Kayleb Wagner broke Derrick Henry’s rushing record. Can he get an FBS scholarship?

A LITTLE BOY cannot tie his shoes. He tries and he tries and he tries. He tries at school when everyone is watching, at home when no one is. All the other 7-year-olds can do it, the boy cries to his mother. It’s easy for them.

The mother is determined. Inside a tiny, single-wide trailer one night, mother and son sit together. The boy was born with only one full arm. He tries to jam a lace against the nub below his left elbow while he uses the fingers on his right hand to work the laces into bows. Bunny ears? Loop and swoop? Come around the mountain? Nothing works. The laces keep slipping.

Hours go by. The boy is frustrated. It is late. The mother works in landscaping, cutting down trees. Chainsaws and machinery every morning. She needs to sleep. The mother begs the boy to turn in. Try again tomorrow, she says.

The boy says no. He presses the laces against his nub once more. The mother sighs. She leaves him in the tan recliner in their cramped living room. As she lies down in her bed, she can still hear the boy, fumbling with the shoes and breathing heavy. Nothing is worse than when the nightmare starts with your eyes still open, and the mother lies there, listening to her son failing, over and over.

Is this his life? she thinks. Is this how it will always feel? She falls asleep wondering why it has to be like this. Wondering what her boy might be able to do.

ON A BLAST-FURNACE morning in the Florida panhandle last month, Kayleb Wagner takes the handoff and cuts, a little too casually, through a hole in the line. A whistle blows and one of the Baker High School coaches screams, “Kayleb! Let’s turn these dang cameras off if you’re gonna go that slow! Come on!”

Wagner smiles sheepishly. “Sorry,” he mutters, and jogs back to the center of the practice field. On the next rep, he drives with more purpose. He hits the hole. He accelerates. He zips into open space, flashing the moves that brought the TV cameras and the attention and, well, everything that has happened since his world changed last September.

On that night, Sept. 17, 2021, playing against South Walton, Wagner set the Florida state record for most rushing yards in a single game. The previous mark had been held by Derrick Henry, who rushed for 502 yards on 45 carries in 2012. (Henry, of course, went on to play at Alabama, win a Heisman and get drafted by the Tennessee Titans, with whom he has become one of the NFL’s most dominant backs.)

Wagner crushed the old record. He ran for 535 yards on just 25 carries, 20 fewer than Henry needed. Play back the Baker game film and it looks like a DIY video for “How do I torch a defense?” — Wagner breaks outside, Wagner bulls through the line, Wagner shakes off tacklers, Wagner whizzes past linebackers, Wagner celebrates.

One day last month, I ask Wagner if he remembers how long each of his six touchdown runs actually were that night. He pauses, looks at the ceiling and tries to process some numbers in his head. Then he shakes his head and says, dutifully, “I just remember being tired afterward and trying to give the ref the ball so I could go get some water.”

He giggles, and his earnestness adds to the feeling of unlikeliness that hangs over him as he enters his senior season.

This isn’t what we expect, is it? Record holders in prestigious high school football states like Florida or Texas are supposed to look like, well, Derrick Henry — big, thumping backs who come from football powerhouse cities like Miami or Jacksonville. Not sleepy towns like Baker, in the heart of Okaloosa County, where there is just a single stoplight and a marshy, slightly overgrown practice field.

Record holders are supposed to be in demand. Supposed to be hyped. Supposed to have college recruiters all over them, with coaches and evaluators talking to them about tantalizing possibilities. Not wondering — as Wagner has been for months — if anyone from the big time will ever truly come his way. Despite breaking the record, he’s currently committed to Southern Illinois — an FCS-level school that is the only program to show serious interest.

In truth, nothing has happened quite the way anyone might have imagined. Even on the night of the game, no one actually knew the record had been broken right away. Matt Brunson, Baker’s coach at the time and now its athletic director, found out after midnight when a local journalist texted. Brunson was at Waffle House, tucking into his Friday night postgame ritual — five-egg steak and cheese omelet with Bert’s Chili on top, grits and toast on the side — and once he got word, he tried to reach out to Wagner, only to learn that Wagner was tucking into his Friday ritual — a burger from Whataburger — and had turned off his phone. He only learned about his newfound fame the next morning.

