Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson
Dallas Cowboy's Pro Bowl Linebacker, Texas Lotto winner,
and today, a spokesman for sobriety
By Paul Heckmann, Executive Director Memories Incorporated
Paul Heckmann: Thomas can you tell me a little bit about growing up in Austin?
Thomas Henderson: Yeah. I was born in Austin in 1953. My mother was 21 days short of her 16th birthday, which meant that she had to run from an abortionist in order to have me. I didn’t learn about that until later in life.
Growing up, I remember being in school at 3 years old with kids that were not all black. I was over on UT’s campus in a Montessori school. I think that’s how you pronounce it.
My mother worked there, and so I started school real early. But I lived in the hood. My mother and my step father had four more kids, and it got really hard.
I didn’t meet my father until I became a Dallas Cowboy, and we were really too poor. Our bathtub was a dirty clothes hamper.
Paul Heckmann: Oh boy.
Thomas Henderson: And we didn’t have toilet paper most of the time. You can imagine what kind of nightmare that was.
Paul Heckmann: I remember showing me where you used to live there back around 1990. It was pretty much a lean-to on the back of a house.
Thomas Henderson: If I were to take you in my garage right now and you saw 60 rolls of toilet paper, you would know just where it came from.
So growing up in Austin was a great experience. I was loved. I was disciplined, but again I had a little thug in me, which doesn’t hurt you over your lifetime. You get to protect yourself and you have very little fear and anxiety because basically, I can’t be intimidated. There’s some value to being thuggish.
Paul Heckmann: Tell me about school in Austin
Thomas Henderson: I started at LL Campbell Elementary. Then I went to a junior high at the University of Texas called UJH, University Junior High, for my seventh grade year. That’s an interesting thing too because I was in the top 10% of my elementary and that is the only students they were accepting. In 1966, this is like really when I didn’t know what integration meant but I was part of some of the original integration in Austin school districts. So I’m 13 and I’m meeting Mexicans and white people, and I am socializing, and having lunch, and being taught with different races whereas I had had some exposure already, but it was very interesting to go from an all-black elementary school. Of course my earlier, like pre-K stuff, I didn’t see color anyway. So, I have had a very interesting life.
Paul Heckmann: No kidding. Did you play football at Anderson after that?
Thomas Henderson: I played football at UJH. I played football at Kealing Junior High, and I played my sophomore year at Anderson. I was a tailback, and I was little upset I wasn’t on the varsity because a couple of my buddies were on varsity, but I was on the B team.
Paul Heckmann: And then Oklahoma City. How did that come about?
Thomas Henderson: Yeah. I had one of those nights where there was no toilet paper and I said, okay, all right, I gotta get out of here.
We had a twin bed with two little boys, and I was many years older than one and 12 years older than the another. These little guys were making a mess of the mattress and the sheets. I had a grandmother in Oklahoma City, and so I made a call. I asked her 'Can I come live with you? I gotta get out of here'. And my closest friend had been shot right next to me and killed, so it was about time.
Paul Heckmann: So sorry to hear that Thomas.
Let’s move on to Oklahoma City. I believe you went to school up at Douglas. Now you were playing tailback down in Austin. Did you play tailback again at Douglas?
Thomas Henderson: I couldn’t play football my junior year because there’s a rule, and I didn’t know this was a rule until it hit me in the face. If you move from one border state, Texas to Oklahoma, a border state, without your parents, you’re ineligible to play football for a year. So, I played basketball my junior year at Douglas High School, and I worked at the Post office at night.
Paul Heckmann: What did you do at the post office?
Thomas Henderson: I loaded trucks, Spiegel catalogs, all the heavy items, and the bags of mail. I drove trucks back to the yard, driving 18 wheelers with just a driver’s license, but I was pretty good at my job. I loved my job because I got a car and I was making a car payment, and insurance, and going to high school. I took welding. I’m also a certified welder. They asked me did I want to film the games on Friday nights, and I said absolutely. So, I was a sad 17-year-old, not able to play my junior year, but I filmed every game that season.
Paul Heckmann: So, you now have reached Douglas High your senior year. Tell me about that.
