Saying goodbye to the best ‘coach’ I ever had

Billy Henderson
Billy Henderson Telegraph file photo

I never played football for Billy Henderson, but he was the best coach I ever had.

He taught me to the importance of punctuality, of having a plan, respecting others and following my heart.

I never got tired of hearing his stories, from long-ago sandlots and distant stadiums. He did not limit his inspirational speeches to the locker room. This was a man who sang about dreaming the impossible dream, from “Man of La Mancha,” in the shower every morning.

Coach Henderson died in hospice care in Athens on Wednesday, four months shy of his 90th birthday. A man who was loved by so many left his earthly home on Valentine’s Day, a day of love.

A million tears have been falling from Macon to Athens, Jefferson to Jekyll Island — and all roads in between. Coach Henderson was a legend in this state.

It may be cliche to claim someone touched thousands of lives. But it was true. I know because I had a front-row seat. In 2005, he asked me to write his biography, “It Can Be Done.” I spent countless hours in his “office” at the Holiday Inn in Athens, listening to the story of his remarkable life.

He told me many times he would rather see a sermon than hear one any day. Next to my father, he was the greatest man I’ve ever known.

The first time I heard of Billy Henderson was in a column by the late Lewis Grizzard in 1977. He described Coach as having the “last crew cut in captivity.”

He was old-school, for sure. He was a man of chalkboards, yellow legal pads and celluloid game film. He took pride in the details, breaking down every play, frame by frame.

He was a man of great faith, a man who loved God and his family. He was religious about his health and fitness, too. Even when his body began to fail him, and he spent his last years in a wheelchair, he would still have someone roll him over to the YMCA in Athens, where he would do cardiovascular exercises with his upper body.

Oh, he could be stubborn. He took care of himself as long as he was able. He worshiped the sun on his back deck and at the family beach vacations to Jekyll Island. He loved cigars and driving big cars.

I shook his firm hand for the first time in 1979 at a high school football game at Brad Henderson Memorial Stadium on Anthony Road in Macon. Henderson Stadium was named after his late son, who was a star quarterback for old Willingham High School.

Brad was killed in a car accident three weeks after getting his driver’s license and three days after setting a school passing record in a game against Warner Robins High on Labor Day weekend in 1964. The quarterback for Warner Robins that night was Sonny Perdue, who went on to become governor of Georgia and is now the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

There were other sorrows in Coach’s life. A player at Clarke Central was killed by lightning at football camp. Within the last few years, he lost his wife, Fosky, and a grandson, Zach.

He was born in Dublin on June 2, 1928, and moved to Macon as a child. He was the youngest of four children, and his mother, Jewell, was a single mom and his hero in his life. She worked several jobs to provide for her family, and many times had to miss son Billy’s games at Lanier High, where he became an All-American in both football and baseball.

In baseball, he was selected to play in the 1945 All-American Boys Baseball Game at the Polo Grounds in New York. The coaches were Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.

Although he would go on to play minor league baseball, the football field is where he found the most fame. At the University of Georgia, he played in a backfield that featured the great Charley Trippi.

Coach started the football program at Willingham in 1958, and later served as an assistant at Mount de Sales. In 1973, he took over a Clarke Central program that was in shambles. He won 222 games, made the playoffs 18 straight years and more than 160 of his players received college scholarships. His overall coaching record was 286-107-15, with three state championships, making him one of the winningest coaches in Georgia prep history. He also won three state titles in baseball and one in swimming. (Yes, swimming.)

I credit Coach Henderson for making me a morning person. When I was interviewing him for a story some 22 years ago, he mentioned that he arrived at his office every morning at 5 a.m. He even beat the janitors to school.

The next morning, I woke up and looked at the clock. It was 5 a.m., and I remember thinking Coach Henderson already was at work, and I was still in bed. I dedicated myself to becoming an early riser and, to this day, I still am.

The remarkable part about writing his book was the many stories I heard after it was published. We would be at book signings. People would come up, shake his hand, hug his neck and thank him for the impact he had on their life.

And it wasn’t just the athletes. It was cheerleaders, band members, teachers and even folks who attended rival schools.

I’ll never forget one man who came to a book signing at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in Macon. Many of those in line were former Willingham players, but this guy had played for him at Clarke Central and was working in Macon. He brought his young son to meet Henderson.

“You might not remember this, Coach, but I’ve never forgotten,” he said. He said he and his teammates were getting dressed to go out on the field before a big game. He couldn’t find his T-shirt to go up under his shoulder pads. He was frantic and upset about it.

“You asked me what was wrong, and I told you,” he said. “You stood up, took off your shirt and gave it to me.

“Coach, I still have that shirt.”

Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sunday in The Telegraph.