William James Henderson III

William James Henderson III

Died February 12, 2004

In the 1965 Class Book, there is a photo of Bill Henderson which seemed to say it all. Hendo – number 40 – is running to daylight, the football tucked firmly under his left arm. The caption says, “Bill Henderson about to break free.” It’s a classic photo of natural power, speed, and grace, qualities which Hendo embodied both on and off the field. One of his teammates, Tim Merrill, remembers that “whether it was long touchdown runs, spectacular plays, raucous laughter, parties at DKE and Saybrook, Bill laughed at life and at himself. He brought joy, laughter, release and escape to many of us. He was truly the life of the party.” His brother Schuyler, who was a couple years younger, says that “when I was growing up he was my hero.”

Bill came to Yale from Winnetka, IL, where he prepared at New Trier Township High School. At Yale, Bill lived in Saybrook, held the James J. Hogan and William W. Hawkes Scholarships and won Freshman numerals in track and football and well as a major Y in varsity football.

After graduation Bill married his high school sweetheart, obtained an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, became a lieutenant in the Marine Corps Reserve, and worked as a stock broker for Smith Barney. But then the pall of mental illness began to fall over his life. He quit Smith Barney to start his own business, which failed. “Somewhere in the process he had a breakdown,” Schuyler says. At first the family attributed it to business pressures but then it became apparent it was more than that. “The word was ‘schizophrenic,’” Schuyler says, a word which at the time was used to cover a host of mental disorders. Today,” he says, “the term would be ‘bi-polar’.” Bill underwent shock therapy and began a program of psychiatric care. His marriage ended in divorce; he couldn’t hold a job and was forced to move to cheaper and cheaper apartments until he was living in flop houses.

His illness took the form of angry outbursts made worse by alcohol, and more than once he ended up in Cook County Jail. His father was the one who would get the call in the middle of the night and come bail him out. Bill never hurt anyone, but he was clearly a danger to himself, and his family wanted to place him in a mental institution where he could receive sustained care and supervision. “But he could always pull it together when he went before the judge,” Schuyler says, and convince the court he did not need to be committed. It was a time when psychiatrists were emptying the institutions in favor of using medications to treat mental illness; but, as so often happens, Bill refused to take the medication. “It was really very difficult to get someone help who didn’t want help,” Schuyler adds. “Part of the disease is a lack of recognition of the disease.” By the time Bill reached his mid-40s, his condition seemed to have stabilized, and he was living in a halfway house in Evanston. “The anger was gone,” Schuyler says, but “he was sort of a shell of a person. . . There was still that person inside, but God it was buried deep.”

Bill died of a stroke on February 12, 2004 at the age of 60. On the day of Bill’s memorial service, the halfway house where he had lived held a second service. Schuyler represented the family and was asked to speak about “William,” as they knew him at the halfway house. He told them of the man his brother had once been. “Nobody knew,” Schuyler says. “On the table in front of the assembled group was a recent photo of Bill. It was a very good photo, in that it captured him, but it was a sad and haunting photo. I asked for it when I left and gave it to my mother. That was the photo she had on her bedroom dresser for the rest of her life.”

There is one bright note in this sad story. His wife, with whom Bill had a daughter, remarried and her new family remains close to the Henderson family. “There is a legacy that he left behind in his daughter and two granddaughters,” Schuyler says. “Lovely girls.”

Daniel O’Grady remembers: This remembrance was written by Dan O’Grady on behalf of himself and Chuck Mercein, who at the time of writing was recovering from a double knee replacement.

Of course Bill and Chuck played high school ball together at New Trier, IL. which was a feeder to the Yale football program thanks to the underground railway of Chicago players (which provided for athletic grant in aid money through various independent awards that helped with tuition since Yale offered no such scholarships) mainly directed by one Bob Anderson. Mr. Anderson was responsible for sending many Yale stars to New Haven including Wolf Dietrict also of New Trier, from the class of ’62 or ’63. Dietrict’s claim to fame in addition to being All-Ivy was he dated Ann Margret in high school, who also went to New Trier. I’m not sure how Bill and Chuck missed that one. They were underclassmen at the time, but should have taken a shot anyway.

