De’Angelo Henderson endured a number of low points growing up. Nights without food or electricity in an impoverished Summerville household were among them, as was a nomadic existence throughout high school.
But perhaps the greatest test of his will came when football was taken away from him prior to his freshman year at Coastal Carolina.
The game had been a primary motivation to persevere academically and behaviorally, and was a means to higher education and a future.
“Football is really one of the only consistent things I’ve had throughout my life, and knowing if I got in trouble I couldn’t do it, I knew I had to get right and couldn’t act up,” Henderson said.
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That mind-set earned the man they call “Hop” a football scholarship at Coastal Carolina, but it didn’t initially get him into the university.
The NCAA Clearninghouse questioned his academic eligibility because of confusion over the level of a math class he completed at Summerville High, causing him to miss what would have been his freshman season before the issue was resolved and he enrolled for the second semester in January 2012.
“That was probably the lowest point in my life, coming here and finding out I got red-flagged and had to go home, not knowing if I was going to be able to come back,” Henderson said. “I went home and I cried. My grandma said, ‘It’s going to be all right. It’s going to be all right. We’re just going to pray on it. We’re just going to pray on it.’ Once December hit and I finally cleared, it was so much relief. It was the best feeling in the world.”
Henderson will play his final game for the Chanticleers against Hampton on Saturday, with lots of high points behind him over the past five years and more likely to come.
He will leave the university with one degree and progress toward a second, all of CCU’s career rushing records – including one that has never been matched in the history of NCAA Division I football – several other school offensive records and the prospect of continuing his playing career professionally, possibly in the NFL.
“It’s just a blessing to be in the position I’m in,” said Henderson, who turned 24 on Thursday. “I didn’t have to be here, but God chose me to be here and allowed me to be here. I’m just so thankful.”
Henderson will attempt to extend his NCAA Division I record for consecutive games with a touchdown to 35 games Saturday, and add to his school records for career rushing yards, rushing yards per game, rushing attempts, rushing TDs, yards per rush, points scored, touchdowns scored, all-purpose yards and all-purpose yards per game.
“At the end of the day all I want to do is just play football and have fun,” Henderson said. “The records I guess come with it.”
He’ll leave CCU with all of those records and more, as well as the respect and admiration of his coaches and teammates.
“He’s a great leader, great guy, great friend. He helped me grow and become a better man, helped me become a better football player,” said fourth-year junior running back Osharmar Abercrombie, Henderson’s primary backup who shares the game-week ritual with Henderson of a Wednesday meal at Rotelli Pizza & Pasta.
“He guided me through the playbook since the first day I got here. He helps all the running backs,” Abercrombie continued. “That’s just the type of guy Hop is. He’s willing to help anybody, in any situation. If you ever need Hop just call him and he’ll come through any time.”
Football is my comfort zone. You don’t think about anything. You don’t think about what you’ve been through or what you’re going through. You just focus on executing the play you have to execute. It’s like real peaceful. You close your mind and you hear some soft music and look at some paintings. It just relaxes you. “People in the crowd are like, ‘You don’t ever hear me cheering for you?’ I can hear a pin drop. I don’t hear anything. That’s how it is for me.
A rough upbringing
Henderson said he was raised in a home with two older siblings by his mother, Monique McClellan, who was dealing with an unhealthy relationship and whose modest income from a nursing home job wasn’t always enough to cover common expenses.
Though his biological father hasn’t been part of his life, Henderson was reunited with his paternal grandmother, Leah Edwards, around his sophomore year of high school and they quickly bonded. She has been a reassuring voice for many of Henderson’s tougher times, including his forced departure from CCU as a freshman.
“Between my mom and my grandmom, those are like the greatest individuals I’ve ever met. They are the epitome of a woman to me,” Henderson said. “My mom is the strongest woman I know. She raised us with basically nothing. Then when I met my grandmom, with her spirit and she’s so genuine with everything she does and says it’s hard not to love her. They’re great people and helped mold me.”
Seeing my mom go through what she went through and never complaining about anything and still providing for us, it was like what do we have to complain about?
He moved in with Edwards following high school, but with his mother dealing with personal issues during his high school years, he bounced between several homes while welcoming the opportunity to leave what he considered a corruptive neighborhood. His high school coaches have talked about giving him a couch to sleep on some nights and providing him with enough money for occasional meals.
“She was around, but she had some stuff she had to figure out,” Henderson said of his mother during his high school years. “I bounced around a lot. I never had a really stable home. I went from family to cousins to friends to coaches, really whoever could let me lay my head down somewhere.”
Henderson was in an alternative school as a high school freshman in order to catch up to his proper grade academically, which he did by his sophomore year.
“I don’t think I was a problem kid. I think I was just more so confused and a little misunderstood,” Henderson said. “I grew up really rough and it kind of made me have a different view of life whenever I left home. I was really in defense mode a lot when I was outside of my house because I never knew what was going to happen. I didn’t trust a lot of people.”
Henderson played on Summerville High’s junior varsity football team while at the alternative school, and said his JV coach, Louis Mulkey, was his lobbyist with the varsity coaches, trying to convince them to give Henderson a look. But his voice of support was lost when Mulkey was one of nine firefighters who died in a furniture store blaze in Charleston in June 2007.
Jody Kafina, an assistant football coach at Summerville High, knew of Henderson’s athletic ability and visited him at the alternative school to talk and offer a deal. He proposed bringing Henderson to varsity spring practices as a freshman if Henderson could remain on the right path.
“He sat me down in the office and said, ‘Look, 10 years from now you can have two choices, you can wake up with a pile of money or a pile of turd,’ ” Henderson recalled. “He said, ‘Which one do you want?’ I was like, ‘I don’t want no turd. I’ll do whatever I’ve got to do.’ ”
Summerville coach John McKissick, the winningest high school football coach in history, said Henderson is probably the best running back he coached in his 60-plus years at the school.
