HOLLYWOOD HENDERSON’S RISE FROM THE SUPER BOWL TO THE SOBER Bowl
Several months ago, Thomas Henderson got a phone call at his Costa Mesa home from trucking magnate Robert Briscoe of Sundown, Texas.
Briscoe was a diehard Dallas football fan who remembered vividly Henderson’s exploits as a linebacker for the Cowboys. He also owns one of Henderson’s three Super Bowl rings, all from the Cowboys. “The one the Internal Revenue Service confiscated, the only one they could find,” explains Henderson. “Briscoe paid $13,500 for it at an auction.”
Briscoe told Henderson that he had read his 1987 book, “Out of Control,” and knew that Henderson had kicked cocaine, was living a life of sobriety and was spending much of his time warning young people about substance abuse. Would Henderson be willing to fly to north Texas--all expenses paid--to talk to the children in the elementary school in Briscoe’s home town? Henderson would--and did.
“These were little kids,” recalls Henderson, “second-, third- and fourth-graders. I wasn’t sure at first how to talk to them, but we ended up with 300 piercing voices shouting, ‘We have a choice.’ I’ll never forget that. It’s the kind of high cocaine never gave me.”
When Briscoe took his guest back to the airport, he shook Henderson’s hand and told him he had promised to give the Super Bowl ring to his grandson--but after listening to the schoolchildren respond, he was having second thoughts. Maybe one of these days, he’d return the ring to Henderson.
Henderson doesn’t really need it. He managed to salvage one of his rings and was wearing it this night--a resplendent gold symbol of the homage paid premier football players in the country. Henderson wears it proudly but regards it with a very different perspective than he did in his playing days. “Every day now,” he says, “I get a trophy in the Sober Bowl--and I’ve never had it so good. I’m not a celebrity. I’m a recovering addict.”
We were having dinner at a local restaurant with Dr. Joseph Pursch, the Newport Beach psychiatrist famous for his successful substance-abuse treatment of Betty Ford and Billy Carter, among many others. Henderson credits Pursch with turning his life around, with making him understand and believe that “anything is possible in sobriety; nothing is possible if you use.”
Henderson had just shared the podium with Pursch for a discussion of substance abuse at a local church. The audience had listened raptly. Henderson is a commanding figure--lithe, anvil-shouldered, compact, flat-bellied, gregarious. He looks as if he had just stepped off the football field, and he told stories of his addiction with a kind of ingenuous directness that was remarkably effective.
That didn’t change when the conversation became three-way. Henderson--whose self-adopted nickname was “Hollywood”--was known around the NFL for his mouth as well as his linebacking. “I’ve yakked all my life,” he says, “talking about nothing, an empty wagon. Now I have something to say.”
In the last year, he’s been saying it pretty successfully. His book sold 60,000 copies in hard cover and has recently been released in paperback. “I was the top seller in Dallas for four weeks,” says Henderson proudly. “Outsold Bill Cosby and Tip O’Neill.” He also talks to a wide variety of audiences--sometimes for a fee, sometimes for free.
So far, he’s an undiscovered resource in Orange County. Although he has lived in Costa Mesa for more than a year, no schools have contacted him to participate in drug-abuse programs. He says he’d be happy to help.
“I want it clear what I do,” he says. “I don’t beat my own rug anymore. I’m part of the education process. I’m willing to talk to anybody.”
He’d like to carry his message to NFL locker rooms--but so far the NFL is mostly keeping him at arm’s length. (Exception: the Denver Broncos, which welcomed him last year.) He understands the hesitation.
“The people I used to work with are impressed but unconvinced,” he says. “They’ve seen too many players who said they were sober and then started using again. I’ve been sober now for four years and four months, but the football people are still asking if this is for real. I’m probably a year away from the NFL believing in me.”
This disinclination to accept the changes in Henderson reflects his progressively excessive behavior under the influence of drugs that most of his teammates and coaches still remember vividly. It’s all recounted in graphic detail in Henderson’s book.
He was 21 before he met his father, and he grew up in Texas against a backdrop of family violence that culminated when his mother shot and wounded his stepfather after he had beaten her in a drunken rage. Football was Henderson’s ticket to freedom, and he was so good that the Cowboys drafted him from a small black college near Oklahoma City called Langston University. At that time, Henderson had been smoking marijuana daily for more than six years.
His career with Dallas was meteoric. Within two years, he had moved up from special teams to a starting job as linebacker. He was relatively small (6 feet 2 inches, 210 pounds), but he was absolutely fearless. “For four years,” he says matter-of-factly, “I was the best there was.”
