Jeff Hurndon Photography / Union Grove running back Derrick Craine

Jeff Hurndon Photography / Union Grove running back Derrick Craine

McDONOUGH — Derrick Craine had a 104-degree temperature two days before Union Grove’s football game against Drew High. The day of the game he was in Union Grove’s office trying to sleep off his fever that was just below 102.

But Craine never thought about missing the game. Instead, he thought about all the Thursday night dinners at local buffets with Wolverines teammates.

They had feasted on servings of laughter that somehow fed Union Grove’s competitive appetite. Night by night, game by game, the more the Wolverines came together off the field, the more a team that entered the season with big question marks started to find answers on it.

And the harder it became to accept failure.

“When you come together with a team like that,” Craine said, “[what] became my biggest fear was, I don’t want to let my team down.”

No, Craine instead lifted Union Grove up, often carrying the offense on his back, to its best season in 10 years with a remarkable breakout year. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound senior rushed for a county-best 2,105 yards and 26 touchdowns on 273 carries and is the 2012 Henry Daily Herald Offensive Player of the Year.

Let the team down? Hardly. That night against Drew, he rushed for a season- and career-high 310 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries and played nearly every snap on defense in arguably the most compelling comeback victory of the season.

“Derrick is a prime example of wanting the team to succeed,” Union Grove coach Paul Burgdorf said. “He understood that in order for us to be competitive we needed him to play that night. That was him pushing himself. ... I think that’s the quality of an unselfish person.”

“I feel like I did the best I could,” Craine said. “Scoring 26 touchdowns and 2,100 yards, that’s huge. But I couldn’t have done it without the guys in front of me, the other 10 on the same side of the ball as me.”

Indeed, Craine understands that he needed help on each of his 273 carries, that many of his 2,105 yards were the product of blocks made by fullback Tyler Vaughn and his offensive line.

“Those guys really stepped up and helped me throughout the season,” Craine said. “I pushed them. They pushed me. We just kept running. They’re really the reason I had the success I had.”

It led to team success like Union Grove hadn’t felt since 2002. The Wolverines finished 10-2, matching a program record for wins in a season, and lost 21-14 in the second round of the Class AAAAA playoffs to eventual state runner-up Ware County.

Craine was at the forefront of a senior class that reshaped Union Grove’s program this summer. They’d toiled through 3-7 and 5-5 seasons the previous two years. Each season, Craine studied the leadership of the senior class, but always felt something was missing.

Craine and the seniors found that ingredient this summer. It was in the attendance and energy at summer workouts. It was in the jokes and commitment to those Thursday night team dinners.

It was there that Craine’s competitive nature came out and turned him into a leader.

“I think that he’s a natural leader,” Burgdorf said, “because of his athletic ability. But he also understands that because of that he’s in a leadership role. He takes it a step further.”