Heroes: Tide gets contributions from all sides in national championship win

Sean Landry

GLENDALE, Ariz. – There were no heroes in The University of Alabama’s 45-40 win over Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship game. There was no one player to crown in history as the Crimson Tide’s savior, no one player who ran wild over Clemson en route to Alabama’s 16th national championship.

There was only the same workhorse here had always been, the one who kept his head down and worked harder, the one resolved to carry his team and then did, the one who could always, always be counted on to close the game. Derrick Henry carried the ball 36 times for 158 yards and three touchdowns, bringing his season total to 28 touchdowns and 3,591 yards, breaking Shaun Alexander’s record for career rushing yards at Alabama

“If I do my job, then I carry the torch when it’s in my hands, then I cheer on the next guy when it comes to him,” Alexander said after the game. “I’m still very close with Johnny Musso and Bobby Humphrey who passed me the torch. I saw Sherman Williams earlier today and Derrick Lassic a couple of months ago. Those are the guys that passed me the torch, so I came here and passed it to the Brandon Mirees and he passes it to (Kenneth) Darby and he passes it to (Glen) Coffee and Coffee gives it to Mark (Ingram) and Trent (Richardson) and (Eddie) Lacy…The goal is not to be better than each other. The goal is to carry the torch and get that thing on fire. That’s what Derrick’s been doing, and we’re so proud of him, top-to-bottom.”

And there was only his backup, who had labored in obscurity, battling injuries more often than tacklers – a broken arm here, a potentially career-ending broken leg there. Kenyan Drake had been near silent all season, never breaking 100 yards in a game and scoring just twice, most recently in week two. Then he posted one of the most important plays in modern college football history, when he caught a Clemson kickoff, made a man miss at the 20-yard-line, another at the 45, and outran everybody else to the end zone for the biggest play of his career.

“When the season started, I didn’t know who would be more productive, Derrick Henry or Kenyan Drake,” coach Nick Saban said. “I thought they both would be. Kenyan fought, whether it was hamstrings or all kinds of injuries. Then he got a little frustrated and put a lot of pressure on himself and got him settled down and that and he started to be productive, and as soon as he started to be productive he broke his arm so he missed a couple of games. But he’s really done a great job for us all year in whatever his role has been. I always like to see guys that are seniors who have been great contributors in the program do something special that’s going to be a great memory to them, and that kickoff return was really something special.”

And there was only the sophomore receiver who never caught more than eight passes a game, who scored just four touchdowns and managed to make several catches to save his team’s season all the same. ArDarius Stewart caught just two passes Monday night, but one came on a high-arching ball down the sideline on third down when the Crimson Tide trailed by three in the third quarter. Stewart couldn’t see the ball until the last second, and was double covered, but made the basket catch to set up Alabama’s game-tying field goal.

And there was the tight end who Lane Kiffin forgot, the former five-star recruit with 33 receptions entering the game. O.J. Howard hadn’t caught a touchdown pass since Sept. 9, 2013. He had never had triple-digit receiving yards in a game. On Monday night, he caught five passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns.

“Personally, I’m just excited,” Howard said. “We got a National Championship win. Our team won the NCAA championship. I just feel great as an individual. I scored a touchdown tonight. I feel good about that, of course, but if we wouldn’t have won the game, that touchdown wouldn’t mean anything to me.”

And there was only the quarterback who threw those passes, a slow-talking, swoop-banged country boy from Mobile, Alabama, who dreamed of this day like so many slow-talking, swoop-banged country boys from Mobile, Alabama, do. It took five years for Jake Coker to make it to the school he grew up rooting for, picking up a national championship ring as a backup at Florida State. In his lone starting season at Alabama, Coker finished with a 67 percent completion rate, 3,110 yards, 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions. His best performance came in his last game, a 16-for-25, 335-yard, two-touchdown, drive-saving, championship-winning night.

“You know, I was real excited about (the FSU championship),” Coker said. “I love those guys on that team. I still got some of my best friends from that team. It was really exciting, but to be able to really, really be a part of this one, especially – I mean I love FSU – but playing for your home state, who you grew up pulling for, it’s beyond special to me.”

So there were no heroes in Alabama’s win over Clemson on Monday night. There was only a team: Nick Saban’s favorite team and college football’s best.

“This is what we stood up and said at the beginning of the season,” Howard said. “We wanted to come out and win a National Championship this season, and our team fought hard for that, and I’m just so proud of our team, and no team deserved this more than we do.”