The Mighty A has a comeback of his own to lead the seventh and eighth grade football program at Alexander Junior High.
Ephraim “EJ” Henderson, a graduate of the school, will begin his first year as head football coach at the school when classes begin on Thursday.
Henderson graduated from Brookhaven High in 2011, where he played on football and baseball teams. He signed to play both sports at Alabama State University before finally concentrating on football, where he started as a wideout at ASU for three years.
Twice earlier in his career, Henderson served as Alexander’s teacher while he was training at Brookhaven High. He takes over from former AJH head coach Tommy Gibbs, who joined the Brookhaven High collegiate coaching staff for coach Tucker Peavey.
“We want to make sure our kids are fundamentally healthy when they leave Alexander and go to Brookhaven High,” Henderson said. “The goal is for them to understand the game and learn not just to be good at it. We want to teach them how to block, how to tackle and how to be good teammates.”
Henderson learned all this himself under the tutelage of legendary Alexander football coach Jesse Terrell.
Henderson first worked at BHS in 2016 as a wide receiver coach under then-head coach Tommy Clopton. From there he returned to Alabama at the high school level as wide receiver’s coach and head baseball coach at Lee High in Montgomery, Alabama.
Lee, a 7A program, advanced to the state semifinals in 2017 with Henderson as a member of the staff.
In 2019, Henderson returned to Brookhaven as an assistant coach at the secondary school for Peavey and the Panthers. During his previous two stints at the school, he was Alexander’s head baseball coach.
The opportunity to coach at the collegiate level called Henderson away from Brookhaven High in 2021.
He was initially hired at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. The Panthers are a Division III program, and Henderson jumped up the Division III ladder before ever coaching a game at Illinois College.
“I was at Illinois College and had trained and started recruiting there that spring, and my head coach sent me to a forced labor camp at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater,” Henderson said. “I was leading a receiver drill during camp, and UW-W head coach Kevin Bullis called me and asked if I wanted to work for him.”
The Whitewater Warhawks are the University of Alabama of NCAA Division III football. The team has an all-time combined playoff record of 51-9, has won 36 conference titles in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) and claims six Division II national championships.
Henderson didn’t stay long in Whitewater, however, as one of the new coaches on the team had arrived from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He recommended Henderson for a position on the staff, which he left, and Henderson took the opportunity to become a secondary coach at Minnesota-Duluth, a Division II program.
The 2021 season in Duluth was a memorable one as the Bulldogs finished 9-3 and advanced to the NCAA playoffs, where they lost in the opening round at Angelo State in November.
“We left Minnesota and when we got on the plane, there was snow on the ground,” Henderson said. “Our boys were all wearing cold weather clothes and layers of clothing and we got to Texas and it was in the upper 80’s when we got off the plane. It was a shock to their system.”
Henderson came home to Duluth after the 2021 season to find employment close to his family. Coaching Midwestern college football has been a learning experience, but being close to the people who know you best is second to none.
“My mom was struggling with some health issues and my sister helped her out, but I wasn’t able to help much when I was so far away,” Henderson said. “All I knew was that I wanted to get promoted somewhere around here, but I never thought I would get such an opportunity to become the head coach at AJH.”
Alexander principal Patrick Hardy, who coached Henderson at Brookhaven High, extended the vacancy and the new head coach has been preparing for the 2022 season.
His coaching staff includes Alexander teachers Russ Britt, Kwinsi Bridges and Tony Gibbs.
“Football can be a way to motivate children to go to school,” said Henderson. “It really opened my eyes to that when I was coaching at the high school level in Alabama. I’ve seen some kids who literally came out of nowhere, they lived in abject poverty, but for them – football was part of what got them going every day and got them on the bus. They appreciated this opportunity to play the game.”
Henderson’s first team will take to the field on August 29 when you play Wesson in the season opener.
AJH will play three home games at King Field at Brookhaven High on September 12 against McComb, October 3 against Lawrence County and October 17 against Tylertown. The Panthers will play Franklin County on September 19, North Pike on September 26 and South Pike Middle School on October 10.