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December 11, 2012

Keeping Tabs from Kentucky

By: Jimmy Robertson

Former Tech linebacker Kent Henry still keeps up with the Hokies even though he
lives these days in the Bluegrass State, where he was born and raised

Kent Henry (58) took advantage of an opportunity early in his career and became a three-year starter at linebacker, where he finished with seven career interceptions.

The sport of football often leaves its participants with a lot of memories, and occasionally, trophies, rings and various other awards and honors.

Kent Henry recently received something else from his days as a football player – a new knee.

Undergoing knee replacement surgery, though, hasn’t dented Henry’s fond affections for his school or his playing days at Virginia Tech, where he played as an outside linebacker during the short-lived Charlie Coffey era back in the early 1970s. In contrast, he viewed his recent medical procedure as simply the price to be paid for doing something he loved.

“I wouldn’t trade my decision to come to Tech for anything in the world,” Henry said. “I made a lot of close friends there, and we had a great time. We still keep in touch.”

Henry committed to Tech after a standout career at Flaget High School in Louisville, Ky. At the time, Jerry Claiborne served as the Hokies’ head coach, and he used to recruit the Bluegrass State with regularity – after all, he was a Kentucky native. He liked Henry and liked that he had played in a split-six defense in high school.

Henry visited Blacksburg and signed with the Hokies, choosing the school after also visiting Kentucky and Tennessee.

“They didn’t offer me a full scholarship,” Henry said of the other two schools. “They were offering me a partial scholarship, and Coach Claiborne was offering me a full. I also liked having the opportunity to play more.”

Henry enrolled at Tech in 1970 and sat out the season, as required in those days by NCAA rules. The 1970 season, though, turned out to be Claiborne’s last at Tech, which went 5-6 for its second straight losing campaign. The university then brought in Coffey to replace Claiborne.

Coffey marked a stark contrast to the conservative, defensive-minded Claiborne. He brought in Dan Henning – most Tech fans know him for his multiple stops in the NFL as a coordinator and quarterbacks coach – to power a high-scoring offense, and Henning delivered, as quarterback Don Strock went on to set numerous school records.

“They (Claiborne and Coffey) were totally different,” Henry said. “Claiborne was the type who always had his nose to the grindstone and expected his players to be that way. He’d practice three hours at a time.

“Coffey was a promoter. He came in and changed the uniforms and the helmets, and he brought in his type of offense, which was a high-octane offense. I think Don Strock led the country in total offense that year.”

Henry went on to adjust to the coaching change rather easily. Interestingly enough, he also adjusted to a name change of sorts, one courtesy of his teammates.

During his freshman season, he and a few of his teammates went to the Lyric Theater in downtown Blacksburg one Sunday to watch Catch-22, a movie based on the novel with the same title that rates as one of the best literary pieces of all time. While there, the producer’s name flashed across the screen – Buck Henry. From that day on and even today, Henry’s teammates called him “Buck” instead of “Kent.”

Joking aside, Henry quickly became a prominent player in Coffey’s 4-3 defensive scheme, though that wasn’t exactly planned. He went into the 1971 season fully expecting to be redshirted, but he found himself in the middle of all the action on that defense when two guys got hurt at the middle linebacker position. The first injury enabled Henry’s good friend, Dennis Dodson, to break into the lineup and allowed Henry to receive some playing time on special teams.

In the second game that season, though, Dodson suffered a stinger, and Henry was put in the game in place of Dodson.

“I intercepted a pass and made a few tackles,” Henry said. “Then the next game against Florida State, I started and recovered a couple of fumbles and had an interception. Then Dennis came back, and they moved me to outside linebacker.

“It just shows you’ve always got to be ready. You never know what may happen.”

Henry enjoyed a terrific season, even though the Hokies went 4-7 in Coffey’s inaugural campaign. He intercepted a team-high five passes. The team finished with 15 total the entire season.

Henry went on to start all three years, and he intercepted seven passes for his career. He was part of a small collection of players to play for Coffey all three years of their careers during Coffey’s three-year tenure. Following a 2-9 season in 1973 – the year after Strock had left – Coffey retired despite having several seasons left on his contract.

“That year was sort of a youth movement,” Henry said. “Coffey and the staff had a lot of young players and decided to work them in. But we never gelled as a team. Strock was gone, and nothing clicked. It was not a good year.

“We had moments when we were good while I was there, and moments when we were not. We played a tough schedule back in those days. I think we were everyone’s Homecoming. Our schedule was as good as anyone’s in the country, when you talk about playing teams like Florida State, SMU, Houston and Oklahoma State. That was another thing that got me to Tech.”

Despite his playing days ending on a sour note, Henry remembers them with affection, even the ones that would seem a touch embarrassing. His fondest memory occurred during his junior year when a teammate blocked a field-goal attempt by Houston, and Henry scooped up the loose ball.

“I was running and looking to score, and then someone caught me at the 5-yard line,” he said. “I hear about that all the time. I tell people all the time that the guy was on the Olympic 4x100 team. That was an embarrassing moment for me, but memorable.”

In 1974, Henry graduated with a degree in marketing management. He decided to go back home to Kentucky after graduation, and he landed a job in the trucking industry sales business, where he served as a sales representative for a local company. Roughly 15 years ago, he switched companies, and he started working as a sales rep for a company in Minnesota that sells promotional items such as shirts, hats, jackets and other “stuff.” He has worked in sales all his life.

“I like working for myself and working from home” he said. “You get to make up your own schedule, and you make as much money as you put into it. But you still have time to play golf if you want.”

Of course, being in Louisville has its other privileges. He doesn’t live far from Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby – arguably the most famous horse race in the world. He and Dodson, his former teammate, go to the race every year.

“I’m a horse racing fanatic,” he said. “I love it here.”

Henry still keeps up with the Hokies these days. In fact, he and seven other buddies come back to Blacksburg for at least one game a year – his wife of 27 years is an understanding woman. Dodson, who works for State Farm in Fredericksburg, Va., owns a home in Blacksburg that he rents out, but he keeps the finished basement area reserved for his family and his friends, and Henry and his buddies stay there.

“We’ll throw some mattresses down and stay there,” Henry said. “It’s like a big fraternity weekend. We’ll go down on a Thursday and play golf. Then, we’ll tailgate and go to the game on Saturday. The guys love it.”

Like most Tech fans, Henry is keeping tabs on conference realignment these days. Maryland’s departure to the Big Ten knocked the ACC into a state of flux, but the league took a step to replace the Terrapins, adding Louisville starting in 2014.

Henry now will have the opportunity to see the Hokies play a little more often in his home state. One can feel certain he’ll take advantage of it.