Picayune remembers Marion "Chief" Henley

This past Saturday, a memorial service for Hall of Famer Marion “Chief” Henley was held in Picayune. Pleasant Valley Baptist Church was packed with Henley’s family, former players and admirers. It was an incredible turnout considering Henley left Picayune in 1970, 43 years ago. I was honored to represent the Hall of Fame and be among the speakers. What follows is the text of my eulogy:

This is a first for me. I am speaking at the memorial service of a man I never met. However, I have heard so much about Marion “Chief” Henley that I certainly feel like I know him and I have listened to him talk about his coaching philosophy on the touchscreen kiosks at your Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

Let me make one thing clear from the start. I am honored to be here in Picayune today, honored to pay my respect to not only a great coach but a great man, a deserving member of the proud institution known as the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.

You know, our Hall of Fame preserves the legacies of some of America’s greatest sports heroes: Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Archie Manning, Cool Papa Bell, Dizzy Dean, Boo Ferriss and so many more. In the coming years, stars such as Deuce McAllister and Brett Favre will join them.

I am here to tell you that the great Marion “Chief” Henley belongs with those heroes — and is there. And not only his records — but his story, in his words — will be enshrined for this and future generations.

To me, Marion Henley’s story is especially compelling, especially important for future generations. I will tell you why. I graduated from just up the road at Hattiesburg High at just about the same time our Mississippi schools were integrating.

When we played Picayune High School, they were usually our homecoming game. They were most everybody’s homecoming game because everybody knew they could beat Picayune. My senior year, we didn’t win all that many games but we beat Picayune 34 to nothing for homecoming. Little did we white kids know that on the other side of town in Picayune there was a Carver High School team, coached by Chief Henley, that hardly ever lost.

His teams won 95 percent of their games and once won 64 in a row, still a record for a Mississippi high school coach. I have been writing about sports for 40 years and I have never known of a coach — not Bear Bryant, not Eddie Robinson, not Nick Saban — who won 95 per cent of his games. Chief Henley did.

And yet when Picayune schools integrated, they asked Chief Henley to be the white coach’s assistant coach. Chief Henley had never had an assistant coach, much less was he going to be one. It was a travesty that happened all to often in my home state at that time.

As a proud Mississippian, I am happy to say that it happens less and less these days. Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Southern Miss all have had head coaches of color for major sports. My alma mater, USM, now has an African American president.

But we need to remember people like Marion Henley who endured gross injustice — injustice that seems so ridiculously silly now — and paved the way to such progress. With that, I’ll close. Thank-you, Shelia (Mrs. Marion Henley) and the Henley family for allowing me to represent your Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum here today and pay tribute to Marion “Chief” Henley, a hero who will never be forgotten — either here in Picayune or in Jackson at the Hall of Fame.

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