-- NEW YORK - Like every little boy who ever ran in a front yard with a football, Derrick Henry dreamed of winning the Heisman Trophy. Dreams are one thing, real life another. As it turns out, the Alabama junior is a much better running back than he is a college football analyst.
"I'm so nervous," the tailback said Saturday night as he accepted the 81st Heisman Trophy. "I never thought I would be up here."
He may have been the only one. Henry, the 6-3, 232-pound engine who pushed the Crimson Tide to the College Football Playoff semifinals, won his sport's biggest honor by a comfortable margin over Stanford sophomore tailback Christian McCaffrey. Henry becomes the second Alabama player to win the Heisman, joining Mark Ingram, who won in 2009 over, yes, a Stanford tailback, Toby Gerhart.
Henry, a reluctant speaker after Alabama games, couldn't have been more eloquent Saturday night, thanking everyone from his parents and his grandmother to his coaches to his academic advisors and the university chancellor. He also remembered former Crimson Tide teammate Altee Tenpenny, who died in an automobile accident earlier this year.
"You got God on your side, anything is possible," Henry said. "I had dreams and aspirations to win this trophy one day. I didn't think it would happen.... To have this trophy is a blessing and an honor. It's just everything. God is so good, man. My teammates and my coaches, I can't thank them enough."
The young man who just won an award that will be mentioned in the first paragraph of his obituary is a small-town guy from Yulee, Fla., pretty much where Florida, Georgia and the Atlantic Ocean meet. His normally even keel rose above the waterline when he heard his name called.
"My heart was about to bust out my chest," Henry said.
Henry received 378 first-place votes and a total of 1,832 points (3-2-1 basis) from the 898 voters who returned their ballots (The 31 who failed to vote will be sentenced to tackling Henry in an Oklahoma drill). McCaffrey, whose late-season charge gave this race the most suspense it has had in six seasons, finished with 290 and 1,539, respectively.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, in third place with 1,165 points, finished more than 800 points ahead of the fourth-place player, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield. Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who closed out a spectacular career earlier Saturday with his fourth victory over Army, finished fifth. The absence of Mayfield and Reynolds created howls of protest to the Heisman Trophy Trust. The vote totals explained why they weren't invited.
The longer the season went, the more Henry developed into a one-size-fits-all candidate.
The Heisman Trophy purports to identify "the outstanding college football player in the United States." To some voters, that means the players with the best statistics. Henry is only the fourth player in the last 32 seasons to lead the FBS in rushing attempts (339), yards (1,986), and touchdowns (23).
To other voters, that definition means the most valuable player. The tailback proved his worth to the Crimson Tide late in the season, when he became pretty much the entire offense in the last two games of the year. Henry's victory has its roots in his power on the field and the power of the Alabama brand off of it, but it might not have happened without an injury.
Coach Nick Saban's offensive philosophy is to use two tailbacks - Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, Richardson and Eddie Lacy, Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, Yeldon and Henry. But this season, Kenyan Drake, playing Robin to Henry's Batman, broke a bone in his right arm in Game 10 against Mississippi State.
"We alternate guys and try to leave a lot of tread on the tires as the season goes on," Saban said. "It was really unprecedented for me, philosophy-wise as a coach to do that when we were in some tight games and some big games. We were trying to take the air out of the ball, and you can't have a better guy to do it with than Derrick Henry."
The number of backs who could carry the ball 46 times in a rivalry game in late November, as Henry did against Auburn, is small. The number who could gain 271 yards under such circumstances is smaller still. And the number of backs who, one week later, in a conference championship game, could carry the ball 44 more times for another 189 yards, is one.
"He did as much for his team as anybody could have done or ever has done for any of our teams," Saban said.
Henry is the first running back to win the Heisman since Ingram, and since the Heisman Trust stripped USC tailback Reggie Bush of his 2005 trophy, the pair of Alabama stars are the only non-quarterbacks to win the most famous trophy in American sports in this century (Ron Dayne of Wisconsin won in 1999).
McCaffrey joins Gerhart and former Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck, the runner-up in 2010 and 2011, as Heisman runner-ups. Yes, four Stanford second-place finishers in seven seasons, though this one stung a little more than the other three. Earlier in the day Saturday, Cardinal head coach David Shaw managed to sound both philosophical and disbelieving about the possibility that his player would not win the Heisman. Someone asked Shaw if he thought McCaffrey deserved the award.
"So 'deserving' is a hard word," Shaw said. "If there was a set of criteria, I could tell you if he was deserving. Anytime there are people who vote, you can't say the word 'deserve.' You say who wins and who doesn't win. When I look at it, even objectively, and you can't really dispute what I'm about to say, you could say he had the best year in the history of college football. You can put it up against any year anybody has had at any position. He gained more yards than anyone who has ever played in one year. That's not even disputable."
Henry broke a conference record set by a legendary Hall of Fame running back, Herschel Walker. McCaffrey broke an NCAA record set by a legendary Hall of Fame running back, Barry Sanders. McCaffrey has gained 3,496 all-purpose yards, blowing past the 3,250 that Sanders gained in his Heisman season of 1988. Yet McCaffrey gained traction too late in the season to catch the most prominent player at the most prominent college football school of the last decade.
That combination took Alabama to the College Football Playoff. And it took Derrick Henry to the 2015 Heisman.