The circus that followed was like nothing Baker had ever seen. Interviews. Phone calls. Camera crews. Lights. Remember, this is a town where a pancake breakfast constitutes a big happening.

Wagner’s mom, Sam Huertas, vacillated between incredible pride and incredible concern that her son’s ego was going to explode. She felt a need to keep him grounded. “I tell him he eats s— every day,” she says now, laughing. “It became a joke between him and I. He’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah, I did this and this and this,’ and I’ll be like, ‘Yep, and you’re still eating s—.'”

It would have been hard for anyone to stay level; people were congratulating Wagner everywhere he went. At school. In the grocery store. While working at his job behind the counter at the gas station. A few days after the game, Wagner’s younger half sister, Kaylee, had to go to the school office to get a tardy pass. The woman in the office asked for her name and before Kaylee could answer, another woman behind the counter interrupted, “Oh, that’s Kayleb Wagner’s sister! You’re all set, hon.”

It was all overwhelming enough, but then Wagner looked at his phone during biology class one day. His eyes lit up, and he motioned to his close friend, Brayshawn Baker, who was sitting next to him. Wagner didn’t say anything. He simply turned his phone around so Baker could see the screen.

“No. Frickin’. Way,” Baker whispered, and both boys’ eyes were wide as they stared at the message from Derrick Henry. “Is that real?” Baker asked.

It was real. A few weeks later, Wagner was on the sideline of a Titans game in Jacksonville, invited by Henry. He got a box in the mail with a jersey and some cleats from Henry. And he talked with Henry, both at the game and over text, geeking out that he’d connected with a superstar but also making sure to ask for advice.

They’re still in touch, and when I ask if there’s a particular lesson he has learned from Henry, Wagner doesn’t hesitate: Whatever happens, always stay focused on the work, he says. Always lock in on getting better.

That is important, Wagner says, because however unusual his own circumstances might be, he now finds himself facing the same question Henry did, the same question so many ambitious teenagers confront as they near the end of high school:

What comes next?

NO ONE DREAMED it could be like this. No way. When Huertas was four months pregnant she felt a pop in her belly, she says, while straightening her room one day. The doctors told her everything was fine, but Huertas couldn’t shake the feeling something wasn’t right.

At seven months, her doctor told her their hospital had a new technology — a three-dimensional ultrasound — and Huertas was going to be one of the first local women to use it. “It’ll make you feel better to see everything is good,” the doctor said. But when the technicians looked at the images, it was clear: Something actually was wrong. Huertas’ baby had amniotic band syndrome, a condition where tissue wraps tightly around part of a fetus. In some cases, it can keep limbs from growing. The doctors told Sam her baby was missing a forearm and a hand.

Sitting there with her mother, Huertas was shattered. “How is he going to play football?” she cried. “How is he going to ride a bike?”

Before giving birth, Huertas took classes and watched videos about children who are born with a physical disability. After seeing a video where, as she put it, “a lady was riding a skateboard and eating with her toes,” Huertas concluded that the only philosophy she could teach her child was acceptance and adaptation. “I was like, ‘OK, clearly they just have to figure things out,'” she says, “because if you baby them, that really cripples them.”

It was easier said than done, especially in a small town where Wagner constantly lived the pain of being different. There was the time at school when a kid ran up to Wagner and screamed, in the middle of a crowded hallway, “Where is your arm? Where is your arm?” over and over. Or the Thanksgiving community play when a little boy began shouting, just seconds after Wagner and his family walked through the door, “That’s a monster! There’s a monster!” Huertas will never forget the way the boy pointed at her son.