Henderson rushed for 2,407 yards and 27 touchdowns on 251 carries as a senior at Summerville while catching 18 passes for 387 yards and four TDs.
He learned toughness at Summerville, and earned the nickname Hop – short for hop along – in JV when he was told a high ankle sprain would take six to eight weeks to heal but he missed just one week and played despite a pronounced limp.
“Being a football player you have to be a tough guy,” Henderson said. “There’s no crying, there’s no complaining. One thing they told us was there’s a difference between being injured and being hurt. You can’t play injured but you can play hurt. That’s one thing about being tough and having a tough mind and doing what you have to do. I think that’s one thing that has helped me stay strong mentally.”
Henderson received significant interest from Football Championship Subdivision schools, including CCU, but really wanted to play at South Carolina. Like other larger Football Bowl Subdivision programs, however, USC considered him too small at 5-foot-8 and 190 pounds and told him they were going with larger backs. They signed in-state players Shon Carson and Brandon Wilds.
“Every school said it was my size. They liked me but I was just too small,” said Henderson, who is now a more durable 205 pounds. “They know who they are. If they look at the guys they took over me I’m sure they have [regretted it]. I’m sure some of those guys lasted a year, some of the guys maybe lasted a semester, some of the guys maybe got 25 yards in their career.”
Excelling at CCU
Henderson was one of the few players signed by the coaching staff of former CCU coach David Bennett, who honored the commitment through Joe Moglia’s hiring in December 2011.
He would be a CCU student for 20 months before playing in a game, however, because he was redshirted in 2012. “I think if anything the fire in me grew even more because I had something to prove,” Henderson said. “I always felt I had something to prove to [CCU’s new coaching staff], to people in the crowd, people who told me I was too small to play college football everywhere.”
Henderson has gained 4,500 yards rushing in his CCU career, and needs 186 yards Saturday to double the amount of the player at No. 2 on the school’s career rushing yards list, Aundres Perkins.
His other records include 699 carries, 57 rushing touchdowns and 63 touchdowns scored. Henderson is responsible for three of the five 1,000-yard rushing seasons in CCU history, including 1,021 yards this season despite missing three games with a shoulder injury. He also has a school-record 24 100-yard rushing games.
I think the one record that he set that will be held for a long time, at least I think several years, is the national Division I record for the most consecutive games with touchdowns. I think Coastal Carolina holding the national record is pretty incredible, so we are certainly proud of him.
CCU head coach Joe Moglia
He does not own the CCU single-season rushing record, however, and he took a lesson in humility from his pursuit of it.
Following the 2013 season, in which 2014 NFL draft pick Lorenzo Taliaferro rushed for a CCU-record 1,729 yards in 15 games, Henderson told Taliaferro over a dinner that he was coming after his record in 2014. He wasn’t far off, rushing for 1,534 yards in one fewer game.
“That’s when I was a knucklehead and I had my mind in the wrong place,” Henderson said. “After that year I really decided to just go out and have fun and enjoy everything instead of trying to break specific goals. I felt like when I was doing that I was more focused on myself and not the team.”
Team success has indeed come with Henderson’s individual achievements. The Chants reached the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs in both 2013 and ’14 and attained the No. 1 national FCS ranking for parts of both the 2014 and ’15 seasons, and Henderson has been a team captain.
“Besides the leadership he shows us, he shows leadership on campus,” Moglia said. “His contribution to our program both as a man and as a player has been incredible. … For us to have had part of the success that we’ve had, that has come from the leadership within the team, and Hop would be a leading member in that.”
Henderson said his leadership is just paying it forward from others who have been involved in the program.
“I’ve had the pleasure of playing and being around some very great guys,” Henderson said. “… Those guys helped mold me into who I am right now, being like more mature, being smarter in the classroom, being smarter in the football classroom, being a better athlete on the field, being a better leader. And of course coaches and staff and my family, they’ve probably had the biggest hand in me being who I am right now. I’ve definitely grown.”
He has a degree in Recreation and Sports Management and is pursuing a second one in Communications that he is on pace to complete next semester. But he intends to put that on hold. Preparing for a possible shot with an NFL team next year is the more pressing matter.
“We’ll see what the Good Lord blesses me with,” Henderson said. “I have a lot of faith in myself, but at the end of the day I won’t get my plans confused with what God’s plans are. If that’s his plans and that’s what he wants me to do, then that’s what I’m going to do. If not, I have a degree and I’m close to a second degree.”
Aside from playing football, he’s interested in marketing and promotions for an NFL organization, and his genial personality is suited for it. This past summer he had a short internship with the Indianapolis Colts’ marketing and media department. “Hopefully that works out if ball doesn’t work out,” Henderson said.
Among those in attendance at his final game at Brooks Stadium on Saturday will be his mother and grandmother. That’s common for Edwards, but Henderson said his mother has been diagnosed with a kidney disease that has limited her mobility and this will be her first game of the season.
It will be another highlight at CCU for Henderson. “I’m really excited about it,” he said.
De’Angelo Henderson owns several career offensive records at Coastal Carolina.
Second on list
2,343 (Aundres Perkins)
432 (Aundres Perkins)
46 (Aundres Perkins)
Rushing yards per carry
6.10 (Patrick Hall)
Rushing yards per game
77.3 (Lorenzo Taliaferro)
3,041 (Devin Brown)
47 (Aundres Perkins)
297 (Josh Hoke)
▪ Has scored a touchdown in an NCAA Division I-record 34 consecutive games
▪ Set a Big South Conference record for most receptions (77) and receiving yards (732) by a running back in just three seasons (2013-15).