "But when he said that to me, I knew it was a done deal."

During his sophomore year, Henry rushed for 990 yards, more than Yeldon (979), who was technically still the starter.

After Alabama lost to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff in January, Yeldon entered the NFL draft and Henry knew the job was his. Of the four ESPN 300 running backs who originally signed with Alabama in 2013, he's the only one who lasted.

"He said, 'Momma, it's all me,' " Stacy said. "I said, 'Son, you have your goals you want to work on. You have your Heisman. You want to go high in the draft.' He said, 'It's all me.'

"When he was home, he worked out every single day. I don't know if you saw the videos."

How could anyone miss them? They went viral.

"When he's here at the house, he's in his room doing curls and doing pushups," Medley said. "He'll pump out 400-500 pushups. At 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning he'll ask if I want to go to the gym."

Saban wished he had more players like him. "I love Derrick Henry," he said. "He's one of the hardest-working, best attitude guys on our team."

In the season-opener against Wisconsin, Henry exploded, rushing for 147 yards and three touchdowns. On Saturday against Middle Tennessee, he ran for three more touchdowns and now sits squarely in the Heisman Trophy discussion.

"That's his No. 1 goal, to get a Heisman before he leaves," Stacy said.

At one point in time, it would have been a disappointment if he didn't win the award. But that was the old Henry, the high school star who hadn't yet sniffed reality.

"It's hard," center Ryan Kelly said. "You come to Alabama and you're not going to start right away sometimes. You just can't commend the guy enough. He's a great guy and a great team leader."

Said linebacker Reggie Ragland: "He's a beast. ... Hard work paid off for the guy. I like that."

Henry, meanwhile, is keenly aware his job isn't finished.

"I'm still not where I want to be," he said. "There's still a lot of work to do."

Even if he continues his march toward the Heisman against No. 15 Ole Miss on Saturday, don't expect that attitude to change.

He's come too far to look back now.