This article tells in detail the day Coach Billy Henderson's son, died in an auto accident.
A Life Cut Short:
The Day Brad Henderson Died It was 1964 and Lyndon Johnson has defeated Barry Goldwater with 61 % of the popular vote. A presidential commission headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren concludes Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Surgeon General Dr. Luther L. Terry releases a report linking cigarette smoking to cancer. And the Beatles explode worldwide with the song "I Want to Hold Your Hand.
Meanwhile, a 16-year-old Bibb County boy, popular football star Brad Henderson, is having the time of his life. It is Labor Day weekend. Willingham High School, an all-boys public high school in Macon, Georgia, is preparing to challenge the Valdosta Wildcats for the top spot in 1AAA football. Brads dad, Coach Billy Henderson, and his Rams have just come off a victory over the Warner Robins Demons, and Brad is the starting quarterback. But Coach Henderson, his football team, the school and community are about to be struck by a tragedy that will rock Middle Georgia. Ray Wilkes, former Bibb County sheriff, remembers. It was in the afternoon. It was getting very close to football practice time. I was in the office or either I was on the road in my car. I don't quite remember, but, anyway, I heard that there was a very bad wreck at the intersection of Wesleyan Drive and Riverside Drive.
I was chief deputy sheriff, and I went to the intersection. There was a car that was sitting at a stop sign on Wesleyan Drive. It was about to cross but it was waiting. A car came the opposite way. It was crossing the intersection and apparently hit the rise in the road, became airborne and came down on them and killed Billy Henderson’s son, Brad and his girlfriend, Diane Driggars, that he was with. I looked at my watch and I realized that we had some mobile units of news people who could be on the air in just a few minutes putting this out. I thought I’d better try to beat that unit and get over to the school and see Billy. Well, I gave it the gas and I got to the school and I went to the building his office was in. I saw Coach Henderson on the door. There were two boys out in the hall and I said, Is Coach Henderson in? They said no but he would be back in a minute, just go on in and wait for him. I was trying to get myself prepared to tell him what had happened. When I opened the door, he was sitting at the desk. It shocked me because I was not expecting him to be in there. I walked up and I said, “Billy, I’ve got some bad news. I’ve got to tell you…” and he interrupted me. He said,it's Brad isn't it? I said, Yes. He said, Is he dead? I said,Yes.” He said,I know. It was late, and I stayed with him, and some other people came in, and that was about the way it went. It was one of the worst occasions I've ever had to deliver bad news because I wasn't ready and I wasn't expecting him to be there, and I wasn't prepared to deliver it, and he wasn't prepared to accept it, and it was really a bad day when that happened. Fran Hobbs, Coach Henderson’s oldest daughter, said, “I was twelve years old when Brad died. We were very close." Fran said that she and Carol, her younger sister, were playing at a friend’s house when the call came. "I knew deep in my heart that something was wrong. My first thought was that something had happened to my mom or dad. I remember putting my arms around Carol and telling her it was going to be okay. We came home to a lot of people scattered outside and inside of our home. There were a lot of red roses that people brought over.
To this day, I don’t like red roses—too much of a reminder of the day I lost my brother. It broke my heart to see my parents in so much grief. And the pain I felt that day was almost too much. Brad and I shared a very special relationship. I remember the night before he died. We sat outside under the stars, and he was being the big brother he always was. We talked for at least two hours. He told me he was proud of me, and asked me questions about my dreams. He listened as he always did, as I shared my dreams with him. He shared his dreams of having a family. He told me he loved me, and after that he kissed me on the cheek and we went inside. He was always very protective of me. He stood up for me, and was always there. But the next day he was gone." Chris Henderson Watts, Brad's youngest sister, said the one thing that she remembers about Brad was that he tickled her and how “he just lit up the room. He was always good to me and kind and patient." She recalled one occasion when she cried her eyes out because Brad got a spanking. She said she was so worried about him, because he was always so nice and she remembers hiding in her room thinking, “Poor Brad, why are they spanking him?” Brad’s brother Johnny Henderson later said, “I remember the death of my brother and wondering how did my mother and father deal with such a tragedy. They always said it was through faith in God. I didn’t know how in the world I could ever live up to that legacy, but playing football in a stadium named after my brother was something I was very proud of."
