by | Dec 26, 1993 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

His old life ended in the early morning of his 54th birthday, when his wife felt him moving in bed, woke up and saw his eyes open, but his face frozen in pain. His right side had gone limp, and his left side seemed to be crawling back to retrieve it.

“Win?” she said, calling his name. “Win! What’s the matter!”

He couldn’t speak.

The ambulance came, the paramedics took him from the bed to the hospital. It was weeks before he made a sound. There were tears shed, and whispered voices in the hallway. Somewhere in the unreachable corner of his consciousness, he knew nothing would be as it once was.

But know this about Winfield Henry, who survived that massive stroke and is now working on his new life, sitting in his living room, his voice struggling to say the next word: You don’t tell him no. You don’t say, uh-uh, can’t be done. They tried that when he first showed up to work at Detroit’s Central High School, back in the 1960s, and he wanted to start a golf team. A golf team? In the inner city? With what?

“Didn’t even have . . . no clubs,” he says now, and he laughs, and his body shakes.

Somehow, he made it work. The same goes for Central’s dimly lit basketball court, which was repeatedly soaked by leaks in the ceiling. They said games should be canceled? Don’t tell Henry that. He went out with buckets and towels, like Noah fixing leaks in the ark. He told his kids to dribble around the dead spots.

“The game . . . is on,” he says.

He laughs again. With him in the tidy house on Mendota Street are his two sons, David and Owin, who he put through college, and his wife, Ozella. On the table are newspaper clippings, sealed in plastic, that speak of games he played when he was younger, and teams he coached when he was healthier, and the city championship he won here, once upon a time.

It is Christmas, and, truth be told, there should be hundreds of men around him, saying thanks for keeping them off the street, for getting them into college, for maybe, in some cases, saving their lives.

You may not know Winfield Henry, may not recognize the face, the thin mustache, the laughing eyes. But you should. He is the most precious currency in Detroit, a prince of the city. He holds a cane now, and struggles to lift himself up the steps. School of hard knocks

Once it was a wooden paddle, which he kept his back pocket, and when kids got out of line, he whacked them firmly on the butt. This is old-school coaching, it doesn’t fly with modern liberal educators who talk about children’s rights and social consciousness and blah, blah, blah, but then, how often do those people bring their brilliance to the west side of Detroit, near Linwood and LaSalle, Central High, where the world is concrete hard and the odds against black males reaching their 21st birthday are shameful?

“Enough has been said, let’s go to the woodshed,” Winfield Henry would bellow, in rhyme, as he grabbed that paddle and the players cringed. Henry didn’t worry about theory. He had rules, and they were all about this: character and discipline. Nobody late for practice. Nobody late for games. You miss a class, you need a note signed by every teacher saying you had showed up the next day, or you don’t dress. That simple. Bad seeds were out. Having grown up in Arkansas — where his father was murdered — and Detroit, where the bloodshed continued, Winfield Henry knew a simple city truth: You can’t save them all. Save the ones you can.

He did. Year after year, without fanfare, he coached sports, basketball, mostly, some track, some cross-country, some golf. He saw to it that kids who could earn scholarships got them. If a kid needed clothes, somehow, clothes appeared. Henry offered fatherly advice to his young men without fathers. “If you walk past a bank every day, and you don’t put anything in, how can you expect to walk in one day and take something out?”

He spoke like that, in little stories, in rhymes. He loved life, tough as it was. When he woke his sons up in the morning, he would laughingly chant: Liza, Liza, praise the Lord! Don’t you know the day’s a-broad? You don’t get up, you lazy tramp — There’ll be trouble in this camp!

He spoke like that.

And he coached like that. Tough. Hard. And successful. Winfield Henry was coaching long before high schools wooed prospects from across town, like colleges, and the whole thing became a political mess. To the day of his stroke, nearly two years ago, he never got into that dirt. His players at Central were the kids from the neighborhood, he took what fate gave him and he molded them into disciplined, defensive teams, that pressed from the minute the game began.

In 1980, he had his shining moment: Led by stars such as Mike Thomas and Rodney Neeley, Central won the city championship. Winfield was selected coach of the year. His response?

“We got lucky,” he said. And then he added, “We were blessed.” A Detroit angel

When the stroke came, it shocked everyone, because Henry was well-built, played golf, he seemed in such good shape. Doctors blamed his smoking, but who knows? All anyone wanted then was to see him conscious again.

They came to visit, friends, family. His eyes were open, but he made no sound. Dott Wilson, the girls basketball coach at Central and Henry’s longtime pal, tried desperately to say something good when he entered the room. In a decision only coaches would understand, he choose these words:

“Win, I just came from practice.”

Winfield lifted his left hand.

That was the beginning. In the weeks and months that followed, he showed the same determination that characterized his teams. Inch by inch, he moved his body. Word by word, he learned to speak again. His days now consist of strenuous rehab, speech therapy, checkers and, of course, trips to games. He can’t stop. He goes to high school gyms, watches the sport he loves and stifles the urge to cry out to the young men in the Central uniforms.
“Defense! . . . Press! . . . Run the weave!”

He is 55 years old, too young to be “officially” retired and living on pension, benefits and Ozella’s salary as a schoolteacher. But when you ask Winfield Henry if he is angry about what happened, if he feels sorry for himself, he points, with his good hand, to his two sons and his wife.

“I have . . . one . . . two . . . three . . . reasons not to . . . feel sorry for myself,” he says.

There should be more. There should be 200, 400, 700 faces around him, all the young men he has coached the last three decades. They are out there, alive, working, maybe doing some good, at least partly because of him. You think about this time of year, the goodwill, the religious symbols, and you realize this: Not all the angels are hanging on trees. Some are right here, with clipped wings, just trying to get up the steps.


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