Thomas Henderson: Well, the football coach had been watching me and he took me over to the scales. I was 210 and I was 6’2” and he asked me what position do you play? I said quarterback.
Paul Heckmann: Of course.
Thomas Henderson: Coach says, throw a post. I threw the worst duck you’ve ever seen.
Paul Heckmann: And then you found your calling.
Thomas Henderson: Yes, defensive end. I made All-City, first team, All-District first team, and I was honorable mention All-State.
Paul Heckmann: Considering it was a one year thing, that’s pretty amazing. So you are done with football and you have now graduated from Douglas.
Thomas Henderson: No, I haven’t. Let’s go back a bit.
Paul Heckmann: Okay.
Thomas Henderson: The only thing that kept Thomas Henderson back is he flunked a geometry class at Anderson High School in Austin.
We were getting ready for graduation. I got a call from the principal’s office to go see the counselor, and I went to see the counselor and she said, according to your transcripts, you need a geometry to graduate. I’m sad to tell you, I’m sad to tell you that you can march but you gotta go to summer school. I went home and told my grandmother, and she immediately took me out to Putnam City, and registered me for summer school geometry.
And when I turned 18 in March of 1971, I had to go down to selective service and register, and the Vietnam War was still raging in ’71.
Paul Heckmann: Oh yes.
Thomas Henderson: I went from 1A, which means going to Vietnam to 1S, which is school, and that’s the only thing that kept me from going to Vietnam, me flunking geometry.
Paul Heckmann: That’s quite amazing actually.
Thomas Henderson: My life has been that way.
Paul Heckmann: I seem to remember you were going to go into the Air Force.
Thomas Henderson: I was, because it was an alternative to the Army drafting me. At that time I didnt know what that geometry class did for me, so I went straight down to the Air Force after I got that letter from the Army that was basically saying, hey partner, you’re 1A and get ready for a physical buddy.
I went to the Air Force and took the test. Of course, they said what do you wanna be? I said I wanna be a pilot. I wanna fly. Listen to this. With my testing, they go you might be able to do this. I’ve always been a bit smarter scholastically than people would think. That was a summer to always remember.
Paul Heckmann: Okay. You were about to join the Airforce, but you didn’t actually finish the signup for it.
Thomas Henderson: Well, all over the news about that time was the plane that went down at Wichita State, they lost most of their football team.
I couldn’t wait to find out how to get a letter to that school. I’m gonna go through summer school. I can go to that school. I went and took the ACT, and I was ready to go, I got a Dear John from Wichita State. They don’t have anybody on the football team, and they don’t want me. I thought it was over right there. So, I went on to some school and I passed the Geometry and the Air Force was in my rear view mirror.
On a Tuesday, I was talking to a buddy and he said man, why don’t you go up to Langston? I'm thinking, 'okay' and I caught a ride up to Langston, Oklahoma because I had wrecked my car. I got to Langston University on a Tuesday. The coach was surprised. He said 'Oh man, I saw you before. You’re a good player. I thought Oklahoma State would get you.'
I go 'Really, yeah.' So, I get to Langston on a Tuesday and that Wednesday, the starting defensive end broke his ankle and so I was on the starting lineup to play Kentucky State. I had four sacks and about 12 tackles, and that guy never got his job back.
Paul Heckmann: Oh no. Now, you were still a walk on at this point?
Thomas Henderson: I was a walk on at Langston University. That’s not like saying I’m a walk on at Alabama of course.
Paul Heckmann: When did you get your scholarship there?
Thomas Henderson: I never got a scholarship at Langston. I was always on financial aid. You have to remember in ’71, my mom is a maid. My mother was making minimum wage, $1.25 maybe at the time.
There’s no biological father at all. So, I was on financial aid for four years at Langston. There were 33 scholarships, but it was a very political thing, and I had figured out that I was gonna do better on financial aid than on scholarship with all the rules of the scholarships.
Paul Heckmann: Sure.
Thomas Henderson: Around my junior year when I was consensus All-America and NAIA All-America, and Little AP All-America, my coach finally said, do you want a scholarship?
Paul Heckmann: And you say, 'I’m doing just fine.'
