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TURNING IT AROUND <br> RUNNING BACK TRAVIS HENRY NEARLY QUIT FOOTBALL WHILE AT TENNESSEE. HIS FAMILY TALKED HIM INTO STAYING AND NOW IS WHERE HE ALWAYS WANTED TO BE: IN BUFFALO

Travis Henry had quit. He had packed his bags, left the University of Tennessee and jumped in his car for the 12-hour drive from Knoxville to his home in Frostproof, Fla. It was certainly enough time to get his story straight.

He would go home and explain everything. He would tell his mother he tried his best in that first year, but it wasn't enough. He would outline his plans to enroll somewhere else and take another shot at college football the following year.

No matter what, he thought, he was finished at Tennessee.

He thought his case was rock-solid, but how quickly it crumbled after he dumped his belongings on the floor in the family room. His brother quickly called their mother, Karnella, at work. She rushed home and called Richard Marsh, Henry's high school football coach and his father figure. She called the preacher. She called his grandmother. Heck, she practically sent for the neighbor's dog.

"She got everyone to gang up on me," he said. "I mean everyone."

See, him quitting on Tennessee meant quitting on them. Maybe he didn't convince Vols coach Phil Fulmer, but they witnessed his greatness. They watched him rush for a national scholastic record 4,087 yards, an impressive total given the competition in Florida and the number of games played in high school. It's even more amazing considering the 4,087 yards came in his senior season alone. He averaged 292 yards rushing per game, scored 42 touchdowns and was named a Parade All-American his final year.

His mother had spent 12 hours a day picking oranges to feed her four children until she found a better job -- working long, brutal hours in a citrus factory. She wasn't going to watch her second-oldest son waste his talent and throw away a full scholarship.

"I was crying. It was terrible," she said. "He worked so hard to get there. I really didn't want him to give up. I just told him he had to be patient. He would get his turn."

He was back in the car the next day, driving another 12 hours to Knoxville. He spent the entire trip searching his soul instead of making excuses. He promised to push himself on the practice field and in the classroom. He would stay out of trouble, a switch after he was caught on surveillance taking stereo equipment from another student's dorm room a few months earlier.

He had turned himself around, literally and figuratively, in a span of 24 hours. He couldn't bear his mother's tears. He couldn't quit on a career so promising a year earlier. He couldn't give up on his dream to play in the National Football League, specifically for the Buffalo Bills.

Yes, these Buffalo Bills.

Henry was a big Bills fan growing up in Frostproof, a town of 3,000 in central Florida between Tampa and Vero Beach. The quality he respected most about the Bills during the late 1980s and early '90s was their unbridled resiliency. He appreciated how they kept getting knocked down but kept coming back during the Super Bowl years. He begged for -- and received -- a Bills jacket for Christmas during his junior year of high school. He didn't just love the Bills. He lived the Bills. He looked at them and saw himself.

"Buffalo was my team," he said. "I mean I was a big fan. I was with them when they lost the four Super Bowls. I'm telling you, I was the only Buffalo Bills fan from my hometown -- the only one. It's kind of funny now."

We can all laugh now because, fittingly, he's in Buffalo. He belongs here, given his route to the NFL. It wasn't just his miserable freshman year, which included the stereo incident (he was not charged). He was stuck for two years behind Jamal Lewis until Lewis was injured in 1998. With Lewis sidelined, Henry, running back Shawn Bryson and receiver Peerless Price helped the Volunteers to the national championship. Henry rolled up 1,760 yards and scored 15 touchdowns despite starting only six games his sophomore and junior years.

All along, Bills coach Gregg Williams was watching, ready to make yet another Tennessee connection. Williams was with the Titans and often spoke with the Volunteer coaches. When Henry broke free for 1,314 yards and 11 touchdowns his senior year and lasted until 58th overall in the NFL draft, the Bills snagged the Vols' all-time rushing leader.

"There were nothing but glowing remarks about him," Williams said. "Nothing has ever been handed to him. He's had to earn everything. There was always somebody better waiting in the fold. Even at the University of Tennessee, there was always somebody supposed to be better than him, but they could never outproduce him. He's worked for everything he's gotten. His attitude since he came here was the same way."

Williams claimed there would be a competition at running back during training camp, but Henry immediately emerged as the No. 1 back. His explosiveness along the line of scrimmage and knack for avoiding the big hit were obvious from the first workout. The 5-foot-9, 221-pounder is squatty like Thurman Thomas and has great vision like Emmitt Smith, but it will take years before he's listed in the company of either.

He will get every chance in Buffalo. The Bills have said they are committed to running the ball this season after last season's debacle, and Williams appears ready to place the attack on the rookie's broad shoulders. How far will he carry them? It largely depends on the offensive line. Williams is committed to getting his own personnel into the organization. No doubt, Henry is Williams' guy.

"When we know he's on a roll and he's feeling it, it's an attitude that can go through the whole offense," Williams said. "The offensive line gets it cranked up. They appreciate the attitude and toughness he brings to running the ball when they're fighting to block for him. We're going to feature him, yes."

Henry was anxious to play the Miami Dolphins last week. He understood the rivalry growing up and was looking forward to being a main participant. He bought 50 tickets for friends and relatives to see him play. His mother would cheering from the stands. The terrorists attacks changed everything.

Today, he will see an old acquaintance, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who was finishing up his college career at Tennessee when Henry was a troubled freshman. Manning has played 49 games in his career. Henry has played one and wants more.

"I am so ready," Henry said. "I played one game, and I just got a little taste. I just can't wait to get back."

He has come full circle.
e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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