It’s Real Hollywood Ending for Transformed Henderson
Thomas Henderson went to Nau’s Enfield Drugs in Austin, Texas, shelled out $100 for lottery tickets--as he often does when the payoff catches his attention--and didn’t give it another second’s thought until he received a call last Wednesday night.
It was a relative, telling him that the winning ticket had come from Nau’s. A hopeful Henderson checked the numbers on his tickets against the winning ones and discovered that he had it. He was $28 million richer. Actually, after a cash option penalty and taxes, the amount he will receive is $10,433,690.
He isn’t complaining, having dealt before with the Internal Revenue Service. It once confiscated one of his Super Bowl rings and would have taken the two others if he had been able to find them.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that there is no second act in an American life. Not even a mind as fertile as his could have imagined that anyone would ever come along like Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson.
He was born 47 years ago this month in an Austin hospital to a single mother, who raised him mostly by herself. He had a stepfather, until Henderson’s mother shot and wounded him after he’d beaten her in a drunken rage. Henderson recalls the shame of frequently going to school smelling like urine.
He never could be shamed on the football field. He didn’t have the grades for a major university, but Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys’ player personnel director who had a knack for finding players where no one else could, found Henderson at Oklahoma’s Langston College.
Brandt, one of the first talent evaluators to use a computer to analyze players, was staggered when he read Henderson’s printout. He wasn’t as big as some outside linebackers, but he was faster than many tailbacks, could dunk over a goal post--which he once did at the Coliseum after scoring a touchdown in a playoff game against the Rams--and had an IQ as high as, or higher than, the players the Cowboys like to draft from Stanford.
Their first-round draft choice in 1975 didn’t disappoint on the field. Lawrence Taylor, perhaps the greatest player ever at the position, said that he was inspired to wear 56 because it was Henderson’s number.
As a bonus, since he promoted himself, the Cowboys’ vaunted PR machine could devote its resources to other players. Henderson wasn’t exaggerating much when he said he could “talk a hungry cat off a fish truck.”
In his most famous interview, a few days before Super Bowl XIII in Miami, he said the quarterback that the Cowboys would face, Pittsburgh’s Terry Bradshaw, “couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the C and the A.”
Years later, after his autobiography, “Out of Control: Confessions of an NFL Casualty,” was published, we learned that his breakfast of champions on that morning included cocaine.
He had played Super Bowl XII high, trading two tickets for an ounce of coke before the game and snorting it in a locker room toilet stall. He would play Super Bowl XIII while flying from the liquefied coke he sniffed on the sidelines from an inhaler.
But he didn’t usually play games during his five-year career with the Cowboys high on cocaine. More often, he played them high on amphetamines and marijuana.
During the 1979 season, he was wearing his illegal smile on the sideline during a loss to the Washington Redskins. Tom Landry, who had an infinite amount of compassion but not patience, fired him.
Fitzgerald also once wrote, “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.”
Henderson played one more season, with two different teams, and was attempting a comeback with Miami when he broke a vertebra and retired.
By then, he already had made history, as the first NFL player to publicly confess an addiction to drugs and alcohol and admit himself to a rehabilitation center. Some people guessed he wasn’t serious when he was seen smoking a joint on the steps before entering.
He still hadn’t hit bottom. That happened in Long Beach in November 1983--he had moved to Southern California in a futile attempt to become Hollywood’s Hollywood Henderson--when he lured two underage girls to his place with the promise of cocaine.
Once there, he was alleged to have held a .38 caliber pistol on one and forced her to perform oral copulation while the other, who was in a wheelchair, watched.
Even before spending two years and eight months inside the Men’s Colony at San Luis Obispo after his conviction for the sexual offense, he underwent treatment at CareUnit in Orange that he says prevented him from meeting the same fate as John Belushi.
Henderson has fond memories of his three Super Bowls--he eventually found one of the missing rings--but says they are less important to him than the more than 16 years he has spent playing every day in the “Sober Bowl.”
He returned to his old neighborhood in Austin after prison and started the East Side Youth Services and Street Outreach. He never earned more than $175,000 in a football season, money that mostly disappeared up his nose, but has found ways to provide. Proving that he is still not allergic to attention, he staged a hunger strike in 1997 to raise money for a track. With $250,000 in donations, he built the Yellow Jacket Track & Field.
Equally important is the message he delivers with evangelistic zeal. People who have heard his anti-drug sermons to schoolchildren say they tingle when he starts them chanting, “You have a choice!”
He announced last year his candidacy for the Austin City Council so that he would have an even more influential pulpit. He was stopped by a state law forbidding convicted felons from appearing on the ballot.
But, as Henderson often tells the children, when God closes a door, he opens a window. More than $10 million just dropped through his window.
“A blessed event,” he calls it.
He celebrated by going to the nearest 7-Eleven and buying a sausage and egg biscuit, powdered doughnuts and a pint of milk. He says he will take care of his family with some of his millions but put most of the money into the community.
What would you expect? Hollywood always has been partial to happy endings.
Randy Harvey can be reached at his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.