Longtime Powhatan aide aman of ‘drive’
Ernie Henderson extracted the best from his linemen
Ernie Henderson was a man of few words.
But when he talked, people listened, and the longtime Powhatan High School assistant football coach’s order to “Drive! Drive! Drive! Drive!” on the sled in practices still resonates with those who played for him.
That command spoke to who he was, how hard he worked, how hard he pushed others to get the best out of them.
He was tough but fair, a brilliant defensive mind, a father figure, a friend.
The outpouring of remembrances, written and spoken in the community during the past two weeks, helped paint the portrait of a man and coach who made a difference in countless lives.
They recaptured the brilliance of an offensive line coach who turned players weighing less than 180 pounds into state champions— a defensive coordinator who made Powhatan a tall task for opposing offenses to overcome.
When Ernie Henderson died on Nov. 13, 2020 at 61, a pillar in the Powhatan County community was lost.
“He was truly a life coach for anybody that came in contact with him,” said Gwendolyn Henderson, Ernie’s wife of 29 years. “He’d do anything he could to try to enrich their lives and try to help them to go on a better path.”
Those who knew and loved Ernie described him as genuine. He loved the game and he loved the kids.
That passion for helping others carried over to his work with youth in the juvenile justice system.
“He always said: it’s about the kids,” Gwendolyn said. “That’s the kind of person he was— and he loved his family.”
To both Ernie’s cousin Anthony “Tony” Henderson, and to Linwood Jackson — who played for PHS from 1989 to 1992 and would go on to become one of Powhatan’s longtime coaches— Ernie was like an older brother.
The players saw he would do anything for them. If a player needed food, he made sure they had food. If they needed sportswear, he’d pay for it.
Every day throughout his coaching career, Ernie would go out of his way and give players rides to practices and track meets, even after working night shifts at his job.
That inspired Jackson to give rides as well.
If one kid had something, he’d make sure the other kid had something. If the parents wanted to talk to him, he would make the time.
He made sure nobody was left behind. And because the kids knew he’d do anything for them, Ernie got that from them in return.
Powhatan coach Nathan Mullins, an offensive and defensive lineman under Henderson from 2004 to 2007 and coached with him from 2015 to 2018, recalled preparing for his second varsity start against what was then an unknown team in Monticello his sophomore year.
He was going against a senior, who had been region player of the year for the previous season, and he spent the week watching film and studying his matchup.
He remembered Ernie pointing to his upcoming opponent and talking him up as being really good, but then telling Mullins: You can take this guy. As long as you watch him and study him, you can take him.
That week of practice, Ernie was building him up in “a quiet way,” as Mullins put it —“he didn’t have a whole lot to say, but when he said it, it carried a lot of weight to it” — and when game time came, Mullins leaned on the things that his coach told him about his opponent’s tendencies.
After the game, Henderson said he did well.
“As a guy who’s only played — that was my second varsity start — it showed me that he believed in me,” Mullins said. “That meant a lot as a 15-year-old.”
Powhatan’s linemen went to work, said former longtime Powhatan head coach Jim Woodson, with whom Ernie Henderson coached for four decades.
“They go down the hill and they go to all the sleds and all this stuff, and they come back, they’re dripping wet ... you can tell they’re working their tails off,” Woodson said. “That’s just the way it was.
“If you were a lineman, you were tough.”
Ernie also inspired his players with his own strength. In fact, he was known as the strongest man in Virginia in the 1980s.
In weightlifting, he benchpressed 602 pounds and squatted 1,000. They say people would see him on the sign-in list for weightlifting competitions and drop out.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without his influence,” his cousin Tony Henderson said. “He was a big-brother type to me, provided a lot of guidance just by the way he lived and also always being available to bounce ideas off of and talk things through.
“Besides my dad and my grandfather, he’s another one I owe pretty much everything to.”
“He was truly a life coach for anybody that came in contact with him. He’d do anything he could to try to enrich their lives.”
Gwendolyn Henderson, on her husband and longtime Powhatan assistant Ernie Henderson (right)