Former NHS track coach dies of cancer
DALLAS — A coach, a teacher, a father figure, a dad — Henry “Doc” Woods could be described as many things by the numerous Miss-Lou athletes he impacted.
Woods coached track and field for 43 years between Sadie V. Thompson, North Natchez and Natchez high schools. During that time, he won 19 state championships in track and field, was nominated into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and was president of USA Track and Field. He died Saturday in Dallas after battling cancer, but his legacy lives on in the lives of those he coached.
“He was very giving, very fun to be around,” said Janice Davis, a 2003 NHS graduate who went on to run track for Stanford University.
“He was always making someone laugh, always pushing us toward our goals and always driving us to be the best we could be. He had an infectious personality.”
NHS track coach Larry Wesley, who also ran track under Woods’ tutelage, said he remembers meeting Woods when he was in junior high.
“He always called me the big horse,” Wesley said. “He said, ‘This is going to be my big horse.’
“He was a really energetic person. He believed in what he did and always tried to look at the positives in track and field.”
Henry Woods II got to see a special side of the elder Woods as his son. Henry ran track under Doc from 1990-1994 and continued his track career at Southern Mississippi. Henry said his dad was his biggest inspiration.
“He was the fastest man I ever knew,” Henry said. “He touched many lives in a positive manner and was a mentor for a lot of people. He was and is my role model. I can truly say I’m proud to be his son. I’m mighty proud.”
For many athletes, it’s hard to play for a team when your father is the coach, but Henry said Doc knew the proper approach to coaching a son.
“A lot of times, parents will get too hard (on their child), but he treated me just like I was any other track member,” Henry said. “There was no special treatment. I knew what an honor it was to run with my dad. I knew he was the best track coach in the South.”
Henry said his father knew all about sound technique when it came to track, which is what made him such a good coach. But there was more to it than the technical aspect of coaching.
“He was able to understand his athletes.” Henry said. “He personalized coaching. He was able to talk to anyone, no matter how high their prestige. He was a real people person, and he built strong relationships with people. I think that’s why he was so good with athletes.”
Davis also bragged about Doc’s ability to relate to his athletes. Often times when she would visit Natchez during her college days, Davis said she would call up Doc when she got bored hanging out with friends.
“He’d tell me, ‘Baby, come over,’” Davis said, laughing. “Most of the time I’d spend Christmas break going over to Doc’s house and staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning.”
And when Doc bought a Chrysler PT Cruiser, Davis said he would often take her out for a bite to eat.
“We’d drive to Wendy’s at 2 a.m., and they thought we were absolutely insane,” Davis recalled.
Doc’s impact was also felt in the classroom as a geometry teacher. Alexine Wright, who ran for Doc from 1991-1995, said Doc was able to relate his math lessons to track.
“I didn’t even like math,” Wright said. “I’m an English teacher and an English major, but he made me develop an appreciation for math. He made me realize how important it is to make education relevant to a child’s life. If you teach them something they can relate to, they’ll excel just as great as your smart kids.”
As a coach, Wesley said Doc’s ability to motivate children always drew the best out of them.
“He could motivate you, and he kept it fun,” Wesley said. “He kept us laughing.”
In that way, Wesley said he tries to model how he coaches track after what he learned from Doc.
“I try to keep it fun,” Wesley said. “I always say track is bigger than life, and track is the biggest thing on campus. I share with them what he shared with me.”
Charlie Floyd, who coached high school track in Gloster and Liberty from 1970-2003, said he would go head to head against Doc’s teams many times.
“It was like a state track meet every time Doc and I met,” Floyd said. “He was always well-prepared, and he always tried to win. He was a winner, and he always had great runner.”
Though they were rivals as coaches, Floyd said he developed a friendship with Doc after Doc retired in 2001.
“He would give you the shirt off his back,” Floyd said. “He was just a great guy, and he really brought a lot to track and field in Mississippi. He was an outstanding coach and an outstanding guy.”
Whest Shirley, who coached track at Adams County Christian School in the early ’90s, said he was new to the sport and often leaned on Doc for advice.
“Anytime I needed to know anything about the game, I called Doc Woods,” Shirley said. “He was eager to share the game, because he knew so much. That’s what he wanted to talk about, and he didn’t mind helping your kids improve.”
Davis said Doc had the ability to draw children to them and make them believe in themselves, which went a long way in their track careers.
“He would make you want to run track, because you know it would always be fun,” Davis said. “Traveling to meets, we’d always be laughing and joking. We were able to enjoy ourselves.”
Wright said Doc had the ability as a coach to help push athletes not to quit, even if they wanted to.
“He always said, ‘If the horse gets on your back, you push through,’” Wright said. “You don’t give up. He made us realize we had skills and strengths that we never knew we had,”
Shakeetha Payne, who ran track under Doc from 1991-1995, said Doc was much more than a coach to her.
“He put a fire under his athletes, and it’s been lit since then,” Payne said. “I had my dad, and I had my godfather, and then I had Doc. He was like family to me.”
Doc’s impact wasn’t limited to southwest Mississippi. Wright said she moved to Gulfport four years ago and met then-Gulfport High school track coach Prince Jones. When he found out Wright was from Natchez, the first thing he asked her was if she knew Doc.
“He had so many stories about Doc Woods,” Wright said. “He’s a known figure all around. To see a stranger talk so highly of someone near and dear to your heart is powerful.”
Carl Butler, one of Doc’s athletes from 1998 until 2001, said the news of Doc’s death affected numerous people.
“I found out through Facebook, and there’s so many Facebook posts about it in just the past few hours,” Butler said Saturday afternoon. “He impacted a lot of people that came through Natchez High.”
Wright said everyone that had the pleasure of knowing him would sorely miss Doc.
“When I say today is a sad day, it’s a sad day,” Wright said, fighting back tears. “I’m going to miss him. I realize the sacrifice he had to make to be an inspiration to so many people.
“It’s just hard. I love him, and I thank him. I made it to the 1992 National Junior Olympics because of him, and that’s something I never thought I could do. He never let me give up.”