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April 12, 2012

Inspired By Hugh

Hugh Hendrix (1955 - 1976)
I was recently sent the book Jackrabbit by Bill Chastain -- the story of Georgia Tech's Clint Castleberry.  And although I'd normally be reluctant to spend my time on anything related to our Eternal Enemy to the West, I was anxious to read details regarding perhaps the most genuine one-hit wonder in the history of college football.

As I continued reading Castleberry's story, knowing the eventual fate of the Yellow Jacket star, who would die during World War II less than two years following his lone season at Tech, I couldn't help but repeatedly think of one of our Bulldog Brethren -- Hugh Hendrix.

The on-field accomplishments of Castleberry and Hendrix, a lineman at Georgia from 1973 to 1975, for their respective programs are about as similar as the two different eras they played in.  In Castleberry's one year of 1942, he was recognized as an All-American and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting; his jersey No. 19 remains the only football number ever retired at Georgia Tech.  After playing along the Bullpups' defensive line on Georgia's 1973 freshman team, Hendrix was a varsity backup at offensive guard as a sophomore and junior, only becoming a starter when a teammate suffered an injury.

Unfortunately, what the two young men from the Atlanta area had in common was a football career cut short by a tragic, unexpected death, leaving teammates, coaches, and fans wondering "what-if" about both inspirational individuals.

Since he grew up and attended high school (old Shamrock High in Decatur) near where I currently live, I've had a general interest in Hendrix's life and his playing days at Georgia for some time.  When I interviewed former Bulldog assistant Jimmy Vickers (1971-1976) for my latest book on the Georgia-Florida rivalry, I made it a point to ask the former offensive line coach what he remembered about "Harvey," as his teammates called him.

As a senior at Shamrock in 1972, Hendrix was recognized as a first-team AA All-State lineman by the AJC.  After moving from defense to offense upon joining  Georgia's varsity in 1974, he played sparingly at guard behind Joel "Cowboy" Parrish.  This continued into Hendrix's junior campaign until Parrish injured a knee against Ole Miss in the fifth game of the season.  Suddenly, the quiet and laid back Hendrix, who "had a lot of good in him," had to replace an eventual All-American.

After a 3-2 start to the 1975 season, the Bulldogs won their final six regular-season games with Hendrix starting at left guard, including the rare feat of defeating the "big three" of Florida, Auburn, and Georgia Tech.  Against the first of these three, Georgia trailed the Gators 7-3 with less than four minutes remaining.  During that season, for most offensive plays, Vickers and offensive coordinator Bill Pace would often confer on what play to call. 

With the Bulldogs backed up on their own 20-yard line, facing second down and 10, Vickers asked his fellow assistant, "Bill, why don't we let ol' Richard throw the ball?"
Hendrix (red arrow) lead blocks for Appleby's
end-around pass against Florida in 1975.

On Georgia's memorable 80-yard touchdown pass from tight end Richard Appleby to receiver Gene Washington, it was Hendrix's responsibility to pull off the line and lead block for Appleby's end-around pass.  Due in large part to Hendrix, the tight end-turned-passer was untouched by the Florida defense and completed one of the greatest plays in UGA football history.

With Hendrix in the lineup through the end of the season, he did "a good job in [Parrish's] place," said Vickers back in 1975.  "We know we can move the ball on anybody."  In addition, before hundreds of players in the conference were annually chosen as "Academic All-SEC," like in recent years, Hendrix earned a spot on the conference's 25-member first team.  In doing so, the hard-working, B-plus business major became the first Bulldog lineman in two years selected first-team Academic All-SEC.

In the offseason, Hendrix was attending summer school at UGA while working out regularly with several other Bulldog players.  The lineman who "rarely made a mental mistake on the gridiron" was preparing for his senior season of 1976, expecting to start at the guard position opposite of Parrish in place of departed All-American Randy Johnson.

One day in July, Hendrix reportedly began slurring his words while complaining of flu-like symptoms, including chills and a fever of 105.  He was promptly sent home to his parents, who took their only child to DeKalb General Hospital for tests.  Hendrix was then transferred to Emory University Hospital.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, July 14th, Hugh Denson Hendrix suddenly died of cardiac arrest, caused by an acute blood infection.  Speculation was that the 21-year-old's infection could have been caused by drinking contaminated water, however, Hendrix's case remains somewhat of a medical mystery.

Hendrix, "who plugged along and got the job done with hard work," according to then-head coach Vince Dooley, was honored by the program with the establishment of the Hugh Hendrix Memorial Award, which was given from 1976 to 1992 to the Bulldog player who "most strained his potential."  Shamrock High School had its own Hugh Hendrix Award as well, given to the student athlete who best represented Hugh's great merits.  In addition, for several years following his death, UGA's chapter of Phi Gamma Delta, which was later joined by Georgia Tech's chapter of the same fraternity, held the Hugh Hendrix Memorial Run for Leukemia.

Following Hendrix's passing, Dooley added, "I know his death will have a profound effect on the team."  The coach was flawless in his foresight as the Bulldogs dedicated their 1976 season in memory of their one-time teammate.  After quarterback Matt Robinson was named ABC-TV’s Chevrolet Offensive Player of the Game in Georgia's victory over Clemson in mid-September, the senior quarterback indicated he wanted to honor Hendrix with the award.  Nearly two months later, following a victory over another bitter rival, the Bulldogs' other senior standout quarterback asked ABC to do the exact same thing, bestowing recognition to his late friend:

After the win over Florida, Goff's "little sprain" which felt "great" kept him out of practice the entire following week.  Nevertheless, although he could hardly lift his arm and did not attempt a single pass, the signal-caller from Moultrie led the Bulldogs to a 28-0 victory at Auburn and an SEC title.

It was said Hugh Hendrix was not super talented, certainly not Clint Castleberry-like.  He had to work hard for every one of his achievements and rewards.  But above all, Hendrix was a special and rare player and person, who literally inspired a football team to win a championship.


Unknown said...

Thanks for writing this about Hugh. I ran across a picture of him earlier today and gave thought about him all day. He was such a great guy. He was one of my best friends in college. He was so excited about starting his senior year. He worked hard every day to improve. He talk about winning a championship his senior year. It’s sad that it was never really figured out the exact cause of his death. I had heard at one time maybe Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. He was an only child which made it even harder on his parents.

Josh janko said...

Thanks for this! My mom went to high school and college with him.