By CHRIS LARICK
For the Star Beacon
That boy racing on the field to replace the football...
Thirty years ago, that would have been Jimmy Henson, playing the role of ballboy for his father, the elder Jim.
But today it’s J.J. Henson, the son of the younger Jim, who will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame on Sunday, playing that role. On that date, Henson will become the first person to become a member of both the ACBF and Ashtabula County Touchdown Club Hall of Fame as a player. Henson is also a member of the Grand Valley Hall of Fame.
Thirty-odd years ago, Henson reveled in following his father onto the football field and his uncle, Tom, onto the basketball court. That started at Cardinal High School, where both the elder Jim and Tom began their teaching and coaching careers, then moved to Orwell, where the Jim Henson family lived (Tom lived in New Lyme) to take head coaching jobs at Grand Valley.
“I enjoyed it,” Henson said. “We lived in Orwell, so I always went to Grand Valley schools. Dad was on the (Grand Valley) school board, so he had to resign that when he came over here.”
As Jimmy got older, he began his own sports career — playing tee-ball, flag football under Jack Scott and Dave Hendershott and youth basketball under the tutelage of his uncle Tom and Gary Harriman. Ralph Turk coached Jimmy in Little League baseball.
Since Orwell was such a small community, the same kids played all sports and became great friends doing it. Henson played all sports with Mick Shoaf, Brian Sharp, Scott Szabo, Dennis Covell and Sam Paskey.
As Henson grew up, he played seventh-grade basketball under Don Marsh, eighth grade under Dave Zitner.
“We were pretty good,” Henson said. “A lot of those guys played. We had fun. I remember playing in Jefferson, in the old high school, with the little court and tile floor (in the mult-purpose room). We had a tile floor in the old Grand Valley school, too.”
At the time Henson was growing up, the Mustangs were a member of the old Grand River Conference, along with Fairport, Jefferson, Pymatuning Valley, Perry and Southington. They played schools like Berkshire and Cardinal, too, but the big thing at the time was the Bristol Tournament.
By the time he was in high school, Henson had grown to 6-foot-2. As a sophomore, he was the shooting guard on a tall team that also included Matt Lueders, Chris Moore and Ray Harriman. The Mustangs enjoyed a great season his junior year, with Henson, Harriman (the point guard), Derek Nichols, Tom Benge, Brian Olah and Rodney Harris. Tom Henson was head coach of the team, with Mickey Zigmund, who will also be inducted into the ACBF Hall of Fame this year, as an assistant.
“He was Uncle Tom,” Henson says of his head coach. “He had expectations of me, that I was going to give it my all all of the time.”
Henson is proud of the fact that the Mustang basketball team won 50 games in the three years he started — 16 his sophomore year, 19 when he was a junior and 15 in his senior season.
He was also a very good long-distance (1,600-meter) runner in track, good enough to make it to state as a senior.
“We had a real nice track team,” he said. “Mick Shoaf won the discus and placed in the shot at state that year and Ray Harriman placed in the 400. Our four-by-one relay team of Brian Diseen, Bill O’Brien, Adam McElroy and Lamont Eaton still has the county record. But they had the baton knocked out of their hands in the regional finals and didn’t make state.”
But Henson’s best sport — the one he wound up playing in college — was football. With Henson at quarterback (and defensive back), Grand Valley went 4-5 his sophomore year and 6-4 his junior season before really blossoming when he was a senior. Though Henson was an effective thrower, his father used his old formula, running the ball a lot. That senior year, the Mustangs went 9-1 in the regular season, making the playoffs for the first time in Grand Valley history. Unfortunately, they ran into O.J. McDuffie and the Hawken Hawks in the first round of the playoffs and lost in a close game.
“It was a lot of fun,” Henson said. “We were very successful at all sports. I was particularly fortunate to have a lot of good teammates and won a lot of games.”
After earning Star Beacon Ashtabula County Defensive Player of the Year honors as a junior and Offensive Player of the Year honors as a senior, Henson had several opportunities to play Division III football. But his dad also got a flyer from St. Jospeh’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana, a Division II college.
“We took off after a basketball game and drove out to Indiana,” Henson remembers. “It just fit. I felt comfortable with some of their athletes.”
