NASHVILLE, Tenn. — National Football League rules stipulate that a running back cannot wear a single-digit uniform.
So, last week, Derrick Henry cast aside his No. 2 jersey — the number he wore while putting up historic numbers at Alabama last season — and added a digit so he could bring late friend and teammate Altee Tenpenny along for the ride.
When Henry plays in his first NFL game on Sunday for the Tennessee Titans, he’ll have Tenpenny’s high school No. 22 on his chest, shoulders and back.
“It was something I know he would’ve liked me to do,” Henry told SEC Country after practice on Monday afternoon. “So, I’m trying to honor him the best way I can.”
When his mind was made up about the switch, Henry called Tenpenny’s family to let them know. They thanked him for the gesture, and told him they appreciated the way he’s carried on Tenpenny’s legacy since a single-car accident ended his life last autumn.
The two played together at Alabama in 2013 and 2014.
Last year, the Crimson Tide wore “28” stickers in Tenpenny’s honor, and Henry dedicated his Heisman Trophy to his former teammate.
Five months later, Tennessee selected Henry in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He’s now part of a two-headed backfield that also features former NFL rushing champion DeMarco Murray.
So far, so good in Nashville. Henry is expected to get his share of carries against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday after rushing for a team-high 216 yards and 3 touchdowns on 34 preseason carries.
“He doesn’t make the same mistakes over and over again like most young guys,” Murray said. “That catches your eye.”
Murray — whose locker is two down from Henry’s — doesn’t believe in hazing, so he hasn’t given the rookie any trouble off the field. After a few years as the primary back in Dallas and Philadelphia, he claims to tolerate Tennessee’s current “thunder and thunder” setup.
“It’s a little rare to have two high-profile backs,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with it. We come from somewhat different offenses, but at the end of the day, we both run hard and both make plays.”
Titans coach Mike Mularkey said Henry’s “feet” have made the difference this summer.
“I like how he’s making people miss,” Mularkey said. “He does some jump cuts. The scheme is to get to the unblocked defender, and you’ve seen him make those guys miss. That’s his guy. That’s the back’s guy. And he’s made him miss.”
With the season beginning this week, Henry’s to-do list is long, but not long enough to keep him from watching Alabama.
He made sure to catch the Crimson Tide’s 52-6 beatdown of the Southern California Trojans on Labor Day weekend. And not only that, he had the statistics memorized, spouting off Damian Harris’ box score without prompting.
“Nine carries, 138,” Henry said. “That’s a good day for a running back. Feel like Bo (Scarbrough) ran hard. The offensive line did a great job. Just gotta keep the steamroller going next week against Western Kentucky.”
After three years in Tuscaloosa, Henry said it’s odd to be watching from afar.
“Anybody from Alabama who’s in the NFL now, they sure do miss putting on that crimson,” Henry said. “It’s something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. Roll Tide.”
He shied away from comparing last year’s national championship team to the 2016 version, except for one area: the win column.
“I hope they have as good a year as we did last year,” Henry said. “Maybe even a better year. I hope they go undefeated.”