That Billy Henderson died on Valentine’s Day is fitting.
An unforgettable man who captured the hearts and affection of so many, Coach Henderson seemed a saint to a lot of people and he exited this world on a day for expressing love. That is perfect because I never met anyone who knew him well that didn’t love him.
There are plenty of obituaries and summaries of his career available, and I won’t attempt either here, but having worked for Billy Henderson at Clarke Central High in Athens for a few years as a young coach, I wanted to share a couple of personal memories of a man who greatly impacted my life.
To say he was charismatic is like saying a beach is sandy. With his dark-framed glasses and a close-cropped crewcut trimmed level as an ocean horizon, Billy exuded a sort of 1950s “cool” that appealed to black and white, wealthy and wanting, powerful and poor. He could bring people from differing backgrounds together better than anyone I’ve known.
Even his name seemed cool. Like most everyone, I always addressed him directly as “Coach” or “Coach Henderson,” but staff members, friends, and players tended to use the more endearing “Billy” when out of earshot and amongst each other. “Did you hear what Billy said?” or “I hear Billy’s not doing well.” Billy had a way of making everybody he talked to feel like the most important person he would meet all day. That’s quite a gift.
I first met Coach Henderson in the early 1980s, probably the spring of 1982.
Still a student at the University of Georgia, where he had starred in football and baseball, and wanting to coach, I went to Clarke Central and asked him about volunteering. He fired friendly questions at me for 10 minutes, and by the time we finished, I already knew about some of his slogans and traditions, like “We Lead,” “It Can Be Done,” “Rain, Sleet, Flood or Mud,” and the infamous Jekyll Island preseason camps.
But – and to me, this separated Coach Henderson from many people of prominence I’ve come across – he also asked and learned about me with real interest: where I was from, what my dad did for a living, that my mom had died in a car wreck a year earlier, even my shoe, pants and shirt sizes (for coaching attire). I was just a college kid but felt like the most important person he’d meet that day.
A few anecdotes stand out.
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