He also received athletic and academic scholarships to St. Joseph. Division II schools are permitted to give a limited number (35) athletic scholarships, but can also split them, so that more athletes can take advantage of them.
Henson lettered all four years at St. Joseph’s, starting as strong safety as a junior and senior.
In addition to being 6-2, he had filled out to 210 pounds and was a physical player.
“A lot of times, I was like an outside linebacker,” he said.
“I loved (St. Joseph’s). I liked the people. I made some life-long friends. It was a small school, about 1,000 students. It felt comfortable. All the friends I made, we all lived in the dorms for four years together. It was a tight-knit group. We grew up together and got a very good education.”
Henson majored in elementary education at St. Joseph’s, but his teaching career was put on hold when he got into college coaching as an assistant.
He began at Tiffin (Ohio) University, working with the defensive backs, then moved on to Ashland University as a graduate assistant coaching the receivers.
When he finished his graduate work, he got a job at West Liberty (W. Va.) where he coached the linebackers. From there, it was back to St. Joseph’s as linebackers coach and defensive co-ordinator. He then went on to Mercyhurst, much closer to his family.
During his coaching odyssey, Jim had married (Becky) and the pair had given birth to J.J. So when the staff at Mercyhurst was let go, as happens often in coaching, Jimmy finally became a teacher, in the classroom after all that time.
He got a job as a permanent substitute teacher at Riverside, where his old pal, Mick Shoaf, was superintendent, along with another Ashtabula County friend, Dennis Holmes.
“It led me to a full-time teaching job,” he said of the substitute job, one most teachers find less than desirable.
After Henson had been teaching at Riverside for three years, Jason Root decided to step down as Jefferson’s head football coach. Henson took the job as head football coach and eighth-grade science teacher eagerly.
“I had been working up to that point,” Henson said. “I wanted to be a head coach.”
That was in 2005. He has now been at Jefferson for eight years and had enough success on the football field to be named Star Beacon County Coach of the Year in 2005 and 2011. Before this just-completed season, Henson spent two yearsas eighth-grade girls basketball coach under the legendary Rod Holmes.
“This is a great community,” he said of Jefferson. “We’re fortunate to have beautiful facilities and I really enjoy the kids here. I feel comfortable raising my kids here.”
Though some Ashtabula County coaches are not happy with their current league affiliations (or lack of affiliation, in the cases of Edgewood and Conneaut), Henson is content with Jefferson’s new league, the All-American Conference.
“I love it,” he said. “I’m not saying I don’t miss our old rivalries, but we are developing rivalries with every team down there. Our kids are starting to know the kids down there. In football, there is great competition, a great league. This league does a lot of things right.”
He also enjoys his teaching assignment — eighth-grade science.
“As a teacher, you want to help kids, and that’s a crucial age,” he said. “I think a teacher can have an impact. I get every eighth grader in every class, so I get to know my kids in junior high track. To me it’s a positive.”
Henson is a devotee of outdoor sports — hunting and fishing primarily. He uses a crossbow when hunting deer, wild turkeys or rabbits since he has a bad shoulder and doesn’t have the time to put into shooting practice.
“With a crossbow I can be more accurate,” he said. “You want to do it as humanely as possible.”
His wife, Becky, sometimes hunts with him, and took down a deer with a crossbow a couple of years ago.
One of his favorite hunting companions is old friend John Kampf, a former Star Beacon sports writer now at the News-Herald in Lake County.
“I’m very fortunate to have a wonderful sister,” Henson said. “But I don’t have any brothers. My brother is John. It’s been that way a long time.”
Henson also enjoys golfing and has a pretty good game developed when he was caddy master at Ogleby Park. He and Becky have participated in a couples golf league at Hickory Grove for a couple of years, though that might be difficult this year since Becky has moved from teaching at Lakeside to a job at Andover Bank.
Jim and Becky have been married 13 years and have two sons, J.J., 13, and Nate 10. J.J. is s seventh grader who plays football and basketball and runs track, just like his dad did. Nate is in the fourth grade and is already playing basketball.
Henson’s father, also Jim but not Jim Sr., still coaches the offensive line at Edinboro University and teaches math there. This year marks his 45th year of teaching.
Larick, a retired Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.