BRISTOL, Tenn. – For years “Be All You Can Be,” was the well-known and oft-repeated slogan of the United States Army.
Austin Henson has known what he’s wanted to be for a long time.
Both his grandfathers served in the military and he heard about their experiences growing up.
His older brother, Matt, attends The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina.
You could say that patriotism is in his blood and on his mind.
That’s why the Tennessee High senior will embark on a life-changing journey this fall after earning an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy.
“I’ve always just had an utmost respect for veterans and those serving,” Henson said. “You’re willing to lay down your life for some people who don’t even want you to be out there. … It’s just a great honor to be able to serve America.
“Looking around the world, there’s not too many people that have it like we do. I want everybody living in the present and in the future to have it the same way I have it.”
Henson has indeed had it pretty good.
He’s been a key player on three (and if all goes to plan, soon to be four) Tennessee High state championship tennis teams and was a sure-handed, all-conference wide receiver on the football field.
He’ll graduate with a 3.95 GPA and a multitude of memories.
“I loved high school, it’s always going to be something that’s pretty dear to my heart,” Henson said. “I’m definitely going to miss it.”
Plenty of folks back home are going to miss Henson as well when he departs for the historic college on the banks of the Hudson River in West Point, New York.
He’s a friend to everyone.
“He’s not one to stick to a click of guys,” said Tennessee High quarterback Ty Myers. “He walks around the weight room and talks to everybody and he’s very friendly. I think that’s why a lot of people look up to him.”
Henson does indeed have fans and friends of all ages.
For example there is Logan Streetman, a middle schooler who Henson mentors as part of a program at First Presbyterian Church.
He might drive the youngster home from a youth group meeting or go out for a bite to eat at Sonic Drive-In.
He picks up the telephone and dials Logan every now and again just to chat and see how the kid is doing.
“Being a mentor gives me the opportunity that if he has any problems, I will point him in the Godly direction and that’s a great opportunity for me,” Henson said. “I like it a lot.”
It’s part of more than 100 hours Henson has accrued in volunteer work.
It seems impossible that there are enough hours in the day or days in the year to achieve what the tireless Henson has.
Football, tennis, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, National Honor Society and Beta Club are just a few of his extracurricular activities.
He’s worked Viking football camps in the summer with kids in grades K-8, pitched in at special events at Creation Kingdom Zoo in Gate City, Virginia, served at Windy Gap family camp and Carolina Point youth camp while working for Young Life.
“Whatever he does he’s going to go 100 percent at it,” said THS football coach Mike Mays.
Oh yeah, mowing, weed eating, baling hay and construction work are some of the jobs he’s undertaken. Can you say blue collar?
“I did that to make some gas money and have some spending money,” Henson said. “You’ve got to work hard to get what you want. I’m willing to work hard.”
Myers can vouch for his teammate’s all-out, all-the-time approach.
“There were many times on a Saturday morning, I’d get a text message waking me up and it’d be from him,” Myers said. “Saying ‘Let’s go throw somewhere’ or ‘Hey, let’s go lift.’ The work ethic he has is incredible.”
He credits his family for instilling that drive.
Matt Henson was a superlative student-athlete in his own right at Tennessee High. Instead of living in the shadow of his star sibling and older brother, Austin has forged his own path.
“[Matt Henson’s] been very successful in tennis and got into a good school,” Austin Henson said. “That’s some big shoes to fill, but it’s awesome to have that kind of example to follow.
“We’ve always been super competitive, even when it comes to rock, paper, scissors.”
But don’t think Henson is some taskmaster that wants to win at all costs. He’s more likely to give a teammate a pat on the back than a fed-up stare.
Actions speak louder than words for Henson.
“I’m not a get up in your face and tell you what you need to do because I’m always right kind of guy,” he said. “I like to figure out what the right thing to do is and do that and lead by example.”
Henson is unique in other ways.
How many athletes in the area can say they are standouts in both football and tennis?
“It’s funny, [tennis opponents] ask if I play other sports and when I tell them I play football, they say they can tell,” Henson said. “It’s kind of nice to have a super contact sport and then a lifetime sport that you can relax and play and have fun.”
That versatility is present in the classroom too.
Advanced physical education.
Dual Enrollment English 111 through Tusculum College.
That’s his courseload this semester.
Is there anything this guy can’t do?
“I have fortunately known a cadet who went to West Point before and I know the level they are looking for,” said Holly Perdue, a math teacher at Tennessee High. “He definitely meets what West Point is looking for. They are looking for strong leaders, not just in academics and sports, but life in general and that’s definitely Austin.
“He’s a go-getter and will do anything you ask of him without thinking twice.”
Henson will play sprint football for the Army Black Knights (it’s for players that weigh 178 pounds and less) to go along with his military training.
“It’s intimidating, but exciting at the same time,” Henson said. “I know it’s going to be a little harder academically and I’ll have to put up with certain obstacles per se, but it’s definitely exciting.”
Wanting to be an infantry officer, he might be Captain Henson or First Lieutenant Henson in a few years and leading his own platoon.
Those who know him figure that anything is possible with Henson.
They’d want him in their foxhole.
“There’s a reason he’s going to West Point,” Mays said. “He has such an influence on his peers, whether it be football, tennis or in the classroom. He’s one of those special kids.”