For these ageless prep football coaches, sharing life lessons never gets old

Two members of 71-year-old Hillsborough High coach Earl Garcia’s staff are even older than him.
Hillsborough's Earl Garcia (left), entering his 50th season as a high school football coach at age 71, has two assistants older than him: 80-year-old Steve Longfellow (center) and 76-year-old Vernon Henderson (right).
Hillsborough's Earl Garcia (left), entering his 50th season as a high school football coach at age 71, has two assistants older than him: 80-year-old Steve Longfellow (center) and 76-year-old Vernon Henderson (right). [ JOEY KNIGHT | Times ]
Published Aug. 22

TAMPA — He has lived a life teeming with adventure and Advil. Vernon Henderson served in Vietnam, wrestled professionally for more than a decade and logged more than a quarter-century with the U.S. Postal Service.

He has survived colon cancer, a double bypass and 22 surgeries, including two shoulder replacements, two knee replacements and an ankle fusion. “I could own Florida Orthopaedic (Institute),” joked Henderson, a grandfather who has been married 53 years. “I’m the million-dollar man over there.”

Yet in lieu of retirement, this surgically altered septuagenarian still ingests his seven medications each morning and heads to Hillsborough High — his alma mater — for another sweltering afternoon of football practice. At 76, the Army veteran has another mission to fulfill. The wrestler has another opponent — complacency — to pin.

The postman has another message — of self-discipline — to deliver.

“I kind of demand respect,” said Henderson, the Terriers’ defensive line coach.

“You’re not going to do what you want to do. Even when I’m running the (defensive line) drills and stuff, they’re not allowed to talk, they’re not allowed to have their helmets off with their chin straps unsnapped — just little things like that. ... It’s just a discipline thing. It’s not that I’m a hard-ass, because I love those kids to death, but they just don’t get it at home.”

Though his approach may hearken to a less-tolerant time, Henderson’s not the oldest of old-schoolers on the Terriers’ current staff. Also still serving alongside 71-year-old head coach Earl Garcia is 80-year-old Steve Longfellow, embarking on his 54th year as a local prep football assistant.

All seemingly have found rejuvenation in a figurative fountain of youth that spouts each Friday night. And all still find purpose in working with generations — X to Y to Z — on the opposite end of their alphabetical spectrum.

“Well, obviously it’s the kids, being with kids and just making a difference in kids’ lives,” said Longfellow, who spent 38 years as a teacher in Hillsborough County’s school district. “Get them on a track to better things in their lives for them. They’re learning things here that they’re going to carry on with everything in their life.”

At 80, Longfellow might be the area’s second-oldest coach at any level, behind only 84-year-old Bucs offensive assistant Tom Moore. A Minnesota native who played football and hockey at Macalester College in Saint Paul, he had developed assorted coaching contacts during regular vacations to Florida. Among them: Hal “Buggo” Griffin, Hillsborough’s head coach in the late 1950s.

Griffin helped Longfellow land his first coaching job, at Plant City High in 1966. He has barely stopped since, working at Plant City, Armwood and Hillsborough.

“I fit the old adage: I’ve never had a real job in my life,” Longfellow said.

Real jobs, after all, typically come with a retirement age. The most rewarding ones are ageless.

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“It is a way of life,” Longfellow said. “As it is with those of us who have been around it that long.”