The contributions by high school coaches through the years to our communities have been monumental, and in some cases, everlasting. Coaches traditionally are men and women with a bent for helping kids, working to show them how to master a sport, and also providing leadership that underscores scholarship and citizenship.
It was a man named DeYampert who coached Erk Russell in high school in Birmingham, Ala. Russell wrote in his high school annual that it was his ambition to “succeed Mr. DeYampert.”
Any sports fan in the Deep South knows the rest of the story. Russell became the beloved defensive coordinator at Georgia and subsequently the coach at Georgia Southern, where he brought about the same emotional rush.
All along, Russell followed the same basic principles he learned in his high school years. Play hard, play by the rules and give of yourself to the team.
Those principles work at every level of competition. Leadership and inspiration do more in high school. Kids developing physically can benefit from the intangibles that allow them to gain an advantage.
High school coaches often have maintained grocery bills beyond enough to feed their families; some player always pulls up a chair at the table, in need of a good meal, and former players passing through town find it convenient to visit at the dinner hour. Coaches have put miles on their car driving home the kids who only can play if the coach gives them a ride home from practice, and they’ve passed hand-me-downs on to kids in need of them ― from shoes to sweaters to shirts one size too small.
Billy Henderson, who went to that great gridiron in the sky on Valentine’s Day at age 89, functioned in that element. In Henderson’s day, coaches always were accompanied by austerity. Money, however, was not a priority. It was the emotional rewards that were the conduit to fulfillment in the profession.
Seeing kids segue from awkwardness to fluidity, watching them learn how to compete and succeed at a sport, is an enduring emotional reward for coaches. Seeing a collection of kids submit to the greater goals of the team by subordinating their personal objectives is something a coach savors all his days.
Coaches, such as Henderson, all will tell you that one must have the best athletes to win the big prize, but I’ve never known a coach who did not harbor affection for the kid and the team that succeeded with heart.
Henderson was a gifted athlete who was familiar with the glory of the best of times at Georgia ― the Charley Trippi years after World War II. Henderson was blessed with speed-a-foot and quickness. He was an adroit and canny athlete with gifts that made him excel, in particular, at football and baseball.
He was a letterman on the Bulldogs football teams of 1946-49, which meant that he was a member of two SEC championship teams.
Not sure about the rules in those years, but college football players were allowed to play minor league baseball. Henderson and his Bulldogs teammate Chub Jenkins played Class D baseball for my hometown of Wrightsville, Ga.
Henderson was a base-stealing marvel. I remember the old timers saying that people went to the ballpark just to see Henderson steal bases. He was the fastest athlete to perform in Wrightsville before Al Chamlee, who went on to play for Paul Dietzel at LSU, and Herschel Walker.