Clarke Central will be playing in a state championship game on Friday for the first time since 1992, when Hall of Fame coach Billy Henderson led the Gladiators into battle against Valdosta.
Henderson, 81, isn't able to make Friday's game against Sandy Creek, but he will be coming to Atlanta on Saturday for his own special gala.
Henderson is this year's winner of the Atlanta Falcons' Lifetime Achievement Award for a coaching career that began in 1952 as an assistant at Jefferson. Henderson was head coach at Willingham High (1958-69) in Macon and Clarke Central (1973-95) in Athens. His record was 286-107-15.
The Falcons also will honor coaches of the year in each classification. They are Chip Lindsey of Lassiter (Class AAAAA), Steven Devoursney of Griffin (AAAA), Paul Standard of St. Pius (AAA), Robby Pruitt of Fitzgerald (AA) and Franklin Pridgen of Wesleyan (A).
Henderson rarely attends games now because of the need to care for his wife, Fosky, who is gravely ill, but he gladly accepted an invitation to watch the Gladiators practice on Thanksgiving morning before the Gladiators' quarterfinal game against North Clayton.
"I have never seen a more disciplined and organized practice," Henderson said. "There were 60 kids dressed on the sideline, and I heard one voice, and that was the head coach, Leroy Ryals. He would call for the special teams, and they looked like a bunch of quails flying off. He'd call another team, and it was the same thing. It was precision. They were totally focused."
Afterward, Henderson addressed the team. Among the stories he told was the struggle of his 1975 team, which lost its first four games by a combined score of 121-6. The Gladiators then won six straight games to claim a subregion championship. Two seasons later, Clarke Central won the first of three state championships under Henderson (1977, 1979 and 1985).
"I thought I was still coaching at Clarke Central," Henderson said. "Every player got on a knee and looked me in the eye, and I just talked about things, about memories, going to Jekyll Island for camp and that fact that it didn't come easy."
Clarke Central has won playoff games 52-17 and 28-0 since Henderson's talk.
Henderson's honor will be part of the Falcons' Georgia High School Football Luncheon on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Georgia World Congress Center. The keynote speaker will be former Falcons quarterback Steve Bartkowski.
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