When we all arrived at New Haven to play as freshmen for Gib Holgate, we were amazed that everyone on the roster was either all-city, all state or in Chuck’s case High School All-American. We all connected that year as Big Three Champions and moved into Saybrook en masse. We joined our mates Ab Lawrence (Captain of ’64 Yale team), Steve Clark (the world’s fastest swimmer at the time and a future Olympian, Pete Gorczyk a All-City Boston (Brookline) fullback, now deceased, Steve Lawrence an All- Illinois player from Naperville, and Jerry Hinkle who was the reigning high school record holder in the javelin from Exeter Academy. I profess to this day that this rooming group may have been the most talented athletic group in one rooming group ever assembled at Yale. When Calvin Hill visited the campus as a recruit, he was placed in our care and has said to me later on, that that weekend with us was when he decided to go to Yale, having witnessed a victory over Dartmouth with our roommates (Mercein, Henderson and O’Grady) being responsible for all the points against Dartmouth in a 24-15 victory on Halloween.

With such a group, it was daunting task to hold one’s own in the face of such prodigious talent. Bill, dubbed Hendo by the group, continued to use his speed (he was the fastest man on the ’64 team), to produce the longest runs in the Bowl in both his Junior year (79 yard kick off return against Harvard and Senior year in the aforementioned Dartmouth game with an 80 yard scamper to pay dirt. The ’63 game was played in the wake of President Kennedy’s death and left us shaken and heartbroken. Our dates, who had arrived on campus for the November 22nd contest were crest-fallen and had to endure a weekend of mourning rather than the frivolity that usually occurred at 1033 Saybrook.

These are excerpts from an article in the New Haven Journal Courier describing what happened to that year’s Harvard-Yale game. It begins with a quote from head coach John Pont.

“I spoke with George Humphrey (the captain) and Ab Lawrence (the junior tackle). There was no question in their mind that the game shouldn’t be played the next day but they felt that JFK would want it played,” Pont recalled.

The somber practice was nearly complete when a solitary figure, Bill Schaffer, the Yale student manager, trotted through the midfield portal and headed directly to Pont.

No words were necessary. The decision was made. Yale’s abbreviated practice ended as quietly as it had begun.
The crisp afternoon turned to a rainy evening, merriment to mourning, bitterness and frustration that such an event could happen. It seemed an eternity for this empty weekend, once so filled with promise, to run its course.
News came that The Game would be played on Saturday, Nov. 30.

“The following week was a downer for everyone,” said Carm Cozza, Yale’s backfield coach 50 years ago who succeeded Pont in 1965 and coached the Elis for the next 32 years.

Pont, who left Yale after two seasons to be Indiana’s head coach, recalled, “We tried not to dwell on what had happened but the squad had none of the zip we had seen the week before.

Thanksgiving Day came and went. The long, long week of mourning slipped away. Saturday arrived and football, the signal that a semblance of normalcy was returning, provided a focus.

The weather was blustery, cloudy and raw. For the better part of the first quarter Pont wondered if his team would recapture what had been kindled, then smothered.

Yale had fumbled twice. Harvard took a 6-0 lead. Then Bill Henderson, a junior halfback from Chicago, returned the Crimson kickoff from his end zone to Harvard’s 21.

The spark was rekindled. Yale’s line opened massive holes for fullback Chuck Mercein and halfbacks Randy Egloff and Jim Howard. Brian Rapp directed the relentless ground game that wore out Harvard, 20-6.

It should not go unmentioned that Hendo was also a star player at the DKE bar presided over by Steward Jason Pierce at 232 York Street. Certain escapades had us all in trouble one way or another with the Yale authorities. Hendo even got himself suspended from the football team, but he persevered and worked his way back in to coach Pont and backfield coach Carm Cozza’s good graces and produced his stellar contributions to the 63’ and ’64 teams.

After graduation, Bill was off to a good start on adulthood with wife Sharon and a new baby girl. I did not follow his professional career other than stopping by periodically to his State Street condo and hitting the bars on Rush Street when I was in Chicago.

Suffice it to say, he was a good friend to us all and a good student as well. In his later life, his prospects dimmed and his mental health failed him which led to his untimely death. Ironically, he died on the same day as Bob Greenlee (Captain of the ’65 Football team and also from Chicago).