Johnny was a standout all-state quarterback and catcher at Mount de Sales High School in Macon. He then went to the University of Georgia and was a starter at safety for the Bulldogs. Later Johnny played professional football and coached at the college level. Billy Henderson reconstructed that awful day. “It’s like it happened yesterday or today. It was September 7, 1964, and most of my family was gathered on Westbury Drive right below Westgate Mall. My wife Foskey, her sister and her husband, Ray and Jack, were there, and their children. And the Friday previously we had played Warner Robins and Brad was our quarterback. I might say sometimes it’s like the game of golf, and golf is like athletics. Sometimes you think you’ve got the world by the tail, so to speak, you’ve got control of it. We had just whipped Warner Robins 25-0. We had whipped Valdosta a couple of years in a row; you might say that was one of the highlights in my life. I was thirty-six years old, had a sixteen year old son playing quarterback and September 7 on Westbury Drive, 1964, I'm waiting for Brad to pick me up. He didn't show up at three o'clock, which was uncharacteristic of him. So I decided to walk. So I walked to the school, which was just a few blocks away. Probably didn't have a good attitude about it, impatient, went to my office and sat down getting ready for the day's practice. Mike Garvin walked in the door and said, Billy, two teenagers were killed out on Riverside Drive just a little while ago. So I said right away it was Brad. I picked up the phone ready to dial the hospital and the door was opened.
It was Ray Wilkes, the assistant to the sheriff at that time. I look in his eyes, and I could tell exactly what had happened so I put the phone down and followed him to the car." "My mind begin to wander back to the last time I saw Brad, which was that morning at about 10 o’clock. He and his buddies, Rozie McKinney, and Richard Whitfield, rode with Brad to the picnic but did not ride back. Brad had just gotten his driver’s license in August. He was 16 on August 15th. So I threw him the keys, and that was the last time I saw him alive. The last time Foskey saw him alive, she was in the backyard hanging his football uniform out on the line that she had washed. Brad used to take a lot of pride in the fact that his mother took care of his uniform the best of anybody in the world because she would clean the shoestrings and whatever, and it was hanging on the line. And the last time Foskey saw Brad alive was when he kissed her right on the cheek and she often said she could still feel it now.” Coach Henderson on that day remembers getting in the sheriff's car with his wife and being driven to the hospital. We go through this corridor and there, oh, there must have been wall to wall people, but you don’t see them because you’re in shock right now.
The only thing I have to do at that time is get to my son, Brad. I did find him, pulled back the sheet, didn’t pull it back far enough to see the extent of the injuries but saw him, came back out, and saw my coaches and I said, What in the world are you doing here? You’re supposed to be at practice.” So I send them back to practice, I thought." Fred Johnson, principal at Willingham High School, 1959-1973 remembers when Brad died. “He was killed in a horrible accident. He was just a young high school kid, and his girlfriend, doing nothing wrong. Actually, they were stopped at a stop sign, waiting for the traffic to clear out, and somebody ran the sign from the other side, and hit them head on.” Fellow teammate Claudie Brown remembers that Brad had a tremendous arm, and, though he himself played quarterback, safety, and halfback, he knew he didn’t have the arm Brad had.
He remembers the rumors had started Monday while they were getting ready for practice. “I had heard there had been a terrible accident, but the players didn’t know anything. A couple of coaches showed up, then Coach Henderson comes up. At that time the players didn’t think they would have a practice. Henderson walks up and says he figured we’d heard the news about Brad and Diane Driggars, they’d been killed in a car accident coming home from High Falls. We thought Coach would say everyone go home and think about what you are going to do, come back tomorrow. But that’s not what happened. He told me to get over there and do calisthenics. I questioned this and said, “What?” Coach said, “Yes, sir, we’re a football team. We will deal with the other situation but today we have to prepare for Dougherty County. Let’s get after it.” Brown doesn’t remember Brad being discussed by Coach Henderson again, and the players in turn didn’t talk about it. They, of course, went to both funerals, but no discussion was held. Brown stated that he never saw Henderson break down, and the players felt they had to follow his lead. “I never saw Coach Henderson break down. You knew it was killing him inside but he didn't let anybody show it. So we said if he can do it, we can too. You didn't see a lot of emotion on the football field or at the funeral either.
Henderson and his Rams beat Dougherty County and finished the 64 season Henderson with an 8-1-1 record. It was the best record that Willingham would ever have in football. They did it for Brad. What was to be a story book season for Coach Henderson and his young Rams, was not to be. The next season saw the Rams go 7-1-2, beating the Valdosta Wildcats in the stadium dedicated to Brad Henderson 12-7. But the next week Willingham was defeated by Jordan in Columbus and Valdosta still won the region and then the state championship..
As for Coach Henderson, he would leave Willingham in 1970, briefly coaching as an assistant at Mt de Sales in Macon. In 1973 he went to Clark Central in Athens where his teams won three state championships and played in four others. Had Brad lived, many think he could have had a successful career at Georgia in baseball and football, just like his father, and very possibly played in the pros. Brad Henderson Memorial Stadium was dedicated to Brad in 1965. It is still the site of many high school football games each year, but unfortunately few people who enter those premises have any idea who this gifted athlete really was. What a shame. Aubrey Hammack is a freelance writer from Macon and Author of The Winning Edge: Lessons From Billy Henderson The book can be purchased on Amazon or you can contact the author, aubreyhammack.bellsouth