When he was younger, Wagner wore long-sleeve shirts, even on the steamiest Florida summer days, and he would put his hands behind his back all the time, trying to conceal his nub. “I’d always try to hide it,” Wagner says now, “because I was embarrassed of it for the longest time.” He holds his nub up to show me.

“What changed?” I ask, and he doesn’t hesitate.

“My mom, really. She was like, ‘It’s who you are.'”

Wagner remembers how Huertas would push him — often literally tapping his elbow forward — not to hide his arm. But Wagner always felt like those around him, including adults, didn’t quite know what to do with him.

Football, the game he loved most, was the perfect example. He started playing at 5, drawn to the game by watching an older cousin. Wagner was lean and quick and wanted to run with the ball, but his youth coaches told him it wasn’t safe for him to get carries. “I was a center in Pee Wee,” he says, rolling his eyes. “I was like 60 pounds, maybe, soaking wet — do I look like a center to you?” He shrugs. “Nobody really knew what I had until they gave me a shot.”

That opportunity finally came in middle school — “thank you, Coach Henry from eighth grade” — and it meant everything. Competition had always been a primary motivator for Wagner (Huertas says Wagner only learned how to balance his bike without training wheels once his little sister was on the verge of doing it), and just being a central part of the school program brought a new determination out of him.

He wanted carries. He wanted acceptance. He wanted to be the same as everyone else. With this team, Wagner finally felt like he could fit in. He did the drills. He did the study. He did the work. By high school, at 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, Wagner had morphed into a top lifter in the team’s weight room, balancing the bench press bar on his nub or using the crook at his left elbow to help power clean loads that left his teammates stunned. Nowadays, he uses a custom-made prosthetic to help keep the weight even. “In the middle of my reps,” says Baker, his friend and fellow tailback, “I’d just go over and watch what he was doing.”

On the field, Wagner quickly developed into a reliable runner, and as a backup in his sophomore year, he led Baker High in rushing yardage in the Gators’ state championship game victory. Then last year, as the featured back, his historic night against South Walton was just one part of a season in which he averaged 13 yards per carry and 244 yards per game.

Even more important, Wagner says, is this: He has fumbled only four times in three seasons. And while the assumption from opponents often seems to be that he is more prone to losing the ball than other backs with two full arms, Wagner believes that theory actually works in his favor. Defensive players don’t wrap up his legs when they’re trying to tackle him — trying to strip the ball instead — so it’s easier for him to just bull past them.

If that doesn’t work, he’ll stiff-arm opponents. He’ll switch the ball to go under his nub when he needs to. He’ll cover up if it’s necessary. And on plays where he doesn’t get the ball, he’ll square up his blocking assignments and push with his nub as hard anyone else might push with their hand.

“Is there anything that you feel is harder for you to do than a running back with two hands?” I ask Wagner one morning.

“Yeah,” he says. “Get noticed.”

FOR A FEW weeks this spring, Wagner believed he was headed to West Point after he graduated. Coaches from Army had reached out to him, he says, and told him they’d watched some of his highlight reels and game film. They were impressed. They wanted to recruit him. Wagner was thrilled; he even posted on social media that he was committing to Army.

Only then, a few weeks later, Wagner says, the coaches backed off. Wagner was confused. After a series of phone calls, Huertas says, the coaches from Army told her that they hadn’t realized Wagner was missing a hand and wouldn’t be able to meet the military’s requirements to serve. Incredibly, she says, they’d watched his film dozens of times and couldn’t tell the difference between Wagner and a tailback with two hands. They apologized for their mistake, she says. (A spokesperson for Army said the team “cannot comment on potential recruits.”)

Disappointed as he was, Wagner sees that situation, at least in part, as a good thing — they couldn’t tell the difference. But it’s also indicative of how his recruitment at the upper levels has gone: The greatest interest he received came from a school that didn’t fully know him. And many of those that do know about his arm have wavered.

“As much attention and everything that [breaking the record] brought,” Wagner says, “it didn’t bring a lot of coaches or people to recruit me.” He hesitates. “It hurt.”

