In knockdown game of life, Meade coach proves to be stand-up guy Youths find role model in Hayse Henderson

When Hayse Henderson arrived at Meade High School last year to teach mathematics and coach football, he brought with him a stoicism and perseverance honed by a lifetime of struggle. He needed his thick skin.

No one at the sprawling high school on the grounds of Fort Meade in western Anne Arundel County cheered when Mr. Henderson became the county's only black head football coach. In fact, Meade's athletic director resigned in protest.


But Mr. Henderson, who waited 13 years to be a head coach in a school system he once accused of racial discrimination, endured every hit he took during his rookie season with the unyielding stance of a former middle linebacker.

"You have to withstand a lot of pressure if you want to succeed, especially as a black man," the 43-year-old coach said.


At Meade, where one-third of the school's 1,650 students are black, Mr. Henderson demonstrates with his own life the discipline and determination needed to succeed on and off the field.

"I think he provides a great role model," particularly for young black men with no fathers at home, said Orion Jones, a black parent who is active in Meade's PTA. "In a school like that what you need most of all is positive male role models, especially in your sports programs."

Hayse Henderson fits the bill.

A father of three with a master's degree in math from Morgan State University, Mr. Henderson is the youngest of 18 children born to Alice and Dud Henderson. They were poor Southern sharecroppers who scratched out a living in the fields of Georgia and Florida.

Mr. Henderson grew up picking cotton and vegetables to help the family make ends meet.

Though no one in his family had ever graduated from high school, he took his studies seriously. It may have been because his father, a man with no formal schooling, encouraged him to dream big. Or it may have been because his mother predicted that he would turn out exactly like his older brothers, who dropped out.

"I didn't like being told that I was like everyone else," said Mr. Henderson, a powerfully built man with sideburns that meander down his cheeks to the outer tips of his mustache.

"I used to tell my mother: 'I'm different than the rest.' "


He proved it by winning a scholarship to Shaw University, a historically black college in Virginia. But his parents didn't live to see him graduate in 1971. They died two weeks apart in his sophomore year.

At Meade, Mr. Henderson pushes his players to achieve in the classroom and requires them to attend a study hall before practice every day.

"He always tells us: 'Grades first, football second,' " says Alfred Harris, a senior tackle, who thinks that most of the players understand why. "He's just looking out for us."

The emphasis on academics has had impressive results. Last year, 33 players at Meade were academically ineligible because their grade point averages had fallen below a 1.6, Mr. Henderson said. This season, there were only eight players left on academic probation, and all have earned the right to play again.

"It's very important that an education come first," said Mr. Henderson, whose wife, Betty, teaches math at Old Mill High School. "I feel that's the only way out [of poverty], especially for young black males."

Mr. Henderson always wanted to be a football coach. He loved the game and saw himself following in the footsteps of his own high school coach, Antoine Russell, who taught his players as much about life as he did about football.


When you get knocked down, Mr. Russell often told his players, you have to get back up.

It was a lesson Mr. Henderson carried with him to Glen Burnie High School in 1972. For five years, he worked as an assistant to head football coach Joe Papetti.

When Mr. Papetti left in 1977, Mr. Henderson had no doubt he would be the school's new head coach. Then he learned that the principal had hired someone else.

The decision was "like a piece of cold steel cutting you right down the middle," Mr. Henderson said. "I knew more about football than anyone else at that school."

Deeply wounded, he accused the school system of denying him the job because he was black -- a charge the school system denied.

The furor that followed branded Mr. Henderson as a troublemaker in the eyes of many Anne Arundel principals and athletic directors, says Lee Rogers, the only other black head football coach in county history.


"I think he came across as a radical," said Mr. Rogers, a head football coach at Andover High School in 1978 who now coaches Arundel High School's girls' basketball team. "You're not supposed to say anything because you're not supposed to make waves."

Though Mr. Henderson continued to apply for head football positions across the county, someone else always got the job.

Then, in the spring of 1990, the Meade job opened up.

The school's black principal, James Gross, hired Mr. Henderson over the objections of his white athletic director, Butch Young, who had preferred another candidate. Mr. Young promptly quit. Then Mr. Gross decided to retire, leaving Mr. Henderson on his own when he arrived at Meade in the fall.

"There was never a red carpet," Mr. Henderson said. "I got the sense I was in the wrong place."

The transition didn't get any easier when the football season began. The Mustangs suffered through their worst season in school history, losing nine of 10 games.


LTC Parents called for Mr. Henderson's head; sportswriters mocked his team's fledgling wishbone offense.

The frenzy didn't end until the opening game of this season, when Meade astounded just about everyone by beating six-time state champion Springbrook High School on the Blue Devils' own field.

"That was one of the greatest days of my life," Mr. Henderson said. "Everybody was congratulating me and congratulating the kids."

With a 34-0 victory over Glen Burnie Friday night, the Mustangs' record stands at a respectable 4-3.

The team's turnaround is a source of tremendous satisfaction to Mr. Henderson. He has proved his critics wrong.

"They thought if they discouraged me I would just leave," he said. "But I didn't leave.


& "They didn't know me."