The car ride back from Conway to Summerville in the fall of 2011 might have been the longest of De'Angelo Henderson's life.
Henderson, a standout running back at Summerville High School, had overcome a tough childhood and a perceived lack of size (he stands 5-foot-9) to earn a football scholarship at Coastal Carolina. He reported to campus that fall eager to prove wrong all those bigger schools that had not recruited him despite a senior season that included 2,407 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns.
But shortly after Henderson arrived at Coastal Carolina, there was bad news. The NCAA Clearinghouse had red-flagged his transcript, ruling that one of his math classes did not meet core-course requirements. Henderson would not be able to play football and had to return home.
He was crushed. But Maurice Drayton, the Coastal Carolina assistant coach who had recruited Henderson, was there for him.
"My family could not come pick me up," Henderson said. "So Coach Drayton drove me all the way home. He talked to my family that night, explained everything to them. He talked to me at least twice a week that whole fall, telling me to stay positive. He did everything he could to make sure I got back in college."
Henderson, now a sophomore at Coastal Carolina, and Drayton, now the defensive coordinator at The Citadel, will be together again Saturday when the sixth-ranked Chanticleers play the Bulldogs at Johnson Hagood Stadium. It will be a family reunion of sorts.
"I love him like a little brother," Drayton says of Henderson. "He's part of my family, and I'm part of his."
For his part, Henderson says, "Coach Drayton is a phenomenal, phenomenal guy. The stuff he has done for me personally ... words can't explain how much I love him. I'm very thankful and blessed that God put a man like that in my life."
Henderson grew up as the youngest of three children of a single mom, and coaches such as Summerville assistants Joe Call and Jody Kafina played a big role in his life. As Henderson was a finalist for the Mr. Football Award in South Carolina as a senior, Coastal Carolina's Drayton was one of the first recruiters to come calling.
"I didn't think we had a shot at him, to be honest," said Drayton, who coached at Coastal Carolina in 2010-11. "I thought he was a major Division I talent, but the coaches at Summerville gave us an opportunity to recruit him and get to know him, and we found he was a class act and a great young man."
When Drayton left Coastal in 2011 to join Ellis Johnson at Southern Miss, Henderson pondered transferring to join him there. Henderson's grandmother, Leah Edwards, had other ideas.
"Granny said it was in his best interest for him to stay at Coastal," Drayton said. "And she was right. That's the best place for him."
Last season, Henderson averaged a school-record 7.3 yards per carry while rushing for 599 yards as the primary backup to Lorenzo Taliaferro, now with the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL.
Henderson will be the Chanticleers' feature back this season, making him the chief target of Drayton's defense on Saturday. Drayton recruited or coached 36 players on CCU's roster, including most of the 11 players from the Lowcountry. He's still close with offensive lineman Chad Hamilton from James Island and tight end Cody Craig from Timberland.
"Of course, emotions are involved," said Drayton, a 1998 Citadel grad from Moncks Corner. "I consider a lot of those guys at Coastal to be family, especially the ones from the Lowcountry. I want the best for them, whether they come to my school or not. I can't have anything but happiness and pride for them."