After 44 Years, Legendary Henry Hudson Teacher, Coach Vinnie Whitehead Retiring By John Sorce

HIGHLANDS - Twenty-eight years of cross country. Twenty years of basketball. Ten years of baseball. Four years of field hockey. Two years of softball.

That’s what Vinnie Whitehead has coached at the varsity level over an illustrious 44-year career at Henry Hudson Regional High School.

“It’s been a great run with the all the students, teachers, administrators over the years,” Whitehead said. “I think I’ve gone through four or five principals and two or three superintendents, so I’ve seen a lot of transition. I started out as the youngest, and now I’m the oldest, so that’s pretty funny.”

Whitehead grew up in Wall Township and attended St. Rose Grammar School. He went to high school at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft before attending Brookdale Community College. He earned a baseball scholarship to Furman University in Greenville, SC, where he got his health and physical education degree.

Whitehead played baseball at Brookdale under Paul MacLaughlin and played on the first two state championship teams in 1971 and 1972. As it turned out, MacLaughlin had a connection that got Whitehead involved at Henry Hudson, and he’s been there ever since.

“Paul was directly responsible for me getting the job at Henry Hudson back in 1974,” Whitehead said. “He was a teacher there and when Brookdale opened up, he left Hudson and got a math position over there. He put in a word for me when I graduated from Furman. He let the superintendent know that I was Health/Phys Ed and he recommended me.

“The wild thing is out of 200 applicants, it came down to my brother-in-law and myself for that job, and I didn’t even know his sister at the time,” Whitehead added, laughing. “We figured that out years later.”

Whitehead got an early exposure to coaching during his freshman and sophomore years at Brookdale, thanks to the help of his high school athletic director.

“When I was at Brookdale, the athletic director at the time at CBA was Bob Mason,” Whitehead said. “There was a nun from St. Leo’s in Lincroft who had called to ask if there was anyone he would recommend that had graduated to coach the middle school boys basketball team. Mr. Mason called me and I jumped right on it. I got the (coaching) bug right then.”

Over the years, Whitehead’s teams won one state sectional championship in basketball and six in cross country.

All sports are different, but Whitehead explained cross country is the most unique to coach out of them all.

“In cross country, it’s almost like boot camp because it’s just yourself and the environment,” Whitehead said. “You are competing with the elements, the hills, and the flat land. It’s really you against yourself where all the other sports I’ve coached has to do with a ball and a bat or stick. The focus on what has to be done is totally different.”

“The kids in any of those sports like track and field and cross country, it’s a different type of mental toughness. A lot of the kids who play other sports, it would be a tougher transition for them into cross country as opposed to the other way around.”

In fact, Whitehead started doing cross country his second season at Henry Hudson to get his basketball players into better shape for the season, and it just stuck with him.

Whitehead coached field hockey beginning in 2015 through this past season. With no experience in the sport, he called upon his brother-in-law to help.

“Field hockey was an interesting one because four years ago, there were no coaches at Hudson that were taking over a field hockey program that has been around since I came to the school,” Whitehead said. “They had some great seniors on the team and a great crop of freshmen, but they had applied inside and outside the school, and nobody took it.

“I saw a challenge there and even though I didn’t have any field hockey background, I knew the student-athletes, and from a coaches’ standpoint, I knew organization and work ethic. My brother-in-law, Joey Nappo, had coached field hockey for 20-plus years under Nancy Williams at Shore Regional, and he was a graduate of Henry Hudson. I called him up, told him my idea, and he loved it. We co-coached the varsity field hockey team for four years. We had four winning seasons and went to the Shore Conference and state tournaments all four years. That was a lot of fun.”

After 44 years, Whitehead has no regrets. He met his wife of 38 years there and would generally be coaching three sports at a time, one in each season, so the time really did fly.

But what makes the profession special is being there for the kids and leaving a lasting impact on them that they will take with them long after they graduate.

“You just want to leave a mark and get these kids to believe in themselves, in setting goals and going after things that seem impossible and when you see them accomplish that, it’s always a rewarding thing even today, 44 years later,” Whitehead said. “To see a little school on a hill be able to compete with the bigger schools like we have the last few years with field hockey and softball, occasionally in basketball, and in cross country there were a few years where we were top three in the Shore Conference with just 7-12 kids on the team at times. To have that underdog role and just embrace that is a great thing, even in life lessons. Having that resiliency and to see the kids overcome that and then leave here with those skills that will hopefully help them in the future, is why I think most people go into teaching and coaching.”

Henry Hudson had their end of the year athletics banquet on June 6, and Whitehead shared a story from one of his former students that stood out.

“A student I used to coach told me at the banquet that I helped saved her life through sports,” Whitehead said. “She is now a mother of three. Other students in their 40s-50s have told me they still use life skills and things they learned from high school. I taught and/or coached the moms and/or dads of four students that are graduating this year. When you hear these things, you know God has blessed you immensely to have played a part in the development of another human being. It is nice to win. Championships are great. But you don't have to finish first to be a great individual who touches other lives, and that is what teachers and coaches do.”

Among the most influential people to Whitehead were his father, MacLaughlin, Vinnie Cox (his basketball coach and history teacher at CBA) and Tony Chesney (his Phys Ed/Health teacher, baseball and football coach at CBA). And, of course, his wife of 38 years.

“I look back now at 65 years old and just see the mentoring and the example they set just by their words and their deeds,” Whitehead said. “I think all throughout my career, I wanted to emulate what they built into me. I think the Lord put them into my life to help me get to the next step that I was going to.

“I also have to thank my family and my wife,” Whitehead added. “I call my wife the coaches’ coach because she was with me through all of this and if she wasn’t a Phys Ed and athletics person herself, it would have been hard for her to buy into this and I don’t know if we could have invested ourselves like we did over these 44 years.”

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