By Mark McGee
Bedford County lost a treasure last week.
Henry Cooley passed away at the age of 89. It was a life well-lived.
It is refreshing to find someone with enthusiasm for their hometown combined with a historical perspective. I can’t remember when he didn’t have a smile on his face, particularly when he was talking about his alma mater and especially its football teams.
Mr. Cooley attended Bedford County Training School, the all-black school in the city from 1941-56. It was later named Harris High School in honor of longtime principal Sidney Harris. The school burned in January of 2007 and one of the people the late David Melson talked with for the local newspaper was Henry Cooley.
Most of all Mr. Cooley was known for his pickup truck with a painted sign attached to the tailgate to commemorate the BCTS Fighting Tigers team that recorded an 82-0-4 record from 1943-50.
He wasn’t a part of any of those teams, but he was a center for three years playing under Coach Will Porter Martin.
His collection of clippings and photos traced the history of the football program in the undefeated days. He had a quick recall of events and the people who were involved with the program. His enthusiasm was catching as decades later as his voice became animated when discussing that era.
He didn’t want the history of the school to die in vain.
Mr. Cooley loved the people he knew as much as he did football and basketball. He didn’t see a color barrier and often spoke of how many white people attended BCTS games.
In all my conversations with him, and like most people who pass, you wish you had spent more time with them. I never heard him say an unkind word. He was the epitome of the old saying, “If you don’t have something nice to say about someone then don’t say anything.”
In an article by Kay Rose in 2001 he sang the praises of Edward C. Finley, the coach who helmed most of those undefeated seasons, Principal Harris, Coach Martin and coach Lendell Massengale. He also raved about the performances of many of the great players who wore the black and gold of BCTS.
One of those players he particularly enjoyed talking about was Jim “Pork Chop” Mitchell, a Harris High tight end who went to star at Prairie View A&M and then became an NFL All-Pro for the Atlanta Falcons.
Mr. Cooley never missed a chance to promote Mitchell, not only for his talent on the football field, but for the love he had for his community. Mitchell’s absence is a huge void in the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.
Let’s hope Mr. Cooley can look down from the 50-yard line in heaven and make Mitchell’s induction a reality.
I am certain if God wasn’t all that familiar with BCTS football he knows all about it now.