Still giving

Willie Peyton, left, surveys the course with his granddaughter, MacKenzie Peyton, during the 2014 Kentucky state high school golf tournament at Bowling Green Country Club. Willie has coached golf and other sports at Henry County High School for more than 20 years. (Photo courtesy Greg Woods, Henry County Local.)

Henry County coach Willie Peyton keeps blessing others in many ways

By John Herndon,

There are times when you cannot help but be amazed at the goodness of some people. I recently learned of such a story, one that grabs you because it is one of compassion in a world that seems to be getting meaner and crazier every minute.

But that’s when I learned about Willie Peyton, a longtime coach at Henry County High School in New Castle, Ky. I’d known of Willie for years as he was a basketball referee for some time and I would see him calling some games I was working for The Anderson News.

Our interactions, though, were usually confined to a “Hello” in a tournament hospitality room or the one time I interviewed him after a game he’d coached. More on that later.

Not long after I retired from the paper, I sent a mass email to coaches I knew, telling them about and the vision I had for this ministry. Almost immediately, Henry County girls’ basketball coach Jim Hook replied, telling me how Willie Peyton was an assistant coach for the Wildcats but had experienced a broken heart, yet was quietly pouring that heart out for others.

That giving spirit is something that has always been evident to those who have watched high school sports over the last 20 years. He’s coached a lot of golf and basketball and a little bit of everything else.

“I got in the habit of doing what they needed,” Willie laughs. “I was hired two days before the start of the (golf) season. I coached the boys a couple of years and then asked, ‘Why don’t you have a girls’ team?’”

So, guess who got to start the Lady Wildcat program? Willie and his wife, Kathy, both members of the Henry County Country Club, led the Henry girls for years, eventually coaching their granddaughter, MacKenzie Peyton, who was one of Kentucky’s best high school golfers and is now a senior at the University of South Alabama, where she just helped the team earn its first Sun Belt Conference title in more than 20 years.

And over the years, Willie helped coach girls’ basketball at Henry, this year assisting Hook as the Lady Wildcats posted a 19-10 record, their best mark since winning 20 games in 2003-04. Herein lies the irony: Willie Peyton was an assistant coach on both teams, actually leading the Lady Wildcats the last half of the 2004 season when there was a coaching change in mid-season. It was during his time leading the program that Henry pulled off what many considered to be one of the biggest upsets in the Eighth Region that year, winning at Anderson against a team that would eventually advance to the regional semifinals.  I don’t remember much about that game or the post-game interview, but I do remember Willie beaming at his team’s performance.

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Willie Peyton (in maroon shirt) watches the action with Henry County coach Jim Hook (standing) as Kaylee Tingle fires a three-pointer for the Wildcats during the 2018-19 season. (Photo courtesy Greg Woods, Henry County Local)

But stories of people coaching teams in unusual circumstances, though cool and inspiring to those closest to them, dot the landscape every year. The last 12 months have been different for Peyton and his family and undoubtedly played havoc with emotions.

Last summer, he lost his oldest son, Todd. Willie said his death was caused by alcohol and lifestyle issues. As we talked, the pain was still apparent. Todd, who was 44, left to sons and a daughter.

“The last time I talked with him was about three weeks before he died,” Willie said before shaking his head. “I just don’t understand how we can promote alcohol.”

Yet more and more locales are legalizing the sale of alcohol as a way to bring in more revenue. When one goes through the loss of a child, the question burns deeper and it’s normal to question one’s self if more could have been done.

“I do that all the time,” Willie said with a faint smile. “He wanted to be in his kids’ lives without alcohol, but he used it as a painkiller.”

Yet, not long after Todd’s death, Willie and his wife learned a child with whom he had a connection was in state care in a group home. Even though the Peytons had never met the child, they were touched. “I said, ‘We can’t let (the child) spend Christmas in a group home.’”

So even though he’s now 68, Peyton and his wife approached child services about taking the child in. Peyton, who had worked in the Henry County Youth Services Center for several years, says working extensively with kids in need undoubtedly affected his decision.

And some thought he and his wife were crazy for the undertaking. “Oh, yeah!” he laughs.

Willie breaks into a big smile when talking about the changes in his life. He and his wife have blessed the child, undoubtedly, but the blessings have returned many times over.

You see, what Peyton and Henry County have learned, again, is that when putting people first, things work out. “We didn’t know how many friends we had until now,” he says with a smile. “Everybody wants to help.”

Just like Willie Peyton has been doing for others his entire adult life.

But he’s also dealt with the pain that alcohol can have on a person and his family. He makes sure to pass that wisdom on. “I told the girls on the team if you are in a situation of any kind, call us,” Peyton says. “No questions asked.”

Willie Peyton, my hat is off to you!  Keep up your great work and influence.

Willie Peyton watches as his granddaughter, MacKenzie Peyton, takes a shot from the fairway during the 2014 state golf tournament. (Photo courtesy Greg Woods, Henry County Local.)


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