Buster Henderson will go through his usual rituals and routines on Saturday afternoon when he plays his final football game for the University of Virginia’s College at Wise Highland Cavaliers.

Just before he jogs on the field and takes his spot at linebacker, he’ll pray, and during that time of deep meditation he’ll think of Lisa Henderson, his oldest sister by two years.

There used to be another pregame tradition. Buster’s cellphone would beep with a text or he would open up one of those social media apps and read a message from Lisa wishing him good luck.

“My sister was the person who was my biggest fan,” Buster Henderson said.

Lisa Henderson died in April 2018, shot multiple times by two men who have been charged with murder, according to media reports. One of them, Marquie Brandon Williams, recently plead guilty to first-degree murder and is awaiting sentencing.

For the past two seasons, Buster Henderson has played through the pain of not having his big sister there to root him on or pass along those inspiring pregame messages.

“Buster was always close with his sister,” said Phillip Fleshman, who played with Henderson at Appomattox County High School. “Because that’s the type of guy he is. He loves his family and holds them all close.”

In a tough 2019 season that has seen UVa-Wise win just twice, Henderson has been a bright spot for the Highland Cavaliers. He’s been a consistent presence on the defensive side of the ball, a team leader in the locker room and he’s honored the legacy of his biggest fan.

“After the whole incident happened, I’ve learned to love people and I’m grateful for the people I have around me,” Henderson said. “That’s why I tell people I love them a lot, because you don’t know when the last time is you’re going to see that person. At the end of the day, I took something positive out of a negative.”

***

It was fall 2012 and Doug Smith had just taken over as the head coach of the Appomattox County Raiders and was seeing what he had to work with when a loquacious ninth-grader caught his attention.

There was just something about the enthusiastic kid.

“Our new coaching staff was testing all the upcoming players,” Smith said. “I was working the broad jump. Buster and about nine other players were in my group. An upcoming senior, who was slightly handicapped, only jumped about 4-feet.

“Immediately, Buster began coaching this boy on how to jump farther and rallied the others to encourage him. They got this player to jump another foot and a half. I thought, ‘This guy is only a freshman and he is already making a difference as an encourager to his teammates.’ “

It didn’t take long for Henderson to make a difference on the field either as a big-play threat on offense and a tackling machine on defense.

“Another story that is funny now, but is really about his toughness, was during a game when Buster ran to the sideline to ask a coach to put his finger – dislocated and in an incorrect right-angle position – back in place,” Smith said. “The no-huddle offense we were defending was ready to snap the ball for the next play. So, Buster just runs back onto the field to make another tackle.”

Henderson helped Appomattox win the 2015 VHSL 2A state title and included in that run was a 27-21 state quarterfinal win over Richlands. The Raiders trailed 21-7 with 6:04 left, but rallied to win in overtime.

“Some of my friends that came here to UVa-Wise from Richlands used to talk about that game,” Henderson said. “That was probably my favorite game of all time to look back on. It was just so crazy, but I never had a doubt we would win and I still tell everybody that.”

There was a scene following the game that tells you all you need to know about Buster Henderson.

“Appomattox clinched the game-winning touchdown and everyone celebrated,” said Dre Davis, a friend of Henderson’s from high school. “But despite the excitement, Buster still made it his duty to go hug his mama seconds after it happened. It showed his character as well as his values.”

***

Lisa Henderson was reported missing on April 8, 2018, and two days later her body was found in a wooded area near Lynchburg, Virginia. She had played basketball and ran track in high school, excelling at both, and was as exuberant as her younger brother.

“Lisa was a sweet soul,” Fleshman said. “She was friends with everyone. Very outgoing and always tried to be happy and uplifting to others.”

Marquis Braimer, Buster Henderson’s roommate last year, was among those who were at a loss for words when her death occurred.

“Normally, Buster is full of energy and talkative, but I remember seeing him in his room with his head held down grieving,” Braimer said. “I walked in and let him know that I loved him and if he needed anything I was there for him. When the team heard the news we were crushed by it. It was very unfortunate that something so tragic happened to a guy like Buster and his family.”

What were Henderson’s feelings in the immediate aftermath?

“The whole thing is you feel helpless,” he said. “I was far away and all that stuff had happened back home.”

Henderson did have a good support system.

Folks from Appomattox would sometimes make the five-hour drive to Southwest Virginia just to check on him.

Teammates were there to talk.

“There are a lot of things that you can prepare for us as a coach, as a counselor and as a mentor,” said UVa-Wise coach Dane Damron. “There’s no preparation for that. You just try to be there and just listen, because the range of emotions that he went through for that situation is way different than the range of emotions somebody would go through over losing a loved one to a sickness or something like that. I give that young man credit. He’s a tremendous individual and a kid of character. I’d like to think our football program helped him get through that and I know he and I have spent a lot of time talking to each other about that.”

***

Sandra Henderson was at Carl Smith Stadium last week for her son’s Senior Day festivities as she watched him rack up a dozen tackles in a 21-14 win over Catawba.

It was an emotional afternoon.

“She was here in spirit,” Sandra Henderson said of Lisa.

Buster Henderson has made plenty of tackles in his four seasons at UVa-Wise, but he’s gained even more admirers.

“People love Buster,” said UVa-Wise offensive lineman Sage McBride. “He just has this charisma that makes you want to like him. I’m gonna miss him when he graduates.”

He’s always been like that.

“If Buster does not go on to play NFL football, he needs to be in sales,” said Smith, his high school coach. “I have never seen a person be able to sell as many doughnuts – or anything for that matter – as Buster Henderson. As soon as any fundraiser would start, Buster was out to be the top salesman. Everybody loved him, so everybody would buy from him. Buster’s personality sold the product before the product did. He could sell ice cubes to Eskimos.”

On Saturday, he’ll play his final football game in a UVa-Wise uniform.

Lisa Henderson will be on his mind as she always is and his college coach echoes a sentiment about Buster that she would have shared.

“He makes me proud all the time,” Damron said.

thayes@bristolnews.com | Twitter:@Hayes_BHCSports | (276) 645-2570

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thayes@bristolnews.com | Twitter:@Hayes_BHCSports | (276) 645-2570

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