There have been some sporadic ripples. Baker’s head coach this season, Barry Gardner, says Mercer likes Wagner. So does Southern Miss. And South Florida could be watching him, too, Gardner says. But with almost everyone, there are always questions, always reservations: Can he hold on to the ball? Can he catch a pitch? How about a toss going left? How about a pass out of the backfield?

No university officials I spoke with would agree to be quoted about Wagner since he’s still in high school. But as remarkable as Wagner’s accomplishments are, there is a cold, bottom-line component to recruiting that is impossible to evade.

One talent evaluator told me that even if there was a history of one-handed ball carriers being successful at the college level — there isn’t — it could be a risk for a coach to bring one in. “Even if it wasn’t that kid’s fault, if a play went bad or a pitch got fumbled in a big spot and they lost the game, it raises questions that a coach — whose job could be on the line — might not want to have to answer,” the evaluator said.

Another player personnel official from a Power 5 school said that if Wagner had two hands there would “absolutely” be interest from higher quality FBS-level schools. “Without that limitation, I don’t think there’s any doubt,” the official said. “But with that limitation, the concern is always, ‘Can there be versatility here?’ Like, is a linebacker going to be worried that he’s running downfield to catch a pass? If not, that’s a big problem.”

Some schools have asked if Wagner would be interested in switching to defense, where his football IQ and instincts could be utilized without worries over the ball. Shaquem Griffin, another Florida native who was born with amniotic band syndrome, followed that path to the UCF Knights and then the NFL. When I mention this to Wagner — and include that the Power 5 personnel official wondered about defense as well — it’s like I suggested switching to soccer. Wagner wrinkles his nose and sighs. Then he says, matter-of-factly, “I want to show the world I can run the football.”

He has done this much, surprised this many people by being true to himself, he says, and believing in what he can accomplish. Why should he stop now? The way it feels right now, switching to defense and giving up the thing he loves doing the most would be akin to putting the long-sleeve shirts back on. Like hiding his arm behind his back the way he did when he was little.

“I don’t want to be known as the kid who broke the record,” he tells me. “I want to feel good about myself and who I am. I want people to think of me as someone who knows himself.”

If bigger schools don’t see him as an option, so be it; at the moment, he has committed to Southern Illinois because it wants to give him the ball. And getting the ball, Wagner has learned, is what makes him happy.

Huertas is ecstatic about Southern Illinois. She just wants to see Wagner smile. See that look on his face, when his legs are pumping wide and his head is back and his shoulders are up. She has watched Wagner figure out ways to do everything — how to operate a Weedwacker with one hand, how to pop a wheelie with one hand, how to drive a car or cast a fishing rod with one hand. It is what makes him amazing, she says. What makes him special.

At one point, I ask Huertas if she ever lets herself imagine what Wagner’s life would be like if he had been born with two hands. If she ever thinks about why this happened to him.

She smiles.

“I don’t,” she says. “I really feel like if Kayleb had two hands, he wouldn’t be nearly as successful as he is.” She shrugs. Then she gestures at him and waves her hand. “This is why it happened,” she says, as if pointing to all that Wagner has done. “This is why.”

“He’s my superhero, you know?” she says. “We all have different ones. Mine’s Kayleb.”

THE MOTHER WAKES up in her bed in the single-wide trailer. It is 7 a.m. She listens, through the wall, and hears nothing. She lays there, just for a moment, thinking about the night before. She wonders when her boy went to sleep. She wonders if he slept at all.

She gets up. She goes out of the bedroom and down the narrow hallway. The boy is in the tan chair, the same place the mother left him. He sits up when she comes closer.

“Mom,” he says to her. “Watch.”

He puts on a sneaker. He loops one lace around his nub and pins it, then uses his fingers to flop the other lace through. He pulls, one end at a time, slowly and carefully, until there are, very clearly, two bows. Two bunny ears. Two uneven, beautiful ovals hanging off the top of the shoe.

“Look, Mom,” he says. “Look at what I can do.”

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