By Billy Watkins
We needed you, Saint Peter’s University.
We needed you to distract us — if only for a little while— from the brutal war raging in Ukraine. Needed you to steal the headlines from Covid and wildfires and politics.
And we needed you to remind us that recruiting rankings do not write an athlete’s story. He or she gets to do that.
Based in Jersey City, N.J., where they played some games this season in front of fewer than 500 fans, the Saint Peter’s Peacocks defeated Kentucky, Murray State and Purdue to become the first 15-seed to reach the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight. North Carolina ended the Peacocks’ amazing run Sunday, 69-49.
How amazing? Four of their starters had a combined five scholarship offers out of high school.
Yes, those players are writing their own stories, and what marvelous stories they are.
Let’s take a moment to focus on a Mississippian who is also writing a good one — running back Darrell Henderson, a former South Panola High School star who won a a Super Bowl with the Los Angeles Rams last month.
A lot of recruiting experts didn’t figure Henderson would do much in college, much less the NFL. But in his third professional season, Henderson started 10 games and was the Rams’ second-leading rusher with 688 yards and 5 touchdowns.
The Rams list Henderson at 5-foot-8, 208 pounds. At South Panola his senior year, he weighed 175.
The recruiting site 247 listed Henderson as the number 42 prospect out of Mississippi in the 2015 signing class. No SEC school offered him a scholarship. I guess height and weight counted more than his 5,801 yards rushing and 68 touchdowns in three high school seasons.
His coach at South Panola, Lance Pogue, preached at the time that the recruiters and scribes were wrong.
“Darrell was well put together. Strong and fast. He had an unbelievable burst,” Pogue says. “And he was physically tough. He didn’t mind sticking his nose in there.
“He was a football player, that’s what he was for us. Won two state championships. I tried to sell Ole Miss and Mississippi State on the fact that he’s a home run hitter, and those are hard to find.”
One drawback: Henderson would require ankle surgery following his senior season. He wouldn’t be 100 percent until the spring of 2016. While Ole Miss and State passed, Southern Miss offered him. But Henderson chose to play for the University of Memphis, an hour from his Batesville home.
“Memphis did a really good job recruiting him,” Pogue said. “And they didn’t mind waiting on him to recover from the surgery.”
In three seasons (2016-2018), Henderson rushed for 3,082 yards and 31 touchdowns. He totaled 4,302 all-purpose yards and 40 touchdowns and helped lead the Tigers to 26 victories. He finished 10th in the Heisman Trophy voting his junior season, then chose to enter the NFL draft.
In early 2019, a Rams scout phoned Pogue. He wanted to know about Henderson on and off the field.
“I told him Darrell had no fear, great speed and the one thing that can’t be measured — heart,” Pogue says. “He comes from a good family. He’s very quiet. You have to really get to know him before he talks much. But you blow that whistle and he’ll play all day long.”
He was impressive at the NFL Combine. His 4.49 40-yard dash and 22 bench press reps of 225 pounds were both sixth-best among the 26 running backs participating.
L.A. traded up to select Henderson in the third round, the 70th player drafted overall. (Also in the Rams’ running back room is Clinton’s Cam Akers, who was offered by virtually every big-time football university.)
“You can just see when (Henderson) gets the ball in his hands and he puts his foot in the ground, there’s a burst there,” Rams coach Sean McVay said prior to the 2021 season. “He’s sturdy, too.”
Nicholas Cothrel, who works for Rams Digest, wrote near the end of the 2021 regular season that Henderson runs “with violence, which allows him to break off big plays and force broken tackles.”
The running back who was too small for the SEC has secured his spot on the team holding the Lombardi Trophy.
And his story, another one we needed, is not complete.