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Mark Woods | The Florida Times-Union | December 16, 2015

Derrick Henry forms bond with high school classmate with Down syndrome

  Derrick Henry became the second Alabama player to win the Heisman Trophy since 2009.

Four years ago I did a story on Jake Martin, a football player at Yulee High School.

Jake had teammates, including one in particular, who seemed born to play football.

Jake was born with Down syndrome. He was a 5-foot-4, 143-pound senior, an unlikely captain for the football team. And yet there he was, wearing No. 30, standing at midfield for the coin toss of a nationally televised game.

When his brother was on the team, Jake had spent many games on the sideline, helping out, cheering, doing push-ups with the mascot after touchdowns. He kept telling the coach, Bobby Ramsay, that he wanted to play, too.

Eventually, the coach gave Jake a uniform and shoulder pads and cleats.

To say he was accepted in the locker room would be an understatement. He was a beloved part of that team. His pregame pep talks became legendary. And when his teammates teased him, it wasn't because he was different. More often than not, it was because he was spending too much time talking to the water girls.

There was one player in particular that Jake seemed to gravitate toward -- a junior so absurdly big and strong that he looked out of place on a high school football team.

I didn't write about this teammate at the time, partly because he already was the subject of so many other stories. But four years later, it's worth recalling how this player embraced Jake as a teammate and friend -- they still text each other -- because it tells you as much about Derrick Henry as any of the highlights they replayed Saturday as he was awarded the Heisman Trophy.

"He took Jake under his wing," Jack Martin, Jake's dad, said Monday. "They'd sit there in the locker room together. They'd sit on the bus together. ... He and Jake were really good pals."

Martin teaches English at Yulee High. When Jake was there, the school started a program called "Hornet Buddies," pairing special needs students with classmates. Derrick not only was Jake's buddy, he worked with many of the kids and helped out with Special Olympics. That, Martin said, is part of what he and others fondly remember -- not just what happened on the football field.

"Derrick's always been a class act," he said. "He works hard. He treats everybody with kindness. He's never had this elevated self-worth."

RELATED: Listen to Derrick Henry's Heisman speech

Ramsay and the coaches certainly deserve much of the credit for how Jake was embraced. But the players, particularly star players, still set a tone in the locker room.

When you have a player who is so dominant -- on his way to breaking the national rushing record the following season -- he clearly is going to set quite a tone.

But sometimes, the Yulee coach recalls, it was the other way around. Jake set a tone.

"Derrick was always smiling and happy when Jake came around," Ramsay said.

Picture this: As Jake's senior season went on, the running back who began his high school career by scoring five touchdowns in a half sometimes would work with a running back who had never had a single carry in a game.

"You kind of had to put the ball in Jake's stomach and pull him along, kind of like giving a car a push before you start it," Ramsay said.

Four years later, everyone knows what happened to Derrick Henry. He went to the University of Alabama, broke Herschel Walker's single-season rushing record and won the Heisman.

Here's what else has happened. The Hornet Buddies program has continued to grow. This year 150 students signed up to be involved.

Jake is 21 now. He's doing internships at Publix and the zoo. During a Heisman watch party at the Martin house, Jake told his family that he'd also like to play football again. With Derrick.

"I was like, 'That's not happening,'" his dad said with a laugh. "I said, 'You can't play anymore. You're too small for college.'"

He'll always have some pretty good memories of his high school career -- memories that all of a sudden make an even better story.

MORE: Derrick Henry leads AP's All-American team

When the Hornets played a game on ESPNU, Jake was one of the co-captains. A couple of weeks later, for the final play in a victory, the coach put him in the game for the "victory formation," the kneel-down play to run out the clock. At homecoming, he was crowned king. And then, perhaps to top it all off, in the last game of the season, Jake lined up at running back -- in a backfield with a future Heisman Trophy winner -- and was handed the ball twice.

"He got hammered," his dad said. "Derrick was right there, picking him up, slapping on the back."

Two carries, negative yards.

Not that you would have known it by the reaction of the running backs, the rest of the team and the crowd.

When the Heisman was awarded last weekend, they didn't show replays of these moments. They should have. Because looking back, it's clear these weren't just the highlights of Jake Martin's football career. They remain among the highlights of Derrick Henry's.

This article was written by Mark Woods from The Florida Times-Union and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


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