‘Doc’ Woods was true community leader

Published 12:05 am Monday, March 3, 2014

As we proudly recognize many African Americans this year, let’s not forget Henry Woods. The African American community and all graduating classes of North Natchez High School continue to mourn the loss of a great Mississippian and a true American hero from our own community.

Coach Henry Woods became the most successful high school coach of all time and one of the greatest pioneers in our communities’ history. Coach Woods elevated a small-town program to state and national prominence and tore down barriers to achieve an equal playing field for athletes of all races and gender.

Let us all be thankful for knowing Doc as a teacher, coach and a father to his son Henry.

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To his last day, Henry “Doc” Woods built a track powerhouse with a statewide reputation, all while struggling to get past years of segregation and discrimination in our public school system. The life of a beloved track coach who put a small school in remote southwest Mississippi on the map and turned it into a virtual running machine during a career that spanned more than 44 years is special.

His success at North Natchez High, no doubt, made him the first easily-recognizable black coach in the sport of track and field in and around the state of Mississippi.

Running track at North Natchez High became a goal of young black men and women, as Woods’ fame grew year after year. Coach Woods began with no paid assistants, no grounds keepers, no trainers and little in the way of equipment. He lined the track field himself and would drive the bus to practice and on road trips. He was the true example of a leader.

He would tell you his greatest achievement was teaching life lessons to hundreds of young men and women, whom he developed in Natchez who starred in the collegiate level of track and field and later coached the next generation of track stars in Natchez.

He always focused on coaching his track runners to be better men and women. We will be forever grateful to him for all his years of caring and molding us to be great men, as we take our place in American history as military leaders.

It was extremely difficult growing up for many young men without our fathers in our lives, until we found Doc. He was a stand-in father for hundreds of young African American men in Natchez. Some would call him a role model; others would call him an educator but underneath, he was the dad we wish we had. We always wanted to make him proud by doing our best in the classroom and on the track.

Doc gave every student at Natchez High a chance at new relationships by being on the track team, to be both leaders and followers. We used these lessons to be leaders at some of the highest levels in the U.S. Military.

Looking and learning how Coach Woods dealt with different people presented an opportunity for us to learn how to advocate for what we need and get along with others in tough situations.

Think about how useful skills like that are in the world we live in today; being able to negotiate on your own. His vision for all his athletes is timeless and lives in our close community to this day.

He not only helped us discover our potential, he gave us hope for a better future. We learned how to appreciate being state champions six consecutive times under Doc’s leadership.

Many young men in Natchez were high school track runners under Henry Woods and became lifelong friends. Samuel Ellis, Glen Jones and I attended Rust College in Holly Springs and were track stars in our own right.

Coach Woods was always there behind the scenes, writing practice schedules and providing words of encouragement. We learned under Coach Woods that many times in life, whether a thing is worth doing or not, really depends on how you look at it. He always said take all your courage and do something your heart tells you to do so that you may not regret not doing it later in your life.

Each and every one that knew Coach Woods was blessed with the company of being true friends.

I received my Army commissions in officer corps, where I’m serving and have served for more than 20 years. Being a part of the military and experiencing war, I learned a true friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.

War doesn’t determine who’s right. War only determines who’s left. So let’s remember Coach Woods as a father, warrior and mentor by celebrating his legacy.

The community and athletic department of Natchez High should host a great celebration honoring Doc with an annual Woods Invitational Track and Field Meet. This annual invitational meet would allow young and old to share an important, timeless remembrance of “Doc Woods.”

The Natchez High athletic program and the community can convey its love for such a beautiful person and loving father.

We see this as an opportunity of historic significance, especially for the young athletes in Natchez to understand where the running legacy of Natchez came from.


Lieutenant Colonel Sandy Sadler is a Natchez native.