CONWAY, S.C. — Soon after last season ended for the Coastal Carolina football team, running backs Lorenzo Taliaferro and De’Angelo Henderson were out to eat at Soho 544, just off campus, unwinding after the best year in program history.
Henderson was already thinking about the following season, though, and he had a warning for the player who he’d be replacing in the Chanticleer backfield in 2014.
“I looked [at him] and said, ‘Dude, I’m coming for your record,’ ” Henderson recalls.
Speaking after practice before the start of the season, Henderson repeats this goal, the number ingrained in his mind: 1,730 rushing yards — one more than Taliaferro compiled last fall on his way to rewriting the program record book and becoming a fourth-round NFL draft pick.
It’s not just about competitive drive or a setting a standard, though; it’s about everything this season represents for Henderson.
He’s been patiently waiting for this opportunity since all the traditional football powers in the region passed him over despite a high school football resume at Summerville bordering on legendary. Since a snafu with his high school transcript delayed his start at Coastal Carolina and caused him to think this might never happen. For that matter, since football itself became an escape from everything else he couldn’t control.
“He’s waited so long. He’s come through so much so this season is definitely a big, big thing for him,” says his grandmother Leah Edwards, who has been a beacon of positivity for Henderson through some of the tougher times.
And there have been plenty.
The youngest of three kids raised by a single mother on an income stretched too thin, Henderson says there were days with no electricity, others with no food. His high school coaches talk about giving him a couch to sleep on some nights and helping him after games with just enough money so he could eat.
All the while, Henderson says he learned patience. Again and again. When he was asked to speak to Coastal Carolina’s new players, that’s the message he shared.
“Patience is a virtue,” he says. “I told the rookies that. Everybody had to give a speech. My speech to the rookies was, ‘Just stay patient. Good things will come. I believe God won’t throw nothing at you that you can’t handle. So just stay positive, stay patient.’ “
Except, that mindset no longer applies on the football field for Henderson. Not this year.
“Every time I get the ball, I’m trying to go to the house, I’m trying to get into the end zone,” he says plainly.
It’s his time finally, and he’s intent on making the most of it.
‘A hard life’
Edwards answers the door at her Charleston home wearing a white T-shirt with a big Chanticleers logo. Several photos of Henderson playing football help fill an adjacent room, and as she leads a visitor back to the dining room, there’s a book of photos on the table commemorating his time at Coastal Carolina.
She is his biggest fan and one of the few who can fully comprehend how much this fall means to her grandson.
The conversation starts at the beginning.
“He had a hard life. He really came up [through] a hard life,” she says, telling his story as best she can.
She is his paternal grandmother, but she doesn’t want to talk about Henderson’s father, who hasn’t been a part of his life. She is guarded to get into too much detail in general about his childhood, explaining simply that he was “out of our lives” for a while. He made her a central presence in his life his sophomore year of high school, though, while living with another family member during his years at Summerville.
The details don’t so much matter now, she says.
“It’s about him. That’s what matters really,” she says. “What matters is he is a young man who has grown up and is a smart young man and he does know how to make the right choices. I have no doubt about that. … I admire him.”
Henderson speaks glowingly about both his grandmother and mother, Monique McClellan, and focuses not so much on the obstacles but the outcome.
He shares some of his back story, telling how his mother provided for him, his two older siblings and her unemployed husband off $17,000 a year while working at a nursing home. He didn’t realize at the time why he didn’t have some of the things the other kids had, but when he looks back on it now, he says it just makes him smile to know what she went through to give him what he did have.
“We struggled a lot, not having lights some times, not having dinner some nights, but it is what it is,” he said. “We made it through.”
His high school coaches fill in a little more of the story, telling how Henderson was at an alternative school as a ninth-grader due to behavioral issues and how football would quickly give him the discipline and direction he was needing in his life.
Jody Kafina, an assistant football coach at Summerville High School, had heard about Henderson’s athletic prowess years earlier when the boy’s little league baseball coach predicted he would one day be a star football player for the varsity team. So when he learned that Henderson was at the alternative school, he made him a deal.
“I went up to him and I said, ‘I’ll come get you every day and bring you to Summerville High School for spring practice, but you can not get in trouble, you can not get written up, you have to be passing all your classes and making good grades,’ ” Kafina recalls. “I said, ‘[If you mess up] one time, I’m not coming.’ [He] knocked it all out of the park. The principals loved him to death and look where he is now. … People can change. They just need guidance.”
Kafina got a text from Henderson on Father’s Day this year that simply said, “Thank you.” Summerville offensive coordinator Joe Call, meanwhile, says Henderson regularly sends them pictures of his grades and academic accomplishments at Coastal Carolina, proud of the track he’s on now.
“I don’t care if he plays football two more years, the thing I’m most proud of is he’s going to get an education when there’s a lot of people in this town, in his family that never thought he would,” Kafina says. “That’s the thing I’m most proud of.”
Football, though, was the guiding force in that transformation.
It was his motivation to improve in the classroom, his source of discipline, his ticket for a better future and, sometimes, it was much more than all of that.
