Transition Game : Dallas Rookie Tries to Turn the Corner From Basketball to NFL

Times Staff Writer

Who on God's green turf is Manny Hendrix trying to fool . . . the Dallas Cowboys? The NFL? College football in general? Or, maybe, himself?

Hendrix, a rookie free agent, has spent the last month at the Cowboys' training camp in Thousand Oaks trying to make the team as a defensive back. More specifically, as a cornerback, one of the National Football League's most demanding positions. Playing the corner in the NFL is like running with the bulls in Pamplona. One slip and splat, it's over.

As for college football, in Hendrix's mind at least, who needed it? He played basketball. The poor saps bashing their heads on the football field could have it. He spent his college days in the gym, polishing his double-pump reverse slam.

Hendrix, who started all four years at Utah, was an all-conference guard and ranks eighth on the school's all-time scoring list. Last season, he averaged 18 points a game and led the team to the NCAA tournament where the Utes lost to North Carolina. In 1983, Hendrix helped Utah eliminate UCLA in the NCAA tournament, and the Utes eventually reached the round of 16.

Utah basketball Coach Lynn Archibald figures Hendrix won at least four games with one second or less left on the clock. In a game against Air Force, Utah trailed by one point with six seconds left. Hendrix took the inbounds pass, drove the length of the court and scooped up an off-balance layup that skidded high off the glass and dropped through as the buzzer sounded. Then there was the time against Wyoming when he launched a game-winning jumper that looked as if it came from Cheyenne. Time ran out just as the ball reached the hoop over in Laramie.

"Manny is the most gifted athlete, as far as speed and agility go, that I've ever been associated with," Archibald said. "He is a tremendous jumper. He won a lot of games for us."

Why, then, didn't Hendrix take his quickness and cool to the National Basketball Assn., where the ball at least would have been the same familiar shape? The answer, in part, was because NBA teams ignored Hendrix on draft day. They thought, at 5-10, he was too short.

While the NBA showed little interest, two NFL teams--Dallas and Seattle--wanted a closer look. The Cowboys remembered a basketball player who set a precedent in 1962, when he came to Dallas after not playing football at Utah State. Cornell Green made the transition from backcourt to defensive backfield well enough to stick with the Cowboys for 13 seasons, including a number of Pro Bowl appearances.

And like Hendrix, Green could slam behind his head.

Hendrix caught the attention of Dallas scout Charles Mackey two years ago. The scout had heard stories about Hendrix's speed. Once, during the halftime of Utah's intrasquad spring football game, running back Del Rodgers, who later played with Green Bay, saw Hendrix standing along the sideline. Rodgers and Hendrix resumed an earlier argument over which sport--basketball or football--featured better athletes. Rodgers, who had 4.5 speed, first chided Hendrix, then challenged him over the stadium's P.A. system to a foot race.

"He called me a chicken over the microphone," Hendrix said. "I had a reputation to keep with the people there. I had to uphold my reputation and my ego."

With the football team and fans looking on, Hendrix and Rodgers lined up for a 30-yard dash. Hendrix beat Rodgers, running the last five yards backward. In basketballese, that's known as, "In your face." They then squared off in the 40, football's true measure of speed. But the basketball player whipped the halfback again. "He was nowhere in sight," Hendrix said. "No contest."

When Mackey approached him during his junior season about the prospect of playing professional football, Hendrix told the scout he was too wrapped up in basketball. Check back next year, he said.

Cowboy coaches looked over films of Hendrix and he was subsequently invited to the Dallas mini-camp in May. With an NBA future looking bleak, he decided to give football a try. Hendrix even considered playing football at Utah. Under NCAA rules, he had one year of eligibility left for any sport other than basketball. He went to one day of spring practice before deciding against college football.

Pro football, though, commanded his attention.

And, to some extent, vice versa.

The Cowboys were pleased with Hendrix at their mini-camp, so they invited him to training camp proper in Thousand Oaks. Thus far in the preseason, Hendrix has had both moments of glory and moments in the dumper. When Dallas played Chicago in London, he broke up a number of passes, including one in the Cowboys' end zone that prevented a touchdown.

On that play, NBC sportscaster Dick Enberg said, "That was some kinda play. Let's see, the defender's name is, uh . . . Manny Hendrix."

Cowboy President Tex Schramm, who had joined Enberg and Merlin Olsen in the booth moments earlier, piped up, saying this Hendrix kid might not only make the roster, he might start. Hot damn, it felt good to outsmart the rest of the NFL and the NBA, to boot.

Last week, though, Hendrix was beaten by Raider receiver Mark Pattison in the fourth quarter on a 56-yard scoring bomb that may have cost Dallas the game. The Raiders won, 24-19.

It appeared on the play that Hendrix was in position to bat the ball away, but the pass arrived just beyond his outstretched hand. "He brought his head in," said Dick Nolan, who coaches the defensive backs.

"When he turned his head, that drew him away from the ball and the receiver."

Said Hendrix: "There's a deep scar in me because of that. You've got to make that play. If you can't do it, they'll bring someone in who can. To say that I played basketball, that I'm still learning is just an excuse. After all, I've been playing football for seven weeks."

Gee, nearly two whole months now.

Inexperience looms as Hendrix's primary obstacle. There is, however, another problem. The same one that cost Hendrix a career in basketball--lack of height. Even Cornell Green was 6-3. Technique notwithstanding, if Hendrix were 6-3, he would have made the play against the Raiders.

The former basketball player already has dispelled doubts about his ability to hand out and absorb the beating required of NFL players. When Hendrix dropped out of the Utah program after just one day of spring practice, some hinted that he was too soft for football.

After the first two weeks of camp, even Hendrix wasn't sure. "Before we started, I thought, 'No problem, I'll just sort of guard them.' But every day I woke up with headaches from all the contact. I had no idea how I hurt myself in so many places. The first play, I saw this big running back coming at me with a big lineman in front of him. I just blacked out and boom, I was in on the play."

Gil Brandt, Cowboys vice president, said he thinks Hendrix is tough enough. "He's not afraid to take a hit."

Dallas defensive back Ron Fellows agreed, saying, "He has everything he needs to play in this league. If he doesn't play here, he could play somewhere else."

Cowboy coaches have yet to decide Hendrix's future. Eleven defensive backs remain in camp, which breaks and heads for Dallas today. Last year, the Cowboys kept seven DBs.

Hendrix isn't fooling himself. He's aware that the percentages are against him. "I'd put them at .003," he said. "I'm just taking it one day at a time. It's hard enough to play pro football after four years of college football. To go from college basketball to pro football, it'll take a miracle."

But then, in basketball at least, that was the way he liked it. Give Hendrix the ball with a second left and he'd drill it.

"I benched Manny once during his junior season," Archibald said. "He came back and averaged 22 points a game after that. He made mistakes, but he learned from them. Because of what happened Saturday night (against the Raiders), it won't happen again."

The other day before practice, Hendrix winced as he rubbed a sore spot on his leg. All those balls he dove for during his basketball career never left such an impression. Still, he grinned when he said, "I'm just glad to be in camp. Before I came here, I didn't have football in my wildest dreams. I just have to keep my head up and keep playing hard because . . . well, you know, I'm a football player now."

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