Here’s my story on Butler Community College’s 1981 national championship team. Hopefully you were able to grab a hard copy of Wednesday’s Eagle to see the incredible job Ryan Johnson did packaging it for the sports cover.
I spent most of my day Tuesday talking to Fayne Henson, A.C. Poynter, Mike Nardone and Jeff Sanders – and each one had some great stories to tell. I thought I’d drop the tidbits that didn’t quite make it into the story here. You know, for the book.
Joking. The good stuff after jump:
Coach Henson was in Surprise, Arizona, when we talked, and the first thing he did was complain about how cold it was that week when he was teeing off. It was about 45 degrees he said, and didn’t warm up into the 60s until he was a couple of hours into his round.
I told him he was spoiled.
“I guess I am,” he said, laughing. “But I’ll tell you what, when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun is shining like it is today … a guy can’t complain about much.”
Henson left Butler for Wichita State after winning the title and was the offensive coordinator under Willie Jeffries. When Jeffries left and Ron Chismar took over, Henson went into meet with the new coach, who he knew wanted to call his own plays.
“I went in and told (Chismar) that I knew he wanted to call his plays, I respected that and not to worry about me because I could go find another job, no hard feelings or anything like that” Henson said. “He told me that he wanted me to stay and coach running backs. I was the only coach that stayed over in the transition.”
Henson coached running backs for two years and ended up the defensive coordinator in his final season under Chismar. WSU dropped football in 1986. After that, he went into real estate.
“My wife Angie and I had four kids, each three years apart,” Henson said. “And we had this plan, what we thought was a plan at least, that because of the way their ages were spaced out, we would only have two of them in college at a time and we could plan our finances around that.
“My first kid went to school for 10 years and got his doctorate. The next one went six to get some kind of accounting degree that required two different kinds of masters degrees.”
I reminded him he was in Arizona.
“Yes, it is beautiful here. Mid-60s today.”
I asked him if he had any idea back in 1981 what an impact winning that title would have on the lives of everybody involved.
“You know, so many times people have tried to get me to impart some kind of historical knowledge on situations where, you know, you’re running on instincts in everything you do. You don’t have time to think about it because you’re always planning for the next move when you’re a coach. Time gives you some perspective, and that’s when you can appreciate things. Angie and I have an RV that we park outside of Butler home games to tailgate. We grill. We have a great time. And every Saturday somebody from that ’81 team shows up. We don’t know when they’ll come but they do. They show up with their families and they show up sometimes just by themselves … this group, we’re still together in a lot of ways.”
Sanders was the jump-off point for this story. I originally intended to do some kind of story where I tried to rank the different championship teams, but when Matt Jacobs told me that there was a kid playing on this year’s team – freshman running back Jasper Sanders – with a father on the ’81 team … and there you go.
Sanders played at Northern Illinois and won a MAC title after leaving Butler and then had a cup of coffee in the CFL. He’s been a lineman for Kansas City P&L for 22 years.
He’ll be in Pittsburg on Sunday cheering on his son. Check that. He’ll be in Pittsburg on Sunday living and dying with each play.
“I just want Jasper to be ready, to be focused on whatever it is they need him to do,” Jeff said. “When I think back to ’81 and what we went through together … it is still such a big part of my life and I can remember it like it was yesterday. To be able to see your son have the opportunity to play for a national championship is special. I know what I was feeling the day that we played so I know what he’ll be feeling.”
Nardone and Poynter both told me something without each other’s knowledge – a quote that matched up almost verbatim.
Here’s Nardone’s: “I’ve never been away from football in 25 years. Love the game. Couldn’t see myself not around it.”
Poynter: “I’ve always been involved with football, in coaching, ever since I got out of college. I love being around the game.”
Nardone was a quarterback from Beaver Falls, Pa., who couldn’t believe how excited the people at Butler were after they went 5-3 in his freshman year, 1980.
“These people are all going crazy about 5-3, and I just couldn’t understand it,” Nardone said. “It was like the best thing that ever happened to them and I’m disappointed with how we played. Which made what happened the next year even more incredible.”
Nardone coaches high school football in Hermitage, Pa., just 30 minutes from Beaver Falls. He has a son in 10th grade.
“Whenever I talk to Coach Henson, I tell him as long as I’m still coaching, he’s still coaching,” Nardone said. “His mannerisms, the way he approached the game was something I’ll never forget and I try to emulate that every day with the kids I coach.”
Last summer, Poynter went to a funeral for the mother of an ex-girlfriend from college. About three weeks later, Poynter received a call from his ex, a woman named Janet. She wanted to meet him for lunch.
“I thought it was strange because we’re both married, both have kids,” Poynter said. “I just didn’t quite understand, but she said she had something to give me.”
When he showed up, she slid an old cassette tape across the table. On the label, someone had written “1981 NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP BUTLER 21, NEO 14″. Janet found the tape when she was cleaning out her parents’ house. He could barely wait to get back out to his car.
“I’m a teacher, so that means I have a crappy car and fortunately I’ve also got an old car which means I still have a tape deck,” Poynter said. “They started recording right after halftime and there was that voice … Ev Kohls … he called our games for the radio. I listened to the whole thing.”
Poynter went and played at Washburn after Butler, where he roomed with future Coffeyville/Fort Hays State/Garden City head coach Jeff Leiker. Leiker had played against Poynter at Independence.
Poynter, who graduated from Wichita Northwest, has been a teacher and coach in the Maize school district since 1986 and teaches broadcast and american history at Maize South Middle School. He also coaches a little football.