For the Henderson High School football team, success has become routine.
Since 2010 alone, the Henderson Lions have been state champions, posted consecutive winning records and district titles, and have been to the playoffs almost every year. But there was a time when such success was not so commonplace. In fact, it was utterly foreign.
Fifty-one years ago in 1967, the Henderson Lions had been playing football for 57 years. Across that expanse of time, they had been to the playoffs once.
Interest in high school athletics in the town was low as residents and even students and coaches had largely given up hope about Henderson ever having a competitive football program. But in 1967, things were starting to change.
Henderson ISD had recently hired Fred Jackson as head coach for the Lions' football team. Jackson's presence in the Henderson locker room was significant as he had already worked under Oail Phillips, better known as Bum Phillips, who would go on to be the head coach for NFL teams like the Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints. Jackson was ready to enact some changes in the Henderson football program. And when a certain group of student athletes who had been playing football together since the sixth grade came of age in 1967, those changes were ready to be felt.
"We all thought we were special," Joe Wylie, tailback for the Henderson Lions during the 1967 and '68 seasons, said. "What came together for Henderson at that time was like a perfect storm."
Alongside teammates like Joel Hale, Mark Gibson, Mike Dennis, Keith Bobo, Daryl Gray, Dan Carroll, Jimmy Sanders, Mark Rushton, Glen Deason, Sidney Riley, and other star-studded athletes, Wylie helped turn around the Henderson Lions from their 4-5 record in 1966 to an 8-2 record in 1967. After playing together for the better part of a decade, Wylie and his teammates had become a force to be reckoned with and a genuine threat to win it all.
Unfortunately, their playoff plans were thwarted due to a single blemish on their record. The Lions had lost to Palestine in their first district game of 1967 and, since the UIL only allowed one team per district to compete in the playoffs at that time, Henderson needed Palestine to lose at least one game in order to pass them and become district champions.
It didn't happen. Despite the wide margins with which the Lions were regularly winning their district games, the Palestine Wildcats won each of their remaining games as well. They were named district champions in 1967, cutting the Henderson Lions out of the playoffs yet again.
"By the end of 1967, we were beating teams by two or three or four touchdowns," Wylie said. "Three touchdowns in that era was a huge win."
"If we hadn't lost that first district game, I'd like to have seen what we could have done in the playoffs," defensive tackle Joel Hale said. "I know we would've done better than Palestine did. But that hay is in the barn."
Luckily for Hale and his teammates, many of whom were juniors, this defeat was merely an obstacle to be overcome rather than the crushing end to a Cinderella story. As the summer of '68 began, the athletes who would make up the starting squad for the Henderson Lions' approaching season were chomping at the bit, eagerly anticipating their chance to put their school on the map.
Before the UIL regulations allowed for teams to train with their coaches during the summer, members of the Henderson team would regularly meet up at the elementary school after work and run plays in order to stay sharp and prepare themselves for what was ahead.
"We knew we had the potential," Mark Gibson, who played as a wing back and regularly blocked for Wylie on offensive plays, said. "We were willing to sacrifice our own time after work during the day. We were that far ahead."
That dedication came through loud and clear upon the kickoff of the '68 season. The Lions beat the Grapevine Mustangs 33-12. It would be the closest game of Henderson's regular season.
The Lions began a season of dominance with an undefeated streak that would not be broken. One after another, teams like Sulpher Springs, Terrell, Kilgore, Jacksonville, Nacogdoches and Mt. Pleasant were blown out of the water, often by 30 to 40-point margins.
It appeared as though the Lions had hit a slight snag during their mid-season game with Kilgore, though, when Wylie went down toward the end of the game with a sprained ankle. With Henderson's following game against Carthage fast approaching, the Bulldogs began to recognize that this was their chance to strike.
"Word spread in Carthage that Joe wasn't going to play," Gibson said. "And that fired them up. They thought they were going to knock us out of the race."
The Lions beat the Bulldogs 41-0.
"Joe never made a play," Gibson said.
The Lions' closest game came as they entered the playoffs. The Lions were ahead of the Mexia Black Cats late in the fourth quarter, but only by a three-point margin with the score 10-7.
The Black Cats were driving dangerously close to the Lions' end zone when defensive lineman Sidney Riley made a game-saving interception to stop the Mexia drive and give the Lions another win.
