One story always comes to mind when I think of Jack Henn.
It isn’t about him being the floor captain of the U.S.’s 1968 Olympic team, which upset the Russian team that went on to win the gold.
It isn’t about him being one of the top setters in USA volleyball history, a player with a wicked serve and the athleticism to hit with both hands.
It isn’t about him being the only coach ever to guide San Diego State to a Division I championship, which he did in 1973 with the Aztecs’ men’s volleyball team.
It’s about a dog. His dog. Years ago, Jack adopted a furry four-legged that had some type of digestive issue that began preventing him from being able to eat food from a bowl like a normal dog. Gravity was the issue. The dog couldn’t get food down unless he was standing on his hind paws.
Jack figured, and I quote, that this dog “deserved a chance to have a normal life,” so he got out his tools and built a wooden feeding box. This allowed the dog to eat while standing upright.
“Other than the eating problem,” Jack explained, “the dog was completely normal.”
And thanks to Jack, who put the dog in the box every day and latched the door behind him so he could reach his food bowl at the proper angle, the dog lived a normal life.
Jack, who passed peacefully on March 22 in his San Diego home after a lengthy bout with multiple myeloma, had so much more than a normal life. Honestly, though, I thought of him less as an athlete and coach who had been at the very top of the volleyball world and more as a favorite uncle, a guy who was always willing to lend a hand to get something done but never made a big deal of it.
If Starlings needed another restaurant or two to serve food at their fundraisers, Jack took care of it. If Starlings needed a gym for the kids to practice in, Jack led the charge to find one. If other members of the Starlings board were puzzling over a decision, Jack was an even-tempered voice of reason. If Starlings was running a grass tournament, Jack showed up with a truck full of equipment and set up courts.
“He was always ready to help,” says Byron Shewman, who co-founded Starlings in 1996 with two-time U.S. Olympian Kim Oden. “And he always liked the kids.”
Jack told me a few years ago that the greatest experience of his life was the three years he spent in India in the late 1970s as a PE instructor. He talked about teaching kids to swim in water that was 80 feet deep. He talked about coaching 13 different sports, one being cricket, which he only knew about from reading books.
“Some of the students have stayed in touch,” he said. “One is a retired colonel who was a dental surgeon in the service. I get an email from him just about every day.”
My favorite volleyball story about Jack goes back to 1969. Playing for the U.S. national team, he hurt his knee badly on an unforgiving cement gym floor in Uruguay, an injury that shortened his career. A week later, he wrapped the knee with material normally used to secure bed mattress box springs – “I needed something strong enough to keep it from bending” – and hobbled his way through USA Volleyball Nationals, setting his team to an Open division championship.
His 1968 Olympic teammate, Danny Patterson, also a longtime Starlings supporter and a current board member, says he always kidded Jack about that injury “because it launched my career as a starting setter.”
“For me,” Danny says, “Jack was a friend, teammate, coach and mentor. He was an understated guy who made a huge difference in the lives of kids.”
My mental snapshot of Jack will always be accompanied by the big smile that punctuated many of his stories. I remember seeing it a few years ago when he described the last time he played volleyball – a legends beach tournament in the mid-1990s in Newport Beach, California. He got paid that day, a nice bonus for a guy who hadn’t made a dime in his playing career.
“Check for $500,” he said, and then there was the smile. “It allows me to tell people that I played pro volleyball.”