‘… around him, you always felt better’: The legacy of Lee Hedges

GATOR GREATS:  Lee Hedges (left) and his longtime assistant Alden Reeves (right, foreground) watching a Captain Shreve game in the 1970s.

By TEDDY ALLEN, Journal Sports

When Bo Harris learned his friend and iconic Shreveport prep football coach Lee Hedges had passed away at age 93 early Sunday morning, his first thought was a sobering one:

What if the beloved man they all call “Coach Hedges” hadn’t been born at all?

“Just think of all the people whose lives he impacted,” said Harris, first a Captain Shreve Gator for Hedges in 1968-70 before becoming a star linebacker at LSU and playing in a Super Bowl with Cincinnati. “The story I think of is It’s a Wonderful Life.

In that 1946 classic, Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, who discovers through a supernatural event what his town would have become if it hadn’t been for all his good deeds through the years. Hedges, a member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2010, coached not only Harris but also Super Bowl champion Terry Bradshaw at Woodlawn, two-time national champion Denny Duron at Shreve, won a football state title at Shreve in 1973, won a Shreveport-Bossier record 216 games in 27 football seasons, coached 15 state tennis team champions — and, more importantly, did it all in a gentle way that earned the undying respect of coaches, players, parents, students and fans.

“If Lee Hedges had not been here in Shreveport, Louisiana, do the Pittsburgh Steelers win four Super Bowls (with Bradshaw)?” Harris said. “Does Denny go on to have the career he had at Louisiana Tech and become a coach at Evangel and an evangelist without his background with Coach Hedges? You just keep going down the line. Take him away and all that’s happened around here in sports, and this place isn’t the same.

“I shudder to think,” Harris said, “how my life would have been different without him around.”

“He’s a legend,” Mike McHalffey said. “I was a coach at Bossier High for 25 years and he was already a legend when I started in 1983. He was somebody that all the coaches looked up to. He was the Godfather of Coaches in Caddo and Bossier.

“We always looked up to him. He was the elder statesman of the coaching fraternity in Shreveport-Bossier.”

An All-State halfback for Fair Park before starring at LSU in both football (1948-1951) and, for a year, baseball, Hedges found his calling on the high school football fields of north Louisiana, first as an assistant at Fair Park (1955) then as the head coach at Byrd (1956-59), at Woodlawn (1960-65), and finally at Shreve (1967-84).

“In three years, he yelled at me one time,” Joel Thomas, quarterback of the 1973 state champion Gators, said. “I deserved about a thousand.”

Thomas said that “with any kind of break,” Shreve would have won five or six state titles, beginning with the 10-1-1 team in 1970, Harris’s senior season.

“The beauty of Coach Hedges was that he was a better man than he was a football coach — and he was a great football coach,” Thomas said. “He taught math, and whenever he walked down the hall, everybody walked with a little different gait, looked a little happier, walked a little taller. The way he was, the way he treated everyone, just commanded respect.”

Hedges and his wife, Nell, were married for 58 years before she passed away in 2013. In 2001, Caddo Parish Stadium was renamed Lee Hedges Stadium.

“My whole family is excited about this,” Hedges said on that October Friday night. “And if they want to name the stadium Lee and Nell Hedges Stadium, that would be OK with me.”

“He was such a professional in his coaching when I started (as an assistant in 1968) that the players didn’t want to do anything to disappoint him, and us coaches, we didn’t want to do anything to disappoint him either,” said Alden Reeves, who coached with Hedges for more than 25 years. “We had that kind of respect for him, or awe … what the exact right word is, I don’t know.”

Reeves said the secret of Hedges’s success might well have been “his relationships he had with everybody; if you didn’t like Coach Hedges, there was something wrong with YOU, because he could get along with everyone.

“He was smart too; he knew that football,” Reeves said. “We coaches all learned from him just like the players did. He studied film more than any other coach I’ve ever been around. He’d watch film after practice, go home and eat, then come back to school and watch more film ’til 9 or 10; the rest of us were home watching TV. If you had a weakness, he was going to find it.”

“A mentor, a father figure … I just think of what he meant to me and the things he meant to so many people,” Jonathan Matkins, who played center for Hedges at Shreve for three seasons (1981-83) and helped him celebrate his 90th birthday with a dinner on Cross Lake, said. “I think of everybody he touched, not just in football or tennis, but through everything he did in his life.

“Never saw the man get mad,” Matkins said. “Worse I ever saw was he slapped his clipboard on his hip one time; most calm coach I’ve ever seen. Just a great individual, a great man.”

“There are people who are influential and who make a difference in your life, and then there is a person who makes THE difference,” Harris said. “Coach Hedges was the difference for me.”

  • With contributions by Journal staff teammates Lee Hiller, Doug Ireland, John James Marshall, and Tony Taglavore. Hiller played for Coach Hedges at Shreve.