ATHENS – Billy Henderson might’ve been the best man I’ve ever known.
I know we throw statements like that around a lot on the occasion of one’s passing. But I’m being as honest as I can be in regards to Henderson, who died on Valentine’s Day, just four months shy of his 90th birthday.
He was a great football coach, and that’s what you’ll hear mostly over the next few days as his life is honored and he is laid to rest. But that’s not what I think about when I remember Billy Henderson.
I remember the brightest smile and most genuine joy that radiated from his face. Henderson had problems as we all do, and he endured incredible tragedies in both his personal and professional lives. But if ever a person epitomized happiness and the gratification of doing exactly what someone was called to do, it was William Bradford Henderson. Or Coach Henderson, as he’ll forever be known.
That extended to everything he did. I was a cub reporter for the Athens Daily News/Banner-Herald in the late 1980s when I met Henderson. He was a legendary figure, and I’d only read about him in newspapers the first time I was assigned to do a story on him and his Clarke Central team. I was nervous and intimidated going to see him that summer for a preseason football piece.
Imagine my surprise when it was Henderson who asked all the questions. He wanted to know where I was from, where I went to school, who I played for and what position I played in high school. He asked me about my parents and where were they from. Before I left that hot summer afternoon, Henderson knew I was from Atlanta, that my father coached youth ball and that my mother died when I was 12.
And he never forgot.
Sometime thereafter, I’d been covering Georgia for a while and I got some kind of big writing award. They did a write-up in the Banner-Herald and everything. A week later, I got to my mailbox and there was a package for me, one of those cardboard tubes. I opened it and, lo and behold, there was a poster inside, hand-made and laminated by Henderson himself with a clipped-out copy of the winning article featured in the middle and congratulations hand-scrawled in marker all around. I was floored.
But if I told you that I had this special relationship with Henderson that others didn’t, I wouldn’t be telling the truth. He had that kind of relationship ― and influence ― on everybody he met. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.
Keep in mind, this was not some small-time coach at little ol’ Podunk High. This was THE Billy Henderson.
His greatest on-field achievements as a coach came at Athens’ Clarke Central High School, which he put on the map of pre-eminent high school football programs. He led the Gladiators to three state titles between 1977 and 1985, with a 29-game winning streak mixed in and one span in which his team defeated perennial powerhouse Valdosta three years in a row. Ask Buck Belue about that. He also coached teams to three baseball state championships and even one swimming title, believe it or not.
But as Henderson would tell you, none of those qualified as his greatest accomplishment. That, as he would admit often, was in bringing together an Athens community that long had been divided along racial and socioeconomic lines. Henderson lived out a Remember The Titans-type script long before that celebrated movie hit the big screen.
He told the story to me more than once and shared it with many over the years, but the proudest moment he undoubtedly took to his grave happened the first time he held a Thanksgiving meal for the entire team and their families in Clarke Central gymnasium.
“We bowed our heads for the invocation, but I did not close my eyes,” Henderson recounted in a Georgia Trend Magazine article in 2005. “I looked around the gym and saw white hands holding black hands, hands of the rich and prominent holding hands with poor kids from the other side of the track. And I was thinking, ‘If all human beings did something like this, there would be few problems in this world.’”
Indeed, Henderson moved effortlessly through all circles. He was close with the most powerful men in Athens. They all sent their sons to play for him, including Derek Dooley, Chris Morocco, John Kasay and David Dukes. But he was just as close to the men who as boys he brought to Clarke Central from the surrounding housing projects. Chuck Smith and Willie Green, who would go on to play in the NFL after starring for college programs other than Georgia, count Henderson as their greatest personal influence.
Henderson’s son Johnny was a starting defensive back on Georgia’s 1976 SEC-champion team. He also sent Ben Zambiasi to the Bulldogs from Mount de Sales in Macon and numerous others. But, today, Henderson’s own athletic accomplishments at Georgia are probably the thing least known about him.
Henderson was a two-sport standout for the Bulldogs in the late 1940s, once sharing a backfield with the great Charley Trippi and also starring in baseball. He earned eight letters at UGA, playing on the 1946 and 1948 SEC champion football teams and becoming a three-time MVP in baseball. Henderson still owns the Georgia baseball record for all-time stolen bases.
Henderson was drafted by the Chicago Cubs and spent two years in their organization before deciding on a teaching and coaching career. And, man, so many people would benefit from that.
Coaching took Henderson to Jefferson High School (1951-53), Athens High (1953-55), Furman University (1956), University of South Carolina (1956-57), Willingham High (1958-70) and Mount de Sales High (1970-73) in Macon. All those stops came before he returned to Athens and Clarke Central High School in 1973. There, Henderson became an icon for the Gladiators, compiling a record of 222-65 and three state championships over 23 seasons. His overall coaching record was 285-107-16, 15th best in Georgia high school annals.
Fittingly, Henderson has been inducted into several halls of fame and was the recipient of the UGA Bill Hartman Award in 1995. It is considered one of the highest honors a former UGA student-athlete can attain. There is one other honor, though, that somehow eluded him. I don’t know, maybe he doesn’t fit the criteria for on-field accomplishment, but I find it somewhat of a surprise that he is not in UGA’s Circle of Honor.
The truth is, Henderson wouldn’t have cared about that. He’s in a circle of honor all of his own. That’s his circle of influence, which after 89 years on this earth seemingly extends forever. I’m sure that will be evident whenever his arrangements are finalized.
We’ll miss you, Coach. Thanks for taking the time to get to know us. We’re all better for having known you.