“It was his escape,” Call says. “There were times when he grew up there was no electricity at the house, nobody there when he got home, nobody to take him home. Me and Coach Kafina [and] his running backs coach, we would all take turns taking him home or whether it was after a game giving him a $20 bill [and saying], ‘Go get something to eat.’ So when he got to football, this was his refuge. He just let it all out on the field. It was fun to watch for sure.”
The legend of ‘Hop’
John McKissick, the all-time winningest football coach at any level with 613 wins over a remarkable 62 seasons at Summerville, South Carolina, is sitting behind his desk and perks up when someone mentions a reporter is visiting to talk about Henderson.
“He ranks right up there,” McKissick says, leaning back in his chair. “We’ve had some [former players] play in the pros. He ranks right there with them.”
McKissick mentions that just a day earlier former Coastal Carolina head football coach David Bennett had called him to say he was hearing great things about Henderson from friends back in Conway and that the running back was poised for a big season.
In an adjacent meeting room, Call sits down to chat about Henderson. School has just let out for the day and the Green Wave are getting ready for their final practice before their season opener, but Call lets the conversation stretch on for 25 minutes as Kafina joins in to reminisce about the player they lump together with current NFL star A.J. Green as all-time greats to come through the program.
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“As you can see, we get pumped to talk about that guy,” Call will say near the end of the chat.
The stories are plenty about the running back who earned the nickname “Hop” during junior varsity when he refused to give a high ankle sprain time to heal and insisted on getting back on the field despite a pronounced limp.
By his sophomore season at Summerville, Henderson was already scripting his high school legacy.
“We had another guy the first few games of the year his sophomore year starting at tailback, and he kept bugging us. He was like, ‘Put me in. Put me in!’ ” Call says. “… By that third game, we said, ‘All right, we’re going to start him.’ The first play of the game he housed it on a sweep. Remember that?”
“Yep,” Kafina says, nodding along nostalgically.
“First play of the game, first time we tossed him the ball he took it for a touchdown at Goose Creek,” Call continues.
Kafina adds that there have been two players in his coaching career — Green and Henderson — who made him feel the team had a chance to win at all times no matter the circumstances.
Call quickly follows with another Henderson highlight, when he took a sweep to the left against Stratford, reversed all the way back to the right, reversed again to the middle of the field, planted his foot and darted 65 yards for a touchdown.
“Split the defense in half. It was crazy,” Kafina says.
“That was his best play,” Call says, sparking some more debate.
Henderson rushed for 2,407 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior (to go with 387 receiving yards) and was a finalist for South Carolina’s Mr. Football Award in 2010 along with future Chanticleer teammate Quinn Backus, future No. 1 NFL draft pick Jadeveon Clowney and former Myrtle Beach High School star Everett Golson.
“The best overall running back that’s ever played here,” Call says.
Which is why the coaches were so surprised that neither South Carolina nor Clemson — or any other major FBS-level program, for that matter — offered Henderson a scholarship. The Gamecocks signed two other in-state running backs instead in Blythewood’s Brandon Wilds and Lake City’s Shon Carson even though, Call says, Henderson outperformed both in head-to-head meetings.
Even other FCS-level programs that had shown interest, including Charleston Southern, The Citadel, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Furman, backed off a bit and took a wait-and-see approach on Henderson due to his academics, Call says. From a football standpoint, though, he couldn’t understand how these schools were passing on him.
“At first I thought it was, ‘All right, he’s 5-9.’ But then it’s like, ‘They do take 5-9 guys, but those guys can run 4.4 [second 40-yard dashes]. Well, De’Angelo runs a 4.4’ So it was like, ‘What are you missing? What are we not seeing?’ ” Call says. “It was the biggest headache. … We were surprised, very surprised that nobody took at least a shot at him.”
— Summerville HS offensive coordinator Joe Call
Coastal Carolina came into the picture, though, and wasn’t going to miss on the opportunity to add a player with Henderson’s abilities. Former Chants offensive coordinator Kevin Brown would say after Henderson signed that the coaches had no plans to take a running back in that recruiting class, but that they simply couldn’t pass on him.
Maurice Drayton, another former Chants assistant coach and now the defensive coordinator at The Citadel, was a longtime friend of Call’s and took the lead on recruiting Henderson. Not only was Drayton convinced Henderson could make an impact in Conway, but the Summerville coaches were quickly convinced Coastal Carolina was the best place for the running back because of their trust in Drayton.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Call says. “… Coastal hung with him, and I remember telling him, ‘Love the one who loves you,’ and Coastal Carolina loved him from the beginning.”
That doesn’t mean Henderson wasn’t frustrated at the overall lack of interest from other schools, though. At his grandmother’s house, he keeps a box with all the letters from the major programs that told him they weren’t going to sign him because of his size. That reminder is something he’ll always carry with him.