Thomas Henderson: I played four full years at Langston University, and I was never on scholarship.
Paul Heckmann: Best years of your life too, weren’t they?
Thomas Henderson: Yes, they were.
Paul Heckmann: There is something special about the 'smaller' (not Power 5) schools. Speaking as a Texas A&I Javelina, I understand completely.
So, 1975 comes around and the NFL draft comes up. Before you were drafted, what were you hearing about the teams that wanted you?
Thomas Henderson: Not much. You know, I got a letter from the Rams and the Cowboys. I don’t know if you remember Tank Younger?
Paul Heckmann: Oh yes. Big star with the Rams.
Thomas Henderson: Paul “Tank” Younger played at Grambling. He was one of the first African-American players to play in the NFL. He was a scout and he worked in the front office of the Rams. I think he was one of the first to work for the organization. He had come to Langston twice.
You know, Red Hickey and Gil Brandt had both come to Langston. I had run track my junior year so they had noticed. I ran a 9.5 100 yard dash
Paul Heckmann: Wow.
Thomas Henderson: Now, we weren’t running meters during those years.
Paul Heckmann: That is still blazing fast.
Thomas Henderson: I ran a 4.4 forty in a cow pasture. I actually ran a 4.5 barefooted. I didn’t have the equipment. I mean this is not bragging. This is like we simply didn’t have the equipment.
Paul Heckmann: I understand.
Thomas Henderson: Tom Landry didn’t want to waste a No. 1 draft pick on a guy from a HBCU. That’s 'historically black colleges and universities'.
So, Red Hickey and Gil Brandt challenged him and said he’s the best player on the board. So, Landry went with his scouts and picked me 18th in the first round on January 29, 1975. I was in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere and the phone rang. My roommate answered and he said, hey man, it’s the Cowboys. The Cowboys are on the phone. There was no watch party. My family wasn’t dressed up like we were going to church. There were no big party. There was nothing except them calling you. I got on the phone and it was Gil Brandt, and he said we just picked you in the draft, 18th, in the first round. He says can you get to the airport. I said, well, yeah, probably. He goes okay. This was about 10:00 in the morning. He hollered back at his secretary. Hey, what time is the nonstop coming from Oklahoma City and she goes 3:30. He said can you be there at the airport by 3:00. I go yeah, I can be there by 3:00 and that was my draft day.
Paul Heckmann: A far cry from the greenroom they have today.
So you are now part of arguably the best draft the Cowboys ever had, the Dirty Dozen. Who were some of the other folks that you were drafted with?
Thomas Henderson: Oh man, Randy White, Burton Lawless, Randy Hughes, Scott Laidlaw, and Percy Howard who was a free agent, Rolly Woolsey from Boise State, Pat Donovan. Even Mike Hegman was drafted that year, but he stayed one more year at Tennessee State. I’m getting a little Alzheimer's here. I can’t run down the whole draft list. Mitch Hoopes was the punter of that group. So, 12 rookies made the team that year.
Paul Heckmann: That’s absolutely incredible. I don’t think we’ll ever see a draft like that again.
Thomas Henderson: You know, when you look back at all that, it was a tremendous time for Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys. By the time I became a starter, we were the No. 1 defense in ’77 and ’78.
Paul Heckmann: I think D. D. Lewis was one of your line backing buddies.
Thomas Henderson: Yep and Bob Breunig. He was another one of the rookies that year. So, in ’77 it was Breunig, Lewis, and Henderson. We were playing some good ball. We had the No. 1 defense two years running.
Paul Heckmann: That was an incredible time for Dallas.
Thomas Henderson: If I could go back and change anything, I’d shut my mouth with Coach Landry. Look at what happened to the Cowboys in ’80, ’81, ’82, ’83 without me. I just think that what I brought to the team and to the defensive scheme would have just put it over the top, you know, made it better.
Paul Heckmann: One thing that you did that was absolutely incredible in that day was you returned kicks. I still remember seeing a linebacker returning a kickoff and then all of a sudden, you’re back there and all of a sudden you scored a touchdown on a return, and then to top it off you dunked it over the goalpost.
