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OU football: Former teammates, coaches reflect on life, legacy of Sooner great Zac Henderson after his passing

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Former OU football player Zac Hendersson chases a Texas player. 

Former OU quarterback Dean Blevins hasn’t forgotten the first time he met Zac Henderson.

At the beginning of each season, Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer wanted two pieces of information about his players: size and 40-yard dash time.

And so it was at a practice in 1974 that Blevins and Henderson, both freshmen and members of Switzer’s highly touted recruiting class, found themselves pitted against each other in the final 40-yard heat of the day.

While the duo crossed the finish line in a dead tie in that race, Blevins admits that Henderson, a lanky defensive back, ended up being a much faster player. 

Despite the future discrepancy in speed, the two became great friends, forging a bond that lasted until Henderson’s unexpected passing on April 20, 2020. He was just 64 years old when found at his home dead from complications related to sleep apnea, and he was subsequently laid to rest on Saturday.

“Death always kind of throws you for a loop,” said Blevins, who is now the sports director for KWTV in Oklahoma City. “But this one really jolted me.”

During his time at OU, the speedy free safety contributed a pair of All-American honors and numerous big hits to a team that went 41-5-1 with two national titles in four years. Ultimately, his accomplishments made him one whom teammates revered among the greatest to ever roam the secondary at Owen Field.

Beyond football, Henderson was known as a quiet guy who was perfectly fine with being alone. But when he was around others, they immediately noticed his smile, his infectious laugh and a humility that never ceased. On and off the field, he set the example for his teammates, and while he was a phenomenal player, those who knew him say he was an even better person.

“He was just a dear friend when you didn't expect it,” said former Sooner safety Sherwood Taylor, who played alongside Henderson in 1976 and 1977. “He was just one of those guys that was always there when you needed him to be there.” 

Born in 1955 in Jena, Louisiana, Henderson eventually moved to Burkburnett, Texas, where he became a high school star in football, baseball, basketball and track. Upon his arrival to Norman, he was committed to playing the sport he loved the most. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound freshman had forgone a chance at being the Cincinnati Reds’ first overall choice in the Major League Baseball Draft to pursue his love of football.

Henderson was driven by his competitive nature. He hated to lose in anything, be it pool or backgammon, and with his skillset on the field, he wasn’t prone to defeat there either. Former teammates and coaches say he played even faster than he looked, and he had intelligence to go along with his natural ability, two factors that made him an outstanding defender.

Always a hard worker who was strictly business in practice and games, he was molded by OU defensive backs coach Bobby Proctor into a formidable warrior, quickly landing in the Sooners’ starting lineup by the second game of the 1974 season against the Utah State Aggies, whom they clobbered, 72-3. 

The illustrious promotion made him the first true freshman to start for Oklahoma after the NCAA allowed freshman eligibility in 1972.

Replacing the NFL-bound Durwood Keeton, Henderson was inserted into a defensive group containing Dewey and Lee Roy Selmon, Jimbo Elrod, Rod Shoate, Tony Peters and Randy Hughes, among many other all-time Sooner greats. Despite being the youngest of them, he was right at home.

“He made the calls when we needed him to, and for a freshman to make calls and stuff like that in the secondary is really tough,” Proctor said. “But he was a heck of a player.”

Henderson immediately became a dynamic leader for the Sooners, helping Oklahoma to a title in his first year and another championship in 1975 while setting an example in the classroom, too.

“Zac was a pretty good leader, not only on the field but off the field,” said Bud Hebert, who played cornerback alongside Henderson in 1976 and 1977. “He was a good student, went to class and certainly helped all of us understand you had to do both.”

With his academics squared away, Henderson continued to shine brighter each season amid a talented unit. As a junior in 1976, he was a unanimous All-American — thanks in part to a monster performance against Missouri, where he recorded 16 tackles in a 27-20 win. 

That was a school record until 1993 and now ranks sixth in program history for a single game, one feat among many that helped build his reputation as a heavy hitter and made him feared by both his opponents and even his own teammates.

“Our whole secondary was knockout orders man, I’m telling you,” said former OU running back Joe Washington, Henderson’s teammate in 1974 and 1975. “He fit the mold, too. He would tic-tac you for sure.”

In 1977, Henderson finished his collegiate career with his best showing. He became a unanimous All-American once again after a Big Eight-leading and then-school record seven interceptions, while claiming the New York Athletic Club’s College Defensive Back of the Year Award, now known as the Jim Thorpe Award.

Through 43 career games, 42 of which were starts, he garnered 15 interceptions — the second-most in program history upon his departure and fourth now — and was named to the All-Big Eight team three times. He still ranks as Oklahoma’s all-time leader in tackles by a defensive back with 299.

“He just got better every year,” said Hughes, who mentored Henderson at strong safety during his freshman season. “I read his accomplishments yesterday, and he really had a good career, as good as anybody else that probably ever played at OU.”

While Henderson experienced great success on the turf, his football days were not entirely without hardship.

He endured many head injuries throughout his career, and though he didn’t miss a single game, the concussions required him to wear an odd-looking protective pad on his helmet that he wasn’t terribly fond of.

And perhaps even stranger than his helmet pad was his post-Oklahoma fate. Despite being voted as the best defensive back in America in 1977, he went undrafted. Some speculate that the concussions played a role, but it’s still unknown as to why he was not selected.

Regardless of the outcome of the draft, Henderson continued to press on in his pursuit of gridiron greatness. In 1978, he joined the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League, for whom he continued to lead the defensive charge while also serving as the team’s punter on occasion.

Following two seasons with Hamilton, Henderson parlayed his CFL success into a contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, contributing on special teams for the NFC champions in 1980.

“He had a lot of concussions,” Taylor said. “But the (teams) that gave him an opportunity — he always proved to them that they'd made a good investment.”

Returning to the CFL with the Toronto Argonauts in 1982, Henderson produced his top professional season. He snagged four interceptions on the way to being a league All-Star and the Eastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, and he placed second in CFL Defensive Player of the Year voting.

He hung up his cleats after the 1983 season, which saw Toronto win the league championship Grey Cup, though Henderson appeared in only one game for the squad.

Despite the relationships he built during his time in Norman, Henderson mostly kept to himself after retiring from football. Teammates and coaches say he didn’t come around often, but they knew of his success in the oil industry. When he wasn’t working, he was often found on a golf course, enjoying yet another game he excelled at.

Even without seeing him on a regular basis, many still adored him from afar. Occasionally, he met Proctor and Taylor for lunch, and he even walked Taylor’s mother down the aisle in his wedding.

Henderson was so close with Taylor in particular that the latter named his eldest son, Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor, after his former teammate.

“It was a very unusual name at that time,” Taylor said. “Now it’s very common, but Zac was an unusual name at the time, and he was just a really good friend of ours.”

He was so well regarded and beloved among his former teammates and coaches that they were all shocked at his passing. None expected him to be gone so soon.

“(He was) a great player, but a better person,” Proctor said. “I mean, a great person, and that’s why it’s so hard to believe that this has happened.”

He left those who knew him with much to remember, from his great smile and his freshman stardom all the way to his award-winning collegiate and professional careers.

Henderson was a friend to the end, and while he might not be one of the more well-known players in OU football lore, his accolades speak for themselves.

“A lot of times, people get awards they don't deserve,” Hughes said. “But I think he deserved everything he got."

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Mason Young is a journalism sophomore and a senior news reporter for The Daily.

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