The Lions went on to beat Plano, who were heavily favored, 21-7 in the state quarterfinals before reaching their final stop in Abilene where they fell to Lubbock Estacado in the state semi-finals. Estacado went on to be named state champions of 1968.
During the game, Henderson's Daryl Gray was taken out in the first quarter with a concussion and Wylie broke his hand in the first half and played with it the entire second half anyway.
"That's the kind of guy he was," Kenneth Orr, who attended Henderson Middle School in 1968, said. "He wasn't going to say anything about a broken hand."The Lions' season may have ended a couple of games short of a state championship, but their monumental achievement had changed the perception of their town. Though 1968 was their final year with the team, their success kicked off a string of winning seasons for the football program, including two district championships in 1972 and 1973, and marked a turning point for football in Henderson.
"I was in eighth grade the year that they did this," Hale said. "After the season [several of the players] came and talked to us. They were like heroes. They told us that they had started a tradition in Henderson and that Henderson was considered a football town now. They expected us to work hard and keep that going."
Despite the winning seasons that would follow, though, no team would surpass the '68 team's 12-1 record until the 2010 state championship team, and even they lost more than one game. The reverberations of that success not only shook the foundation of Henderson High School, they were felt throughout the town.
"I remember the spirit and enthusiasm of this town was just over the top," Ronnie Morrison, who was sports editor for the Henderson Daily News in 1968, said. "Everybody seemed to be involved. You'd go places like Terrell or some other places and we'd have as many or more people in the stands than the home team would."
The 1968 team had a number of attributes that may have led to their success. They had a pool of skilled players; no less than eight students from the team signed Division I scholarships going on to play football for colleges that included, Tulane, SMU, OU and UT.
They also had experience, with several of the starters in '68 entering their third year as players for the varsity team. They had confidence and a disciplined mindset; each member of the team even wore suits to school each Friday before the game and took their education as seriously as they took their athletics. But to hear them tell it, their greatest strength was the bond they felt with each other.
"We were smaller than just about everybody that we played that year," Mike Dennis, safety for the Lions during the '68 season, said. "But we had a lot of will to win. Everybody played for everybody else. There wasn't anybody on that team that wanted to be a standout superstar. That goes a long way when you're doing a team sport."
Many outlets who covered the team's rise to glory in the '68 season singled out Joe Wylie as the standout. As the star tailback of the team, Wylie regularly rushed for over 100 and sometimes 200 yards during a game, despite only playing for an average of two quarters each night. But the players never envied Wylie's newfound fame.
"We didn't get jealous because we knew it took all of us," Gibson said.
"Joe Wylie had to be one of the most humble people I've ever known in my life," Dennis said.
Even today, after being inducted into the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame in 2008, Wylie downplays his own importance, placing emphasis on the value his friends brought to the team, and to him personally.
"I was in a position that brought more notoriety to it," Gibson said. "The tailback in our offense was the featured back, so I was going to get the most carries in a game. Even though your tackle may have an incredible game and made 10 blocks that were the difference, he didn't carry the ball so nobody knows to write about him. But we had really good talent on that team. It was not a fluke that we did well."
After graduating from Henderson High School in 1969, many of the players on that team went their separate ways. Though some remain here in Henderson, many moved away and haven't seen their former teammates for almost 50 years.
This will soon change. At 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Kenneth Orr, the eighth grader who idolized the players of the '68 team who is now the leader of the Henderson High School football booster club, will be hosting a 50-year reunion in the Henderson field house. Players from that season will have the chance to meet with each other, talk about their lives, and reminisce before heading to the current Henderson Lions' home game against Chapel Hill. The players will be recognized on the field before the game begins, and will sit and enjoy the Friday night atmosphere together.
"It's always good to see old friends," Hale said. "Most of us grew up together."
Hale, who has gone on to become the current Rusk County Judge, is excited about the reunion not only because it allows him the opportunity to see many of his oldest and best friends, but also because it gives him the chance to celebrate what he thinks is really the greatest strength of high school sports.
"The whole thing about high school athletics is getting kids to do the best they can," Hale said. "And hopefully that carries on over in life. High school athletics is not supposed to be the highlight of your life. Hopefully, you're able to go on and learn from the experience you had and that helps you to be successful in other things you do."