#TBT - Part of our weekly Throwback Thursday series.
When you think of the Dallas Cowboys teams of the mid to late 1970s there are a pair of images that immediately come to mind, both of them revolving around a pair of gentlemen that were the faces of the franchise. First there is the fedora wearing Tom Landry, a Texas gentleman who was the epitome of class and professionalism as the head coach, the second would be the All-American boy that every mother wishes her son would grow up to be, Roger Staubach. But there was another side to those teams. No one personified the other side of the Cowboys better than Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson. He was the guy that fathers fear that their little girl will grow up to date.
Perhaps it was the fact that he was born to a teenage mother and lacked the guidance that often seems to come from those circumstances, or simply the result of the era in which he grew up, but Henderson soon earned the nickname "Wild Man". He did nothing to live the name down. On the gridiron it summed up the way Henderson played the game and away from football it was an accurate description of the lifestyle that the young man chose to lead.
One can only wonder just how different Henderson's life would have been had he not decided to "quit" the United States Air Force prior to being sworn in.
As it turned out, the young defensive lineman ended up walking on at tiny Langston University in Oklahoma. While a member of the Lions football squad Thomas was twice named as an All-American defensive end. He also earned Defensive Player of the Year Honors in the NAIA ranks. His performance was more than good enough that he earned the attention of professional scouts and it was clear that the young man who originally hailed from Austin, Texas would get his chance to prove himself in the National Football League.
Henderson was selected by the Dallas Cowboys as the 18th overall pick in the 1975 NFL Draft. His class was to later become known as the Dirty Dozen, perhaps the best draft class in team history. Thomas entered the NFL alongside players like Randy White, Bob Bruenig, Herb Scott, and Pat Donovan. His early career was spent as a member of Tom Landry's special teams units, a position where Henderson shined. One of his biggest strengths was the athleticism that he brought to the game in spite of his background as a lineman. That ability made Thomas a threat as a return man on kick-offs. The Cowboys would not hesitate to resort to some "trickeration" by calling a reverse on the return and letting Henderson's speed and large frame inflict damage on the other team's coverage unit.
By his third season in the league Henderson had established himself, both as one of the most-talented young linebackers in the game and as one of its most colorful characters. To accompany his flamboyant lifestyle that included cocaine usage, all night parties, and many, shall we say, romantic indulgences Henderson gave himself a new nickname. The moniker he chose for himself was Hollywood and Henderson did all that he could to live up to his chosen title.
At first the wild life did not seem to impact his play at all. Hollywood had his best season as a professional in 1978 when he earned a Pro Bowl slot. That was soon to change. Thomas could not keep the candle burning at both ends, and soon the booze and drugs won out. By the 1979 season his drug dependency had grown so strong that Hollywood kept an inhaler tucked inside his game pants and he would snort liquid cocaine between plays. Landry's patience with his lifestyle and the addictions that were pulling him down that the coach was threatening to kick him off the squad. After his antics during a brutal loss at the hands of the Redskins, Landry held true to his threats. Henderson was placed on injured reserve and never played another snap for the Cowboys.
After being traded to the San Francisco 49ers, Henderson would play only six more professional games. His addiction had reached the point where Hollywood was released by the Niners for missing over two dozen practices before the 1980 season began. He was able to catch on with the Houston Oilers but only was able to participate in a handful of contests due to injury. After the season Henderson came out and admitted to the world what was already known. He went public with his addiction and check himself into a rehabilitation facility.
For some reason fate had always been kind to Henderson. After rehab, the Miami Dolphins came calling with a second chance at life in professional football. It did not last long. Hollywood's career came to a close after a neck injury in the preseason. Thomas Henderson would never don helmet and shoulder pads again. Without football in his life, Hollywood lost his dazzle and he started a freefall towards rock bottom.
The character called "Hollywood Henderson" was put to rest on November 8, 1983. It was that day that he was arrested for smoking cocaine with two teenage girls. According to allegations, Henderson threatened them with a gun and sexually assaulted one. His story was that he had traded the drugs for a consensual encounter. In either case, Henderson entered a plea of no contest and entered a court ordered rehab program. In addition he served 28 months in prison.
November 8, 1983 was also the day that Thomas Henderson began to live. With Hollywood dead and with the help of his rehabilitation program, Henderson has been clean and sober since that day. He now lectures around the country about the path to destruction that begins with drugs and alcohol. Henderson, like many who have triumphed over their demons, sees helping others as being the calling on his life. When this November rolls around, Thomas will celebrate 33 years of being alive and sober. The best way for him to honor that occasion is to continue to paying it forward by reaching out to others in need.
It has already been said that fate smiles on Henderson. In 2000 he was given a return appearance in the public eye when he won $28 million playing Lotto Texas. Once he would have blown through that money by celebrating with a bash to end all bashes; after discovering his true path in life, Thomas responded in a manner true to the life he discovered.Henderson established a charitable foundation with his fortune. That is his way of giving back to the East Austin.
On being asked what he did all day after winning the lottery. Henderson replied with a frequently quoted quip that was worthy of the man who once said that Terry Bradshaw could not spell cat if you spotted him the C and T.
"Not a damn thing, and I don't start that until after lunch."
Thomas Henderson has had a helluva ride in life. A journey that began in poverty in East Austin led him to college and professional football success, took him from the depths of addiction to the highs of recovery. He has known both glory and shame in abundance. Henderson has experienced prison and the kind of freedom only a recovering addict can experience. Through it all, he has always found his way back to success. Somewhere along the way Thomas Henderson finally learned the way to live with the results of that success.