Eric Henderson was walking through the halls of West Potomac High School on the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 24 when the teacher and head football coach started feeling nauseous. His heart was racing, he couldn’t catch his breath and he felt pain in his left arm. Recognizing the symptoms of a heart attack, Henderson contacted his wife Stacey, a nurse, who told him to call 911.
The 43-year-old Henderson wasn’t having it.
"They ain’t calling an ambulance," he thought. "I’m going to walk out of here if I can."
It was game day and Henderson, a former college offensive lineman, wanted to be with his Wolverines when they traveled to West Springfield later that night. He went to the school’s parking lot to wait for his wife, figuring he would eventually end up on the sideline.
"I felt like, I’ll go to the hospital and get checked out, everything will be all right," he said. "I’ll be back for the team meal."
Despite his wishes — the thoughts of a "stupid football player," Henderson said — Henderson was admitted to Inova Alexandria Hospital. He had suffered a heart attack. Cardiologists informed the coach the results of his electrocardiogram showed problems. He wasn’t going anywhere.
While good sense prevailed and Henderson remained in the hospital, West Potomac players and assistant coaches mimicked Henderson’s resiliency as they carried on as planned.
Propelled by a strong defensive effort and a 71-yard touchdown pass from Nik Dimitrijevic to Daryl Copeland on the first play of the second half, the Wolverines opened Patriot District play with a 13-7 win at West Springfield. Henderson returned to practice the following Monday and continued to undergo tests. Barring problems, the coach said he should be on the sideline for the Wolverines’ Oct. 1 game at South County.
Throughout the West Springfield contest, Henderson received updates via text message from his daughter, 19-year-old Meredith, a college sophomore who helps make sure the sideline is in order. Henderson’s two sons were also at the game. Jonathan, a sophomore linebacker, dressed with the team and Caleb, a freshman quarterback, helped along the sideline. The family agreed that Stacey would stay with Henderson while the kids attended the game.
"I was just wondering about my dad the whole game," Jonathan said. "Going in wasn’t a factor to me at that point. [I was] just wondering if my dad was OK."
While Henderson texted "furiously" from the hospital, assistant Chuck McCullough acted as head coach. There were some rough spots — the West Potomac coaching staff was warned by an official after voicing displeasure with several calls — but things didn’t get out of hand without the team leader on the sideline.
One "cannot replace Coach Henderson," McCullough said. "I just did the best I could to fill in in his enormous shoes."
McCullough said the hardest part about not having Henderson around was making strategic decisions. The staff’s most important move came with less than three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Facing fourth-and-6 from the West Springfield 49-yard line and holding a 13-7 lead, Wolverine coaches opted to punt rather than run a fake and attempt to pick up the first down. McCullough and defensive coordinator Chad Louisville came to the decision based on how well the defense had played to that point.
The punt pinned West Springfield on its own 10 and five plays later, West Potomac forced a turnover on downs.
"The kids played hard for [Henderson] because they love him," McCullough said. "He gives every ounce of himself to these kids and they know that. And I know these kids were not going to let him down. …
"I think [not having Henderson on the sideline] made the kids play harder. They did not want me to send him a text saying that we were trailing or that we were in danger of losing this game."
The West Potomac defense did not surrender a point. West Springfield’s lone touchdown came on an interception return. The Wolverines limited the Spartans to 181 total yards and forced four turnovers, including Jack Polo’s 75-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
Tamaric Wilson intercepted two passes for West Potomac and Denzel Hatch picked off one.
The defense "played lights out," Louisville said. "For the last two weeks we played two Concorde [District] teams (Westfield and Chantilly) that were kind of bigger than us and we kind of got pushed around. I knew what kind of defense we were, but we never got a chance to show it because we got down."
The Wolverines defense proved itself under trying circumstances.
"It was pretty intense losing a father figure," senior linebacker Sonpon Doe said. "It was heartbreaking."
But West Potomac found a way to bounce back.
"We played a perfect ballgame," Doe said of the defense. "We had our fun, we had some hits, we scored [a touchdown]. That’s what [the] defense has got to do: punch them in the mouth, turn the ball over and if you have a chance to score, you score."
Henderson’s father died of a heart attack at the age of 43, which has the coach’s attention. He said his future will likely require a lifestyle change — a healthier diet and more exercise — and could involve medication. For now, he’s focused on doing what it takes to be a family man and a football coach.
"That freaks me out," Henderson said of his father dying at the coach’s current age. "I want to be around for my kids. We’re just going to have to do those things that I need to do."