He remembers vividly the day he first discovered the kind of high drugs could produce--and it was all legal. He took a helmet in his stomach in the second quarter of an NFL game and had to be helped off the field. At half-time, the trainer shot him up with pain-killing drugs.
“On the second-half kickoff,” he recalls, “I went 97 yards for a touchdown on a reverse. Then I jumped 11 feet in the air to dunk the ball over the cross bar. An hour later, when the stuff started to wear off, I could hardly move. But that afternoon laid something in my head about drugs fixing me.”
So he pursued cocaine the same way he pursued enemy ball carriers--with a single-minded determination to be the best. “I had to do it all--and then some,” he says today.
He got away with it for five years, as far as his football performance was concerned. “Cocaine never enhanced my performance,” he says. “It finally became a source of medication to me, to anesthetize my nose from all that sniffing.”
In 1979, he pushed Dallas coach Tom Landry too far, and Landry told him to clear out. “I was the only man Landry ever fired,” Henderson says. “I was through at 28.” He caught on with the San Francisco 49ers, then the Houston Oilers, but his behavior was so bizarre that both teams turned him loose.
Then in 1980, Henderson became the first NFL player to publicly admit going through substance-abuse treatment. “I surrendered,” he says. “There was nothing left for me to do.”
Well, not quite. Henderson was both smarter and more determined than the Phoenix treatment center, and he came out “sucking on a marijuana cigarette and telling the guy who picked me up that I thought this was going to work.”
He got one more shot at football--in 1981 with the Miami Dolphins, whom he managed to convince that he had been cured. He hadn’t been, of course, but that wasn’t what took him out of football forever.
In the Dolphins’ last exhibition game, Henderson--who by that time was freebasing cocaine--hit a ball carrier head-on and his neck snapped. He wasn’t taken to a hospital for three days. Then, after a CAT scan, a doctor told him he had broken his neck and would never again play football.
That accelerated the slide downward. Long since separated from his first wife, Wyetta, and his daughter, Thomesa Holly, Henderson drifted to California and converted all his possessions to cash. When he could no longer afford cocaine, he began drinking. And in that state one afternoon in Long Beach, he encountered two young women and took them to his apartment. When they left, they went to the police and accused him of rape. Both were under age. He was arrested, charged and released on bail.
“That was my bottom,” he says. “That’s when suicide seemed the only way out.”
Instead, the attorney representing him took Henderson to the CareUnit in Orange. That’s where he met Dr. Pursch and turned his life around. The care there was quite different than it had been in Phoenix. Tough. Uncompromising. Pursch kept him in treatment for 102 days, then sent him to another hospital for further treatment. There he met a patient named Diane and fell in love.
For the first time in a decade, Henderson began to feel good about himself. Then he went to trial and was sentenced to four years and eight months in prison for forcing the girls into sex acts. The new people in his life told him that if he would stay sober, he’d make it. And he did.
Diane married him while he was still in prison. Some of his former teammates sent him letters of support. He began teaching illiterate prisoners how to read. And he wrote the outline of a book and shopped it unsuccessfully in New York until an agent got wind of it, sold the idea and found Henderson a collaborator.
When he was released from prison after serving half of his sentence, Henderson had completed the tapes for his book and sent them off to New York. Diane worked for a Costa Mesa company, and the couple moved there and settled in.
He says the high points of his day--when his 9-year-old daughter isn’t visiting from Tennessee, as she does several times a year--are checking his mail and calling his publisher.
“I want to share what I’ve learned,” he says passionately--and he recently launched a new effort to do this. When “Out of Control” was finished, he wanted to add a chapter on the beginnings and the meaning of sobriety. “It’s a profound place,” he says. “You can’t get there quickly or easily--but you can get there.”
He told his editor what he wanted to say, and the editor listened and pondered and finally said, “Why don’t we do a second book?” The contracts have been signed, and Henderson already has seven hours on tape.
He thinks the public has very little understanding of the temptations placed before professional athletes. “From legal alcohol to pain killers to straight drugs is a pretty direct route,” he says, “and the alcohol is supplied in copious quantities. It’ll help a lot when Budweiser quits having the Lite player of the week. What other business can you think of where there’s a six-pack of beer waiting for every player after a game?”
Several months ago, Henderson went back to Dallas for an Old Timers Game. He couldn’t play, but he could suit up, and he stood for several scary moments in the tunnel leading to the field, waiting for his name to be called and wondering what kind of reception he would get.
Then he heard “Hollywood Henderson,” and he trotted out of the shadows of the tunnel into the clear light. Suddenly it didn’t matter what the crowd did, but the fans cheered. And cheered.
“I never thought I’d be there again,” Henderson says.
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.