Thomas Henderson: Well, you know, I did that in my rookie year in 1975 against the Cardinals. I went 97 yards, and I didn’t know what to do with the ball. So, I went and dunked it over the goalpost.
Paul Heckmann: First person to ever do that I believe.
Thomas Henderson: Absolutely. The first person in the NFL to ever do that, and then I did it against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in ’77, and then in ’78, I picked off a 68 yard interception against the Rams. It was the fourth quarter, and I didn’t have any left in the tank, and so I finger rolled over there. That grass is different from an Astroturf.
Paul Heckmann: So, I got a question for you. Who gave you the Hollywood moniker?
Thomas Henderson: I think it was Robert Newhouse who was teasing me because I came to work one day in a limo with a fur coat on.
Paul Heckmann: I remember the fur coat.
Thomas Henderson: I had been out all night. So, I came to work with a fur coat in a limo. So, it was either 'Damn Fool' or 'Hollywood'.
Paul Heckmann: You went with the latter. Makes sense to me.
So, who were some of your best friends on the team?
Thomas Henderson: You know, all of them. I loved all of the guys I played with. Playing football for the Dallas Cowboys was a very intimate affair. Charlie Waters, Bob Breunig, Randy Hughes, Too Tall, Harvey Martin, Jethro Pugh, Rayfield Wright, John Fitzgerald, Roger Staubach, so many, Tony Dorsett and all the others.
Me and Preston really kind of went at it because we were competitive, and so I’m not sure we loved each other that much.
Paul Heckmann: Preston Pearson?
Thomas Henderson: Yes. Bruce Huther didn’t like me but overall, I loved all those men. Lee Roy Jordan - are you kidding me? I mean I just loved these guys and I’ll tell you this Harvey Martin, Larry Cole, I mean, they’re great. I’ll tell you what. I loved Charlie Waters like he was brother.
When I wrote my book Out of Control, I didn’t snitch on anybody. I didn’t tell who was having affairs on their wives. I didn’t tell who smoked marijuana. I didn’t tell who did cocaine. I didn’t tell who was on steroids or pain medications. I didn’t tell who supplied the Black Mollies every Sunday for every last one of us. So, when I wrote the book Out of Control, it solidified that when I came back to Dallas and asked teammates to come talk about my life story, everybody came because I had surprised them that I wasn’t mad at anybody, that I was a friend even in my darkest day.
Paul - (I added links at the bottom of the Interview for purchasing 'Out of Control')
Paul Heckmann: Oh yeah. I’m gonna move away from the NFL for just a second because about ’78 and ’79 was about the time that Wyetta was a Playboy Bunny over at the Playboy of Dallas.
Thomas Henderson: Yes.
Paul Heckmann: I remember you telling me that you were also a judge there for the bunny search.
Thomas Henderson: That's true, but I met Wyetta before all that ever happened. I met Wyetta Boswell in Seattle. Actually, the first game played in that stadium in Seattle was the Cowboys versus the Seahawks. She went to school with Too Tall and Mike Hegman. I met her in ’76 in Seattle and in the off season of ’76, she moved to Dallas.
Paul Heckmann: I see.
Thomas Henderson: So we had been dating for a while, maybe a year, before the Playboy Club came to Central Expressway.
Paul Heckmann: So, how did you become a judge for the bunny search?
Thomas Henderson: I was Thomas Henderson.
Paul Heckmann: Ha! That’s enough for me.
Thomas Henderson: I’ll tell you one thing. Let’s go deeper than that. I had another girlfriend named Carol, and she was trying to be a Bunny as well. Wyetta just couldn’t stand her.
Paul Heckmann: Oh boy.
Thomas Henderson: Oh boy. That’s right. So, Wyetta sabotaged her chances of being a bunny.
Paul Heckmann: Ah, the bunny fangs. Yeah.
Thomas Henderson: Bunny hate, you know. I tried to get both of them in there.
Paul Heckmann: It is what it is.
Thomas Henderson: It is what it is.
Paul Heckmann: I remember you telling me that you and Too Tall actually own some nightclubs.
