Gallagher column: Henry finds success at Wake Forest

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 5, 2008

It was Jan. 2, 2007, a day Keith Henry will never forget. How could he?
He had starred as a prep football player at small-town Maiden and became an All-American at small-college Catawba.
But this was bigger than all that.
Henry was walking into the Orange Bowl as an assistant coach for Wake Forest, the ACC champion. A 24-13 loss to Louisville hurt, but it is now a distant memory. The excitement of being in Miami for a BCS bowl is what he’ll always remember.
“I had never experienced anything like that in my life,” Henry said recently from his campus office. “Tears came to my eyes. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Maybe not.
Many experts expect the Demon Deacons, not Clemson, to win the ACC title again this season. Henry’s rise to prominence coincides with that of his school. Entering his eighth season with Jim Grobe, Wake Forest is a player in the world of big-time college football.
“When teams used to see Wake Forest on the schedule, they wrote it in with a pen as a W,” Henry said. “Now, it’s with a pencil.”

It’s not surprising that Henry is tasting success at the Division I level. It’s all he ever knew as a football player.
“In Maiden, football is what you lived for,” Henry said. “At 3 o’clock on every Friday, the mills closed down.”
Henry had a chance to play for Carson-Newman but wanted to stay closer to home so his family could watch him play. He settled for the beautiful campus in Salisbury.
“Bill Mauldin recruited me,” Henry said. “Catawba was a great fit.”
Henry suffered through three losing seasons in four years, but his claim to fame was against Carson-Newman in 1987. Catawba won just four games that fall, but a 2-0 win against the Eagles is still considered among the school’s greatest Saturdays.
With two minutes remaining in the first quarter, Henry, a free safety, blocked a punt. The ball rolled into the end zone, and Henry found himself fighting teammate Jim Tomsula for the loose ball. It bounded out of play for a safety.
“It was one of the biggest victories I’ve had,” Henry said. “What I really remember is that we stopped Carson-Newman three times inside the 5. But we went in with the mindset you can’t look at the C-N on the helmets.”

Henry had the same mindset when he joined Grobe at Ohio University.
Ohio was bad.
“They had a lot of kids where football wasn’t important to them,” he said. “Grobe did a good job of recruiting local kids within a 100-mile radius. So when we played the Kent States, the Akrons or the Bowling Greens, it meant something to them.”
Ohio also started redshirting kids. It paid off. Ohio went from two wins in Henry’s first season to eight by his fourth.
One day, Grobe called his assistants in. He had accepted the job at Wake Forest. He was determined to take his coaches with him to Tobacco Road.
“He invited all the guys, and I was the first one to raise my hand,” Henry said with a big grin.

Three days later, Henry found himself in a van coming down the Blue Ridge mountains. It was 2 a.m., and it was snowing. He didn’t care.
“I would’ve crawled back to North Carolina,” he said.
Henry found a program that was on its knees, crawling.
“When we got here, I wasn’t sure we could beat Ohio,” he admitted. “But we used the same formula. We got kids with great character and academics.”
Today, Henry and the Deacons trot onto BB&T Field for the 2008 home opener against Mississippi. Henry will be in his element: on the gridiron helping mold young men.
“At Catawba, I thought I wanted to major in business,” he said. “But something just wasn’t there. I wanted to help individuals grow and show them what people showed me.”
Henry has a good listener in West Rowan grad Tristan Dorty, a redshirt freshman. Henry is coaching the defensive line and loves what Dorty is bringing to Wake.
Dorty is a perfect example of the Wake Forest recruit. A small-town guy with big-time values and work ethic.
“I’ll tell you what,” Henry said. “The sky’s going to be the limit for that guy. He doesn’t know how good he can be.”
It’s Henry’s job to teach him.
“Dorty’s very explosive,” said Henry, who expects Dorty to get some quality minutes against Ole Miss. “He just has a nose for the football.”

It’s doubtful Henry will have tears in his eyes today at kickoff time, but you can bet that Orange Bowl visit is still in the back of his mind. The pageantry and excitement surrounding one of college football’s biggest stages is second to none.
“It’s the way they treat you,” Henry said. “The escorts, the nice meals, all of the activities …
“Game Day was like the Super Bowl. There were 25,000 people waiting on us. And here I am, a country boy from Maiden at the Orange Bowl.”
Henry may have spoken too soon when he said it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Today, Henry and Wake Forest start a season with high hopes of making it back to a BCS bowl game.
Hopes of success that might eventually bring tears to Keith Henry’s eyes.

Contact Ronnie Gallagher at 704-797-4287 or