The Strongest Kid I Know
By Coach Brian Danforth
I want to tell you a story. A story about the strongest kid I know.
Small town quarterbacks live under the microscope. Every move they make under the smoky Friday night lights is criticized and critiqued by every armchair quarterback standing on the fence. You know, the guys who think by standing on the fence and talking about how we, the coaches, suck, they are somehow helping the team win. You know, the guys that give you those dreadful stories of their glory days. They are the “Back in ’82, I could throw a pigskin a quarter mile!” guys. The “That never would’ve happened back when I was playing!” guys. If you ask them, calling an offense is simple. When in reality, the only play calling they’ve ever done is pressing X on the controller when playing Madden.
The town was buzzing. The Fort Meade Miners were poised to make a deep playoff run behind their high speed rushing attack led by Tyler King. Rising senior quarterback Jessie Henson was returning as the starting quarterback. Jessie had thrown for right at 1,000 yards during his junior campaign. Spring practice and the spring game was smooth sailing for the 6 foot 4 inch signal caller. The Miners had their sights set on a 24th district championship and a 10th appearance in the state championship game. But then life happened…
June 21, 2015 was a date that would change Jessie Henson’s life forever. I did not know it at the time, but it was also a date that would end up changing my outlook on coaching. Jessie’s mother passed away on this date.
As a coach, I did my best to console Jessie, but it was so hard to find the right words. I couldn’t tell him “I know how you feel.” Because I didn’t. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the pain he was feeling. I began to ask myself “Why?” Why Jessie? Why does such a good kid have to go through such a horrible tragedy? Here he was about to enter his senior year as the starting quarterback for a storied program, and then his world all but falls apart. My heart hurt so bad for him.
As you could expect, Jessie had a subpar senior year. We went 9-2. Jessie wasn’t nonexistent, but we relied heavily on our rushing attack to get those 9 wins. To me, the most disappointing thing wasn’t losing in the first round of the playoffs, it was the things I heard from the armchair quarterbacks behind me. They were ruthless. After meeting with my offensive line in between drives, I would go over and talk to Jessie about what he was seeing out there. And I could hear them behind me. “Bench him!” “He’s killing us!” Jessie never acknowledged any of it, but I know he heard it. At times, I was embarrassed to call these people “fans” of our program. I thought to myself “He’s a kid man. A kid. Yes, he is 18, but he is a kid. Is winning this game that important to you?”
November 15th, 2015. Also a date that would change Jessie’s life forever. And once again, my outlook on coaching. Friday night, November 13th we were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. The same night, Jessie’s brother went into the hospital. Saturday the 14th he entered a diabetic coma. Sunday the 15th, he was gone. I could not believe it. After all Jessie had fought through that season, the season is capped off with a loss and the surprise passing of his 22-year-old brother. Twenty-two. That really hit home. I was only 23 at the time.
Once again I found myself struggling for words when trying to console Jessie. Once again, I had not experienced the kind of hurt Jessie was going through. Once again, I asked “Why?” Why Jessie? Why did he have to lose the two people that were most important to him? And only five months apart?
Why?! I still do not know the answer to that question. Jessie doesn’t either. And we never will. But I know one thing. The 2015 season taught me that there is more to life than trophies that sit on the shelf and collect dust. I never knew how strong an 18-year-old kid could be. Before this I thought I was strong, but man, was I wrong. Jessie has showed me what it really means to be strong. I think I learned more about life from Jessie in the 2015 season than he ever learned from about how to read a defensive front.
Sadly, it was still a disappointing season to some of our fans. Most of them will never know how much strength it took for Jessie just to make it through this season. I heard statements like “Man he should have put that junk aside on the football field.” Okay, genius. That doesn’t just happen. You can’t just “forget” that your mother passed away and go out there and throw for 1,500 yards. However, what you can do is what Jessie did. Go out there and play through the pain and point to the sky every time we scored. Hopefully some of those that considered this season a disappointment will read this and reevaluate the 2015 season.
Honestly, I could not be more proud of Jessie. We built a great relationship through the toughest of circumstances. I’m thankful I had the opportunity to coach him, but I’m also thankful for the things he taught me. He could have quit playing football his senior year and I don’t think anyone would have blamed him. But he fought through it. We were 9-2 on the season, but as far as Jessie, he was undefeated. Not undefeated in the matter of wins and losses, but undefeated by his circumstances. And that is so much more important. Jessie is definitely the strongest kid I know.