The office of head football coach Wyatt Henderson sits at the back of the weight room at Westchester High School. A heavy wooden door opens to Coach Henderson’s “cubby hole,” which is adorned by pictures of standout Comet football players, a small refrigerator, and a plaque for the City Academic Achievement award.
Today is painting day. The weight room walls were refurbished in Westchester red, black, and white, and a new mat helped protect the floor. It was a big improvement from what it used to look like, Coach Henderson says.
But he asked the painters why they didn’t paint the trim around his office door. The walls around were sparkling white, his door’s trim a dingy yellow.
“You need to make a special request to the district for that,” he’s told by the painters.
It’s part and parcel of the struggles Coach Henderson, and most other coaches in the Los Angeles Unified School District, faces whilst trying to build a respectable program. “I think they might be the only painters for the entire school district,” Henderson tells me, laughing but not joking.
LAUSD is the second-largest school district in the country, trailing only New York City, and serves roughly 694,000 students across 1,300 schools. According to the District’s “Fingertip Facts” bulletin, the General Fund dipped to $7.49 billion in 2018-2019 from $7.52 billion last year. Salaries, supplies, and employee benefits all took a hit.
And Coach Henderson’s office didn’t get painted.
But that doesn’t really bother him, nor does his $2,800 coaching stipend that’s grown by only a few dollars since 1985.
“If you’re in it for the money, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons,” he said.
Henderson’s road to Westchester is inspiring. A successful high school run at Fairfax in the 1970s turned into a stellar career as a receiver at Fresno State, which he then parlayed into a cup of coffee with the San Diego Chargers of the NFL and the Oakland Invaders and Jacksonville Bulls of the now-defunct USFL.
Coaching quickly became Henderson’s true passion, having learned from offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson while at Fresno State. He joined the prep coaching ranks shortly after his playing days, on staff at Washington Preparatory High School in Los Angeles and Canyon High School in Canyon Country, CA.
Henderson served as the offensive coordinator at Los Angeles Southwest College from 2001 to 2007, helping the Cougars lead the conference in rushing for three straight seasons. He moved to West LA College as a receivers coach, then to Western Colorado University in the same role. Each time, the 1978 PCAA Conference Player of the Year turned receivers into stars.
“I always wanted to be a high school head football coach, but for a while, that didn’t happen. So I continued my coaching career at the junior college level,” he said. “And when the opportunity came up at Westchester, I applied and luckily got the job.”
Back in the City Section, the struggles are both different and familiar. Westchester is a magnet school, which allows them to enroll students without needing them to live in the area. Henderson’s players hail from Carson, Watts, and East LA. That means long drives to school, and sometimes, an easy excuse to skip.
“Back in my day, missing practice was unheard of. You just didn’t do it,” he said. “Some of these kids nowadays will find any excuse to miss practice. You try to do anything to motivate them, it’s just not the same type of kid we used to be when I was younger.”
With a varsity roster of less than 30 players, the wins and losses “come and go,” he says, but the bigger motivator is much more than football.
When Henderson arrived on campus in the spring of 2015, he had 42 players on the team -- 24 of whom were academically ineligible. He cancelled the final two weeks of spring practice that year to ensure they all got their grades up by June, and 21 of them did it.
By 2017, Westchester became the most academically successful football team in the City Section, earning a collective 3.6 grade point average and won the Academic Achievement Award. Not Palisades, or Granada Hills, but Westchester.
“Who would believe,” he laughed. “That’s our City championship right there.”
He urges players to have realistic expectations about playing at the next level. Some have the football abilities fit for a junior college but the academic prowess for the Ivy League. He’s not shy about pushing his kids to better academic schools with the understanding that they may not play football.
“Football is a luxury. Education is a necessity,” he said. “Give me the best player in the history of California, and none of it will matter if he doesn’t have the grades.”
Henderson has the typical worries of a head coach in the City Section. He has a few young players that he fears will be scalped by Southern Section teams. He feels the pressure of a thin roster, and is frustrated with spotty attendance and inattention to details of the playbook.
“You always think about that,” he says when asked if he’s thought about taking another job. “I’ve had opportunities at other places come up within the past year, and I’ve thought about it. But I’ve got a job on campus, I’m here with my guys, and I think I can turn this program around. Your heart grows fonder for the kids and you don’t want to leave them.”
At 8-1, the Comets are playing some of their best football under Henderson. The program finished 11-2 in 2016, losing to Los Angeles High School in the semifinals of the D-II playoffs. They seem poised for a good run in the Division I playoffs this year, or perhaps a berth in the City’s Open Division playoffs.
Henderson locks up the office and walks me out. He’s told the extra paint will be in the maintenance room if he wants to paint his office himself. “I got some good team moms who want to help out, and my wife,” he laughs.
Practice will begin after school, hopefully with everyone there. It’s a big game against Venice this week, a game that will decide the playoff fates of both teams. Henderson says his boys, all 27 of them, will be ready.