Thomas Henderson: Oh yes. I had a little bit of a partnership out in South Dallas at a club called Plush Pup. I had a piece of that. I actually made more money in the club business than I did working for the Cowboys.
Then we had Playmakers Plaza off of Knox and Henderson that was extremely successful because I would have a theme. We’d have a party for Too Tall and we’d have a party for Billy Joe DuPree, Tony Dorsett. We’d have a different party for a different player every week on a Thursday night, $10.00. It was outrageous in ’76, ’77, ’78, and you couldn’t go out. Ten bucks and no return entry. We did well. I did well in the club business. I actually made more money in the club business than I did in my Dallas Cowboy contract.
Paul Heckmann: Wow, that’s amazing. About this time was also when the Super Bowl came up I believe the one with Dallas and Pittsburgh. Probably one of the most famous things that have ever happened in the Super Bowl history was the rhetoric between you and Terry Bradshaw. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Thomas Henderson: Well, let’s go back. We played in three super bowls during my time. So, Super Bowl X we played the Pittsburgh Steelers and I ran the opening kickoff in that game. Then we won the Super Bowl in New Orleans against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XII and then was the Super Bowl XIII January of 1979. The background of that story was that Gil Brandt was talking to me about Terry Bradshaw, and he knew a little bit about Bradshaw’s relationship with the head coach of the Steelers that he screamed at him a lot and called him stupid in front of the team. Then he told me a story that Terry Bradshaw really wanted to go to LSU but he ends up going to Louisiana Tech. I’m sitting there wondering why are you giving me a history lesson on Terry Bradshaw, and finally he said he didn’t score very well on the ACT.
So, he was feeding me this stuff and then I sort of came to the conclusion. I had taken the ACT, and the SAT, and I’d done very well. Believe it or not, Thomas Henderson was a good student. I came up with that line calling Bradshaw dumb. I said he couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the C and the A but that was all sort of poetry from failing the ACT, him wanting to go to LSU as opposed to Louisiana Tech. That was by accident or by design, but that’s how I came up with that line.
Paul Heckmann: So, also about this time, you were starting to do a lot of cocaine.
Thomas Henderson: Yes. A lot.
Paul Heckmann: I believe you also told me you were doing cocaine on the sidelines using Vicks Nasal Inhaler, I believe.
Thomas Henderson: I had to. I had burned a hole through my septum. I didn’t cut up my cocaine very good for it to go down smoothly. I started just snorting rocks. I did whatever I could push up in there and I developed a hole in my nose, and it ached. It gave me migraine kind of headaches. The only way that I could kind of keep it around was to put it in a Vicks Inhaler, and I started doing that late ’78. In other words, I wasn’t even really trying to get high. It was just my nasal passage was sore and about every four or five days, this giant scab would come out and then it would be freshly ready for me to cake more coke in it. It was so bad that when I went to my first rehab in ’81, I had surgery. I had surgery to close a big hole in my nose.
Paul Heckmann: That is some serious addiction. We will come back to that.
Tell me about your relationship with Coach Landry because there was a little bit of love and hate in there, wasn’t there?
Thomas Henderson: I never hated the man. He didn’t understand me. I didn’t understand him. I tended to talk back. I would say stuff like what do you mean by that and it would stun him. It was like a private talking to a general. When Too Tall was drafted, he took a picture with Landry. When Randy White was drafted, he took a picture with Landry. Landry never took a picture with me. When I went up to the Cowboy office, when I came to Dallas, he didn’t come out of his office to say Hi. I resented that.
Paul Heckmann: Was that intentional on his part?
Thomas Henderson: I don’t know. I had a giant beard and nobody said a word to me in those apartments up on Forest Lane. We get to Thousand Oaks and he tells me, you’ve got to shave that beard off and I told him, 'I’m not shaving my beard. What’s that got to do with playing football?' So, that was my first run in with him.
And then we were traveling and he said you’ve got to have a sports coat and a tie. So, I put on a sports coat, a white shirt, and a shoestring. I found a shoestring that I made a tie and I tied it around.
Paul Heckmann: So, you’re rubbing it in.
