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Friday, April 19, 2024

Henry tops list of top athletes to suit up at Citizens Field

Multiple collegiate and NFL stars have passed through since the stadium opened in 1948

Citizens Field is seen during a game between the Eastside Rams and Newberry Panthers on Oct. 14, 2021.
Citizens Field is seen during a game between the Eastside Rams and Newberry Panthers on Oct. 14, 2021.

The state of Florida routinely produces some of the best high school recruits in the country.

Many of them hail from the northern section of the state and eventually crossed paths with the home of Gainesville high school football for nearly 75 years – Citizens Field.

Here are the top five high schoolers to suit up at the venerable site.

1.    Derrick Henry

Defenders across the NFL have woken up with nightmares of “King Henry” running into and over them since the Tennessee Titans drafted him in 2016.

Henry set multiple records and won a Heisman Trophy and National Championship in his junior season at Alabama in 2015, so his legend preceded him before he touched an NFL helmet.

But before he shined in Tuscaloosa, Henry starred for the Yulee Hornets, located in a suburb north of Jacksonville. As a freshman, Henry, who played basketball and track in addition to football, ran for almost 2,500 yards and notched  26 touchdowns.

He exploded for a combined 5,398 yards and 72 TDs in his sophomore and junior years, which earned him First-Team All-First Coast.

Henry kicked off his senior season (2012) at Citizens Field against Gainesville High School, and he entered his final high school season at 6-foot-3-inches and 240 pounds, seeming like a giant compared to the smaller frame of other running backs.

Larry Savage, who covered high school sports for the Gainesville Sun from 2010-2020, said Henry was the best player he saw grace the field.

“He was a beast on the field,” Savage said. “I remember him running for an eighty-yard touchdown, and he was on another level than these high school kids. He looked like he was in college.”

He plowed forward for 336 yards and three touchdowns against the Hurricanes, but Yulee fell 51-28. GHS finished the 2012 regular season undefeated before falling to Miami Central in the playoffs, led by future NFL star Dalvin Cook.

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At Yulee, Henry continued to astonish spectators around the state the rest of the season. On Sept. 21, 2012, he set a new Florida state record with 510 yards rushing on 45 carries against Jackson. He ended the season with an absurd 4,261 rush yards and 55 touchdowns and concluded his career with 12,124 yards, breaking Ken Hall’s record for most all-time high school rushing yards in the country.

2.    C.J. Spiller

Union County’s C.J. Spiller ranks just behind Henry. The fellow running back attended school in Lake Butler, Florida, from 2002 to 2006, before a storied career at Clemson and in the NFL, mainly for the Buffalo Bills.

Spiller gained 1,600 rush yards his junior season and 1,800 his senior season. During his junior season, the Fightin’ Tigers trekked to Citizens to battle Eastside. Union County prevailed, 22-13.

John Patton covered preps for The Gainesville Sun before Savage, from 1999-2010, said Spiller stood out as the best player he witnessed in-person.

The future NFL back claimed The Gainesville Sun’s best player of the decade and landed second in Mr. Football, the annual award given to the best high schooler in Florida, in 2005, behind Tim Tebow.

In total, Spiller ended his high school career with 5,511 rushing yards and Rivals ranked him as the No. 1 player in Florida and No. 9 nationally in his class.

3.    Clinton Portis

Any list chronicling the top five players at Citizens Field must contain Clinton Portis, Savage said. A two-time Pro Bowler in Denver and Washington, Portis played at GHS from 1995-98 before he headed south to the University of Miami and won a National Championship for the ‘Canes in 2001.

Portis ran into some trouble off the field (a fight led South Carolina to revoke his scholarship), but on the field, the Mississippi native dazzled locals. He flew for over 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns his senior campaign and was named all-state in football and track. USA Today listed him as an All-American honorable mention.

4.    Daunte Culpepper

Culpepper ranks as the oldest entry on this list, as he graduated from Vanguard High School in Ocala in 1995.

The three-time Pro Bowler was raised by an adoptive mother and had 14 siblings. He blazed the high school world on the Knights. He set a school record with 6,107 career passing yards and 57 TDs.

In his senior season, he earned Florida Mr. Football with 3,672 total yards. Vanguard closed with an undefeated regular season before a loss in the state title game.

Culpepper’s remembered fondly by some in Gainesville for an epic battle with Buchholz and future Gators QB Doug Johnson at Citizens Field in 1994.

Patton covered the game for The Sun while at UF. He recalled how large Culpepper appeared for a signal caller.

“I was on the Vanguard sideline before the game, and I couldn’t believe how big he was,” he said. “I asked an assistant coach for a roster because I thought he was a defensive end.”

Savage said the two QBs combined to pass for over 800 yards and set a new state record in the process.

5.    Anthony Richardson

The Gators’ redshirt freshman QB doesn’t touch down on the final spot due to his collegiate accolades. Instead, he claims it thanks to what he accomplished at Eastside High School and what he now means to the local community.

These days, Florida fans know “AR-15” for his electrifying play (and dancing injuries), but Gainesville residents saw him beam for the Rams from 2016-2020.

Savage said he began as a wide receiver at Eastside due to his size. However, Richardson yearned to play quarterback, so coaches moved him to the position.

The 4-star recruit’s best season materialized in 2018, when he tossed 1,567 yards and 17 touchdowns and sprinted for 924 yards and 16 more TDs.

Richardson amassed 6,266 total yards (4,633 passing and 1,633 rushing) and 78 touchdowns (37 passing and 41 rushing) in his four seasons as Eastside’s starter.

 He received offers from Boston College, Georgia and Michigan, among others, before he chose Florida, according to 247 Sports.

Despite Richardson’s heroics, EHS never finished with a record better than 7-4. In his junior year, the Rams finished 7-4 and fell in the first round of the playoffs.

Savage said Eastside failed to grab transfers from other schools, like Buchholz and GHS, which put Richardson at a disadvantage.

“I know a lot of people now knock him for his passing. Well, I saw him play in high school, and man, the kid can pass. He’s got a tremendous arm,” Savage said. “He really worked on his accuracy. Every summer, he would go to a camp and the coach would always say he’s a top quarterback.”

Richardson always admired Florida and wanted to stay close to his parents, so he chose to commit to UF, Savage said. He added that if UF wants to maintain success with Richardson, they need to let him take the keys to the offense and throw the ball downfield as opposed to short passes.

Contact Noah Ram at Follow him on Twitter @Noah_ram1.

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Noah Ram

Noah is a third year journalism-sports and media student from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He has been with The Alligator since Spring 2019 and has covered men’s and women’s tennis, gymnastics and volleyball. When he isn’t on his beat, Noah is usually sadden over his beloved South Florida sports teams, such as the Heat and Dolphins.

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