COLUMBIA — Persistence has paid off for Joe Henderson.
Henderson, in his third season as Columbia College's assistant softball coach, will be the first softball coach for Battle High School next season. A persistent approach along with a "not-taking-no-for-an-answer" mentality landed him both jobs.
At a normal late afternoon practice for the Cougars, Henderson is unusually quiet and reserved. With his hands folded over his head and his right leg hanging over his left knee, he studies the players from the dugout.
The team is coming off two losses to Lindenwood University the day before.
Henderson is a former Navy sailor and semi-professional baseball catcher. Today it’s hard to tell that he’s undergone three surgeries on each of his knees. His scarred legs are covered by blue jeans with dirt patches on both shins. His baggy Columbia College sweatshirt covers a formerly solid torso.
Star hitter, Jamie Holmes, connects on a fastball from Kacey Rehagen, a former pitcher and current graduate assistant, for the Cougars.
The towering fly ball to right-center field gets Henderson out of his seat. The ball lands a few seconds later behind the yellow fence for a home run.
“That’s a ding dong,” Henderson says. "Told you."
Henderson trots out of the dugout and down the first base line. He has to leave early to pick up his wife, Linda Henderson, from the airport.
He stays for a few more minutes to watch a few more at-bats.
Sometimes he can't get enough softball in a day. He also coaches his granddaughter's youth softball team, the Stealth, in his spare time.
Henderson grew up playing baseball in his hometown of Palm Desert, Calif. The arid climate allows for a year-round baseball season. Two weeks after his high school graduation in 1975, Henderson left his hometown for the Navy.
Henderson served 11 years as a sailor. A broken back forced him to take a medical discharge in 1986. The Navy took him to places around the world like Singapore, Japan, Germany, Haiti, the Philippines and Vietnam.
“I liked the way the Navy treated families and the adventure of going to see places,” Henderson said. “I would’ve stayed in for 30 years if I could’ve.”
During his service, Henderson kept active by playing for an all Navy softball team for a few years. In 1979, while stationed in Milwaukee, Wisc., Henderson doubled as a semi-professional baseball player.
“I was a catcher,” Henderson said. “I wore the tools of ignorance.”
He was good enough to receive a professional tryout from the Kansas City Royals. Henderson didn’t make the team, but enjoyed the experience.
In 1998, Henderson moved to Columbia to take an administrative job. He coached Rock Bridge for 11 seasons before resigning in 2009 to take an assistant coaching job at Lincoln University in Jefferson City. After spending the 2010 season at Lincoln, Henderson approached Columbia College coach Wendy Spratt looking to become the next assistant for the Cougars.
Fast-forward five days from the Columbia College practice.
Henderson is standing on the new Battle High School softball field on east St. Charles Road. The field still needs protective netting, dugouts, bullpens and bleachers.
The Cougars are on a four-game winning streak in which they’ve scored 34 runs. Henderson is happy and proud of the team’s success at the plate.
Henderson got the job at Battle after three or four months of negotiating with the athletics department. He hopes to remain the assistant for the Cougars and continue to coach his granddaughter’s team next season as well.
“My own little field of dreams,” Henderson says. "I wanted to come back to high school."
Henderson has spent close to $700 of his own money to help with the expenses of setting up a new softball program. He wants to do things his way. For the past year, much of his free time has been spent on preparing this field for the inaugural season.
Henderson got this job in a similar way to how he got his Columbia College job.
“He approached me, and I told him 'no' a few times,” Spratt said. “He kept on me.”
While at Rock Bridge, Henderson had a reputation as being a “screamer (toward players and umpires),” which Spratt didn’t want on her team. However, Spratt knew of his other, more attractive reputation: that of a hitting guru.
It was that persistence that paid off for Henderson.
Henderson was able to convince Spratt after a few meetings over lunch that he wasn’t going to be the coach she saw at Rock Bridge for years.
In Henderson's second season with the Cougars, the team's batting average increased by 80 percentage points, Spratt said. She credits Henderson’s knowledgeable, persistent approach to the team's hitting success.
"Hitting is not a magical mystery tour," Henderson said. "Most hitting is mental, not mechanical."
Spratt said Henderson, for the most part, has kept his word about controlling his emotions.
“It’s taken us a while, but I think we're working really well together,” Spratt said. “We do the good guy, bad guy thing pretty well.”
Henderson likes to play the good guy more than the bad guy these days. He likes to crack jokes and poke fun at players, but still takes his job very seriously. His players enjoy the balance.
Hanna Taylor, a sophomore, has known Henderson since high school where she played against his teams at North Calloway.
“He’s professional when he needs to be,” Taylor said. “He tries to keep the mood very light and balance out the coaching staff.”
Through former players, Henderson has developed a more fun, calm approach to the game. He’s happy with the coach he’s become, even though the transformation has taken some time.
Henderson walks off the Battle softball field and drives off in his silver SUV.
He'll be back in a few days to do more work on the field.