Thomas Henderson: Then he wrote like a five page, typed, memorandum of what a tie is. So, I went and bought ties but I still just tied them in knots. You know, okay, you wanna a tie and I just put like two knots. So, I bugged him a little bit. I tell you what he did for me. He coached me. He really taught me how to play the edge. He loved defense. He even let me do some things that he didn’t let anybody else do.
I remember a moment when we were in a meeting and I kept doing something on I think it was the flex defense, but it was a flex weak, and I kept doing something besides what the defense was designed to do. But I kept making the play because I would see something, and I would react to the play. Landry said this in front of the entire defense, he had never said it before, and he hadn’t said it since. We were in a dark room. There’re 20 of us in there. Landry had a way of really getting a little red light on a screen. Look at you. See where your hips are right here. See where your feet are. You’re and so he’d be doing that.
So I had been doing something and it was bugging him. This stunned the whole room. He said, 'Thomas, now look. This is not my defense right here. See this move you’re making right here. This is it my defense', but then I’d make like a tackle for a 4-yard loss. He looked at it four or five times. He goes, you know what Thomas, 'I don’t like you doing this but I’m gonna let you do it'. You could’ve like slapped everybody in the room. It was like what? What do you mean you’re gonna let him do it?
Paul Heckmann: Oh man. Did you ever come in and kind of heal the relationship with Coach Landry?
Thomas Henderson: I did. It was a while because I never did live in Dallas again. When I left Dallas in ’79, I never came back. I haven’t been back since (except for events), but I had been communicating with Coach Landry early in my recovery from drugs and we exchanged letters. I made some amends, and he actually came to my 10-year-sober celebration in Austin and spoke, and I have it on film. I’m currently working on a documentary that’s gonna be very powerful but yeah.
As a matter of fact, I did something so funny with him. We’re at Barton Creek, and there’s a golf tournament. So, me, Too Tall, Rayfield, Harvey and Randy White, and a couple more Cowboys were over there. Landry walks over to us and he goes, 'Wassup'? I said, 'Wassup? What the f**k?' and I just fell over laughing. Landry knows the term Wassup? What? (Thomas laughing).
Paul Heckmann: Oh man. That’s healing right there.
So, let’s go back here to the end of your Cowboy career. How did it end from your perspective?
Thomas Henderson: Well, it was awful. We were playing the Redskins and me and Landry had had a bad year anyway. He wasn’t very kind to me. He never acknowledged that I just had a daughter. He never asked me what my kid’s name was. That off season, I had contracted Hepatitis B from a big old plate of seafood I ate in Hawaii, while we were out there doing the super teams. So, I spent three weeks in Baylor Hospital in isolation. So, I came to training camp barely weighing 200 pounds.
So, ’79 was a really rough time for me in training camp. I had a hiatal hernia and I had to sleep sitting up. I had a tough training camp health wise. I wasn’t healthy. I went from hepatitis to hiatal hernia and we broke training camp, or the end of the preseason or something, Landry called me up for a meeting. I go in and he goes 'Okay Thomas, if you miss any more practices, you’re not gonna start.'
So, then I got the flu like fourth or fifth game of ’79. We were playing the Steelers. I’m barking like a dog. I had been in the hospital where people who came to see me, I thought they were going to the moon because I was so messed up with that infectious hepatitis. So, I come to work one day and I am barking like a dog. My nose is running, not from cocaine, just from this virus I had, and I’m coughing like I’m gonna throw up my tonsils. The doctor happened to be there. He gave me some antibiotics and told me to go home. He says, 'go home before you give this to everybody in here. Go home.'
I go home, and I come to work the next day better. He gave me a boatload of antibiotics, and we go to Pittsburgh. I’m getting ready for the game and Landry, with all the things in the world that he could work on, comes over to my locker and says 'You know our deal. So, you’re not starting today,' and I lost it. I got up and confronted him in his face and I told him if I don't start today, I’m not playing. I just didn’t understand the way he was treating me. I had had these health issues that year from hepatitis B, to hiatal hernia, to the flu. I even think I had an ankle injury. I mean it was a tough year, and I gave him a few choice words, and he walked away and came back, and said okay, you win this one. That was basically the end of my career right there with him.
