As the state’s top high school running backs raced each other toward history, Kelvin Taylor always seemed behind Derrick Henry.
When national recruiting rankings flooded the Internet, Taylor often lagged behind Henry.
When their teams met in a nationally televised game in September, Taylor rushed for more than 200 yards — but Henry rushed for 360 and routed Belle Glade Glades Day.
And when the season ended, Henry, not Taylor, brought home the national rushing record and player of the year honors.
As accolades flowed to Yulee, Henry’s success overshadowed one of the best high school careers the country has ever seen — one that propelled Taylor to last week’s Under Armour All-America Game at Tropicana Field and to Gainesville, where he enrolled at the University of Florida this week as an early recruit.
“When the college season starts,” Taylor said, “they’ll see the real deal.”
The 5-foot-11, 216-pound Taylor has never hidden from others’ legacies. He picked up football from his uncle, Jerry Campbell, who quarterbacked Glades Central to the 1998 state title.
And he’s not afraid of the inevitable comparisons to his famous father, former Jaguars and UF running back Fred Taylor.
Kelvin not only plays the same position as his dad, but he plays it similarly, with power and passion. He borrowed the jump cut Fred used to slash defenses for more than 11,000 yards over 13 NFL seasons, and he wore the same number (21) Fred sported for the Gators and Patriots while taking a familiar path from Palm Beach County to UF.
“I get little things out of his game and what he’s done,” Taylor said, “but I really just play my own game and do my own thing.”
The blend of his famous genes and own ingenuity and work ethic took Taylor to historic heights. In five years — including the eighth-grade season he spent on the varsity team — he rushed for 12,121 yards and scored a state-record 191 touchdowns.
He led his team to state titles in 2009 and 2010, won back-to-back Class 2A player of the year awards and earned national headlines.
“His career could not have went much better than it did,” ESPN recruiting analyst Corey Long said.
But most of the attention this fall came to Henry, a bruising 6-foot-3, 243-pound Alabama commit who became Florida’s Mr. Football and MaxPreps’ national player of the year.
Both players entered the season within striking distance of the national rushing record of 11,232 yards, set by Sugar Land, Texas,’ Ken Hall in 1953.
As the season wore on, Henry pulled away. One week, he rushed for 502 yards to break a state single-game record that Tampa Bay Tech’s Shawn Smith held for 27 years. The next, he plowed through Taylor’s Gators on ESPNU for 360 yards and six touchdowns to lead a 42-6 blowout.
Henry’s state-record 4,260 rushing yards as a senior shattered Hall’s career mark and put him 3 yards ahead of Taylor’s five-year total. Because the National Federation of State High School Associations only recognizes statistics from grades 9-12, Taylor had to settle for sixth in the record books (10,537 yards) after passing players like Toby Gerhart during a 2,400-yard, 41-touchdown senior season.
“Derrick Henry kind of took the limelight this year,” Long said.
Taylor didn’t even notice.
During a break in Under Armour practice last week at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, Taylor said he doesn’t remember hearing about Henry’s record until weeks later. He occasionally trades texts with his semi-rival and never worried about his place in history.
“I promise you, I wasn’t thinking about that at all. …” Taylor said. “That’s one thing my dad always told me: ‘Never make the situation bigger than what it is. If you do, you’ll just get caught up in the hype. Then you’ll have your head screwed all up.’ ”
So Taylor kept his eyes ahead, toward the bright future awaiting him in Gainesville. The consensus top-50 recruit is ready to assume the role of graduating 1,000-yard back Mike Gillislee.
In his final high school game, Taylor captained Team Highlight at the Trop and broke the game’s second-longest run — a 14-yarder — to set up the night’s only touchdown in a 16-3 victory.
“He’s ball hungry,” said Armwood receiver Alvin Bailey, a fellow UF commit and Taylor’s Under Armour teammate. “He wants the ball, and he wants to grind it out.”
Even if Taylor wasn’t the top back in the state this year, he grinded out one of the best careers in high school history — and sparked a debate that will linger long past their SEC futures.
“In a perfect world, both of them will have great careers,” Long said, “and they’ll continue, and 15 years from now we’ll still be asking this question.”
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.