Sacramento State wide receiver and kick returner Isiah Hennie is used to the incredulous looks when he tells folks that he plays football.
“One of my professors was like ‘Really?’ and chuckled when I told him I was a football player,” Hennie said. “He asked how big I was, and when I told him, he was like ‘Oh, wow! So do you play?’ ”
As it turns out, the sophomore plays a lot, even though at 5-foot-7 – Hennie says “5-7 1/4 ” with a smile – and 150 pounds he is one of the smallest players in Division I football.
The San Diego product has had a big impact and is a bright spot this season for Sac State (1-6, 0-4 Big Sky Conference), which will play its homecoming game against Idaho State (2-5, 1-3) on Saturday at Hornet Stadium.
Hennie enters the game ranked first in the Big Sky and sixth in the Football Championship Subdivision with 560 combined yards in kickoff and punt returns. He tops the Hornets with 869 all-purpose yards and is No. 2 in receiving with 29 catches for 308 yards and two touchdowns.
In less than two seasons, Hennie has 1,179 kick-return yards, fifth on Sac State’s career list.
In the Hornets’ season-opening win over NAIA Eastern Oregon, Hennie returned a punt 67 yards for a touchdown. In last year’s win over Menlo College, another NAIA school, he returned a kickoff 89 yards for a score. He is believed to be the only Sac State player to return a punt and kickoff for touchdowns.
He’s proved he often can overcome his size disadvantage with toughness, guile and determination. As a youth football Mighty Mite, he was a 53-pound defensive end.
As a senior at San Marcos High School in North San Diego County in 2013, he caught 102 passes for 1,521 yards and compiled 2,265 all-purpose yards. He was named second-team all-state, All-San Diego Section and the Valley League Offensive Player of the Year.
He weighed 129 pounds.
Hennie played in 11 of 12 games last season for Sac State as a true freshman and has played in all seven games in 2015. He has played as light as 142 pounds in college.
“It’s hard for me to keep weight on during football season,” Hennie said. “But God has blessed me. I’ve been able to stay healthy.”
Sac State coach Jody Sears said Hennie sets a tremendous example as he tries to fill the sizable cleats of former Hornets All-American DeAndre Carter, another undersized wide receiver now with the Raiders.
“He’s got the heart of a lion,” Sears said of Hennie. “He’s everything you want in a player and in a leader. The (lack of size), I get it. But come watch him work, watch him practice, watch him play.”
Sears said Hennie is a huge asset for a young Hornets team trying to find its way offensively with its three top quarterbacks sidelined by injuries and true freshman Nathan Ketteringham now taking snaps.
“Space is his friend,” Sears said. “You couldn’t tackle the son of a gun in a phone booth, he’s so quick. If you give him that opportunity, he’s going to get some big yards for you.”
Hennie has almost a sixth sense of avoiding full-on contact from bigger, stronger players coming at him from various angles to make a tackle.
“That’s something in my toolbox that I got blessed with,” he said. “I’m able to shield my body, so even if I don’t make them miss completely, they’re only going to get half of me. I’m not running out of bounds, but I’m doing everything to protect my body.”
Despite his size, Hennie got some recruiting looks in high school, mainly because scouts came to look at 6-foot-6, 280-pound tackle Kevin Estes, now at Wisconsin. But Hennie said Sac State wide receivers coach and recruiter Jason Pollock offered a scholarship whereas larger schools offered only walk-on opportunities.
“Coach Pollock was persistent,” Hennie said. “I saw how badly they wanted me. That’s a good feeling when you are 17 years old and in high school.”
Getting a scholarship also was important because his mother, Ingrid, always encouraged him to play and dream big.
“My mom is my inspiration,” he said. “She raised me to be a tough little kid and not to take anything from anybody.”
Small players, big impact
How Sacramento State’s Isiah Hennie compares to five other Division I college players who are playing big for their size this season:
869 all-purpose yards;
29 catches, 308 yards
11 catches, 141 yards
522 kick-return yards
962 all-purpose yards
19 catches, 258 yards
4 interceptions, 27 tackles