Bobby Pope

Looking back at Willingham’s only state title

Billy Henderson is pictured at a ceremony naming an interstate interchange in his honor.
Billy Henderson is pictured at a ceremony naming an interstate interchange in his honor.

Billy Henderson is best known for his success as a high school football coach. In 35 years on the sidelines, 12 at Willingham and 23 at Clarke Central, he compiled a 285-107-16 record.

The man who has sported a crewcut flat top hair cut his entire life guided Clarke Central to three GHSA football championships after taking over at the Athens school in 1973, winning titles in 1977, 1979 and 1985.

As a high school athlete, Henderson won 14 letters at Lanier in the mid-1940s while competing in football, baseball, basketball and track and field. He was named an All-American in both football and baseball his junior and senior seasons, and it is debatable in which sport he was better.

As a senior in football, he scored a then-state record of 150 points. In baseball, as a catcher, he hit .411 his final year. He was invited to play in the All-America baseball game, played at the Polo Grounds in New York , and was coached by Babe Ruth. Following that game, he was offered a $10,000 bonus to sign with the Detroit Tigers, but on the advice of his mother, turned it down to play both football and baseball at Georgia.

Henderson, who was 29 when he became the first athletics director and football head coach at Willingham when it opened in 1958, is the owner of three state baseball titles, as well as the three football crowns. He won two Class A championships at Mount de Sales in 1971 and 1972 after leaving Willingham following the 1969-70 school year. While at Mount de Sales, Henderson was named the national high school baseball coach of the year, only the second Georgian to ever win that honor.

Willingham’s only GHSA championship in any sport came in baseball in 1969.

The Rams won the region title, taking a doubleheader from Columbus 5-4 and 2-0. In the quarterfinals of the state playoffs, they turned back Moultrie in a best two-of-three series. They beat the Packers 4-3 in Game 1, lost 2-0 in Game 2 and won the rubber game 2-1.

In the semifinals, played at Luther Williams Field against Region 3-AAA champion Butler, Willingham needed three games to advance to the finals. Butler won the opener 5-0 before Willingham came back to win the next two. Jimmy Clanton pitched a three-hitter, striking out eight with only two walks in an 8-2 victory. In the deciding game, Wayne Hart allowed only a seventh-inning single as Willingham waltzed into the finals with an 11-l win.

In the finals against Therell of Atlanta, Hart proved to be the hero again.

In the opener, it took the Rams 11 innings to pull out a 3-2 victory. After Therell scored two runs in the seventh to tie the game, Hart came on and pitched three scoreless inning and picked up the win after Willingham scored the winning run in the bottom of the 11th. It took 12 innings in game two before Willingham scored the go-ahead run in a 3-2 victory. Hart came on for starter Chuck Arnold, who went 11 and a third innings. Therell had runners on second and third with one out, but Hart struck out two straight to stop the threat. The Rams scored in the bottom of the 12th, and Hart got his second win of the day.

With the start of the 1970-71 school year, Willingham merged with Ballard-Hudson to become Southwest.

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