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When the erudite and so, so friendly Jim Henderson became the play-by-play broadcaster of the New Orleans Saints, Archie Manning was his first sidekick as the color commentator. This was 1985.
Says Manning, “Jim and I never had a bad day together. Actually, I don’t know how you could have a bad day with Jim, who’s such a good guy and such a consummate professional.”
This is not to say Henderson and Manning didn’t have a few near misses.
There was their first game together, Saints vs. Falcons in Atlanta. Says Manning, “We were going to ride the bus to the stadium with the team. Jim wanted to get down to the buses early, go over a few things about the broadcast. So we got down there, got on an empty bus and got to talking.”
And they talked and they talked and they talked. And then it dawned on them that nobody else had boarded the bus. And then they looked ahead and noticed that all the other buses had left.
Says Manning, “We had to hurry and catch a cab. We didn’t miss kickoff but we weren’t early either. That was my first game.”
And then there was the time in Seattle. “Henderson and I used to go jogging together the day before the game,” Manning says. “So we get to running and we’re out of the city in a residential area, and then there’s some farm land, and I saw this beautiful pasture. I said, Jim, let’s run across that pasture out there.”
So they took off, the former NFL star and his buddy, the radio announcer. They were enjoying the scenery, that runner’s high, and then…
“We got about half way across and we saw this big bull,” Manning says. “And he saw us. And then he started running at us. Our jog became a sprint. We were running for our lives. Had to climb over a fence to get away.”
The 70-year-old Henderson, a New York native and former junior high English teacher, Thursday announced his retirement from broadcasting. New Orleans and the Saints have lost an institution. Whether his sidekick was Archie Manning, or the late Hokie Gajan, or, most recently, Deuce McAllister, Henderson told Saints listeners what they needed to know in an articulate, knowledgeable, easy-to-listen-to manner. He’s a pro. And he is retiring at the top of his game.
Replacing Henderson with the Saints will be like replacing Jack Cristil at Mississippi State. It will take some getting use to – and that’s an understatement.
Henderson, an English major at State University of New York, was teaching eighth and ninth grade English in Panama City, Fla., when he heard about a weekend sports anchor job at a Panama City TV station. He auditioned and got the job.
“I knew it was time to quit teaching English when I was about to teach ‘Great Expectations’ for the third straight year,” Henderson quips.
He quickly moved up the TV ladder, from Panama City, to a weekend job in Atlanta, to the weeknight anchor job in New Orleans.
The plan was a couple years in the Crescent City and then on to a still-larger market, eventually a national network.
“Jim had plenty of chances to move on,” Manning said.
But a funny thing happened that happens often in New Orleans: Henderson fell in love with the city where his nightly sportscasts led the market for 30 years running. Too, he enjoyed the Saints broadcasts, through the Manning years, then Gajan (who became like a brother) and McAllister.
Gajan, folksy Cajun from the Louisiana bayous, was perhaps the perfect foil for Henderson. Who can forget Hokie after the Saints were called for three blocks in the back on kickoffs in one game: “Guys, come on, it’s not that hard. If you can read the names on the back of their jerseys, don’t hit ’em!”
Many of us wondered how it would be for Henderson after Gajan lost his battle with cancer, but Henderson and McAllister bonded seamlessly.
Says McAllister, “Jim made my job really, really easy. You hear his voice and it just makes you comfortable. He paints such a clear picture. He’s become such a good friend.”
The truth is, Saints fans by the thousands will feel like they have lost an old friend when they tune in to WWL next season.