“It ain’t going nowhere. Trust me, it’s not,” he says. “… [There were] a lot of schools I talked to. Honestly, I could say it’s the majority of all the big colleges on the East Coast. I talked to every one and every one gave me the exact same answer — I’m just too small. I took [teammates] Quinn [Backus] and Aaron McFarland home last summer and I showed them the letters and it just made me upset so I put it back.”
As motivated as Henderson was to get to Coastal Carolina and prove himself, though, his plans hit another snag as soon as he arrived on campus in the summer of 2011.
Coastal Carolina was informed that the NCAA was not approving Henderson’s eligibility. As he has explained it in the past, the NCAA clearinghouse wouldn’t recognize one of his math classes at Summerville because the course had a different name than what the NCAA was used to seeing, ultimately leaving him short on his requirements — and thoroughly devastated.
“He was already [on campus],” says Edwards. “We had taken him there. He didn’t know about it, and one day he called and said, ‘I’ve got to come home. I can’t stay.’ I was at work, and I said, ‘Slow down, just tell me what happened, what’s going on?’ He said, ‘Well, they said I can’t stay because something about my grade point average.’ At that time, he was just, oh my gosh, in turmoil. … That was a big, big, big mess. And I can’t understand that to this day.”
After learning the class in question was not being accepted by the NCAA, deemed not to meet one of the 16 core course requirements, Coastal Carolina applied for a waiver that was denied.
The bottom line was that Henderson would not be playing football at Coastal Carolina that fall, and as he moved back in with Edwards in Charleston to work on doing what he needed to attain his eligibility, he started to wonder if it would ever happen.
“He was really down. He was really at an all-time low. All-time low,” Edwards says. “Every day I’d tell him, ‘You can’t give up. You’re going to make it.’ … He really didn’t think he was going to get into school at that point, [saying], ‘What am I going to do? What am I going to do?’ “
In the meantime, he did all he could. Henderson’s uncle got him a membership to a nearby gym and he returned to Summerville in the afternoons to work out with the high school team and keep his focus on football.
Finally, he made it to campus in the spring of 2012 — as motivated as ever.
“Once he got into Coastal, he was on a mission,” Call says. “… He’s just been on a mission academically. He wasn’t going to let himself struggle anymore academically. And because the big boys didn’t sign him, he’s out to prove, ‘I can play at the highest level.’ The way he plays reflects his attitude.”
All leading to this
When Henderson told Taliaferro in December he was coming after his freshly minted rushing record, which had previously stood for almost nine years before the bruising senior shattered the old mark, Taliaferro just chuckled.
“He just laughed, telling me, ‘Go get it man. It’s there,’ ” Henderson says.
After redshirting during the 2012 season, Henderson finally got on the field last fall and wasted no time showing that he was worth the wait. Working behind Taliaferro, Henderson averaged 7.3 yards per carry — a single-season record for the program — while rushing for 599 yards and six touchdowns.
With Taliaferro moving on to the NFL as a member of the Baltimore Ravens, the wait is officially over for Henderson. He’s the starter now and one of the most intriguing players on the roster for a Chants team ranked No. 5 in the FCS Coaches’ Poll early in perhaps the most anticipated season in program history.
And he’s not the only one who believes he’s primed for a huge season.
“He’s going to be as good as anybody at this level, I think,” Chants offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude says without reservation.
Patenaude hadn’t heard Henderson talk about his goal of 1,730 yards, but he doesn’t mind the notion.
“I think he has the ability to do it,” he says. “He’s a different kind of back, but the one thing with him is at any time he can go to the house with it. … He certainly has the ability to do it. His big-play ability, his vision, he’s got great hips and he’s faster than Taliaferro so when he gets out, he’s tougher to tackle in the open field by trying to get a glove on him. I love his confidence.”
Said Coastal Carolina running backs coach Bill Durkin: “He’s got some big shoes to fill, and he’s really approaching it the right way in that he’s working hard at it not only on the field but off the field. He knows the offense. He’s still young, but I think he’s embracing the role and understands the challenge of the shoes he has to fill. There’s some big expectations there.”
None greater than what Henderson has put on himself, though.
He says he’s stronger than last year and his biceps bulge from his arms as he expresses his confidence that despite his 5-foot-8, 205-pound frame, he can handle a full workload this fall.
“Whatever they throw at me, I’m ready for it,” he says.
And a whole lot of people — from family in Charleston to his coaches at Summerville and fans of the program here locally — are ready to see what he can do with this featured role, as well.
Fittingly, the Chants’ season started in Charleston on Aug. 30 at The Citadel, just down the road from Edwards, who might have been as excited as anyone for that game. Henderson ran for 88 yards and a touchdown in the season opener.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t know what he’s doing so it’s nice that he’s coming here to play the first game at The Citadel because a lot of people are probably like, ‘Oh, whatever happened to De’Angelo Henderson?’ ” she says. “I meet people that know him. They remember him, they remember what he [did] in high school … He has put it together. He has done well.”
As for everything that it took to get to this point, the struggles and the setbacks, well, she suggests that in the end maybe it all served a purpose.
Says Edwards, “I believe he had to go through that in order to be the person that he is right now.”