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Denson driven by mentoring, coaching

Matthew DeFranks | Thursday, August 30, 2012

Editor’s note: This is the first of a new Observer feature. The “Waking the Echoes” series intends to inform fans about some former players and will feature weekly stories profiling them and their lives since Notre Dame.

Autry Denson loves competition. He loves it so much he’ll challenge you to a spelling contest with your own name – and promise to win.

Denson’s competitive drive allowed him to play all four years with the Irish, break the all-time rushing record at Notre Dame and propel the Irish to a 54-27 win over Navy in Ireland in 1996.

Leading up to that game 16 years ago, former Irish coach Lou Holtz held the player out of practice for reasons Denson still does not know.

“When we were practicing at Notre Dame [leading up to the game], I literally did not practice,” Denson said in a phone interview. “Every time I was in practice, coach Holtz would kick me out. For the most part, I was out there but I was in the doghouse.

“When he kicked me out of practice, he knew I was going to prepare even harder because I knew my opportunity would come, and when it did, I wanted to knock it out the park.”

Former Irish running back Randy Kinder earned the start against Navy while Denson was relegated to the sideline for the first series. Denson took it from there. He racked up 123 yards and two touchdowns on just 16 carries in his first trip to Europe.

Much like the current Irish, Denson said the trip overseas had just one objective – win.

“When I’m there, it’s all business,” Denson said. “My mindset is always on the task at hand. I wasn’t going to Ireland, I was going to beat Navy. I wasn’t there on vacation. I was there to play a game and dominate my opponent.”

Denson finished his career with 4,448 yards, the most ever by an Irish back.

“Everyone that was on that team, whether you’re a walk-on or not, we shared that record,” Denson said. “It’s not an individual achievement. It really is a team record.

“If somebody breaks it, we’re doing pretty darn good. And I’m ready for us to get back to the dominating phase.”

Denson graduated from Notre Dame in 1999. After his
collegiate career, Denson played four years in the National Football League (NFL) for three different teams, totaling just 212 yards on 62 attempts. For the Lauderhill, Fla., native, his stint with the hometown Miami Dolphins stood out.

“I took the same drive to work that I took years before that [to high school],” Denson said. “The only difference was I was making a right instead of a left, and they were actually paying me now. That drive got a whole lot better.”

After a short career in the Canadian Football League (CFL), Denson began life after football. He went into banking, working for Wachovia before spending six years at Merrill Lynch.

While working at Merrill Lynch, Denson founded POISE, a foundation for young athletes that stands for Perseverance, Opportunity, Intelligence, Sacrifice and Effort. POISE gave young athletes the tools needed to be successful outside of sports, Denson said.

In addition to athletic development, POISE offered academic counseling, SAT and ACT prep work and Bible study. While working with POISE part time, Denson felt his calling changing.

“I felt like God wanted me to do something more,” Denson said. “I started seeing what I didn’t like. If coaching is done correctly, the relationship the coach and a player has transcends sports … and I saw kids not have coaches that care for them.”

Despite turning down previous opportunities to coach for Urban Meyer at Florida and Charlie Weis at Notre Dame because of time commitments, Denson accepted the head coaching job at Pope John Paul II High School in South Florida in 2010.

One year later, he became the running backs’ coach at Bethune-Cookman University, where he remains today. He said his playing time at Notre Dame and in the NFL helps him coach the position.

“It helps to be able to know that your coach knows what he’s talking about,” Denson said. “I don’t want to say it’s easy, but it’s natural. This is what I was created to do. I was created to mentor and help young men and spread the word through sports.”

Denson, 35, lives in Daytona, Fla., and is married to his wife Elaine. The couple has four kids – Ashley, Autry III, Elijah and Asia.

As he looks to the future, Denson said he has his eyes set on a college or NFL head-coaching job.

“I don’t do anything to just be okay at it,” he said. “I don’t do anything to be good at it or even great. I want to be legendary at it, but not for me. It’s a platform for me to influence more young men and more people.”

Contact Matthew DeFranks at mdefrank@nd.edu