Paul Heckmann: Then at some point, you were traded to San Francisco. Is that correct?
Thomas Henderson: No, I didn’t accept the trade. I mean they got a draft choice for me, but I quit. I retired. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know the legal ramifications. I didn’t know this or that. I just refused to go to San Francisco. So, I just quit. So, I sat out the rest of that year. It was the 11th week anyway.
Paul Heckmann: This was 1979 season?
Thomas Henderson: Yeah.
Paul Heckmann: Okay. Did you ever go to San Francisco to play?
Thomas Henderson: Yeah. I went to training camp in San Francisco in 1980 and made the team, and played about five games, hurt my neck. I think I broke my neck out there the first time. I was doing way too much. I was smoking crack, and I was a mess. Bill Walsh caught wind of it and that was that.
So one day, what’s his name? His last name is Owens. He came to my house with my shoulder pads, and helmet, and my shoes, and a big check, and said 'they let you go'.
Paul Heckmann: Wow.
Thomas Henderson: Before he walked away, he said 'Call the Oilers. They’re interested'. So I called Bum Phillips. He said there’s a first class ticket for you. So I got on an airplane and left Wyetta and my daughter in Redwood City, California, and I flew to Houston. I played the rest of the season with the Oilers and went to the playoffs against the Raiders. But that team didn’t like me at all. I had no friends in that locker room.
Paul Heckmann: Why did you not have any friends in that one? Was it just a personality conflict or the fact that you’re coming in mid-season?
Thomas Henderson: No, I just think the Oilers hated the Cowboys period.
Paul Heckmann: That I can understand.
So, you’ve gone through this season with Houston. Like you say, things didn’t exactly work out for personalities. I believe you went to Miami after that didn’t you, with the Dolphins?
Thomas Henderson: I did. I went to rehab. The Cowboys played a role in that. You know, John Wooden called me and says 'Get your butt down here. I wanna meet you', and he met me on Northwest Highway in a parking lot. He says 'Everybody knows what you’re doing.' He said 'Come on, cut it out. You’re gonna kill yourself. Stop it.' and he gave me a card for rehab in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Scottsdale. Turned out it was a mental institution.
Paul Heckmann: Oh boy.
Thomas Henderson: Besides getting the nose surgery, which I got while I was in there, they let me out to go have surgery; it was really a psychiatric hospital. It didn’t really do me any good with my thinking about my use of drugs. So, I get out of there and a friend of mine drove my Mercedes over to Scottsdale and brought me some weed.+
So, in the parking lot pulling out from the rehab, I smoked the biggest joint you’ve ever seen going down the highway.
I thought to myself, 'Yeah, I think I’m gonna make it.'
Paul Heckmann: So you got out of that rehab and now you’re heading over to Miami to the Dolphins.
Thomas Henderson: Yeah, I went back to Dallas and Shula had a connecting flight. He wanted to see me. I went out there blitzed to see him. He didn’t notice that I was high.
So I went out to see him at the airport and he said, 'Yeah. We’d love for you to come on to training camp.' So, I went down there and God blessed me as a good football player. I made that team easy. I had caused a little bit of a problem because they had traded for Brudzinski from the Rams, and they had Gordon on the other side, and they asked me would I play inside. I go 'Absolutely not.' I was gonna start. I didn’t know which side, and then I broke my neck in the last preseason game of 1981.
Paul Heckmann: And that was the end of your NFL career.
Thomas Henderson: Right there, yes sir.
Paul Heckmann: Just like that. Boom.
Thomas Henderson: You know, I know how lucky I am. I should’ve died. I broke cervical vertebrae 1. It burst, the top vertebrae where your heartbeat and your breathing is. So, not only should I have died, I should not be upright. I should be paralyzed from the neck down. I should be just a head attached to something. God has had his hand on me for a long time, and I finally realized that about 35 years ago when I cut out the crap and got my life together.
Paul Heckmann: At this point, you had surgery on our neck?
Thomas Henderson: No, they put me in a prehistoric body cast. I looked like a brother in a bowl. I looked like a bowl of baby spinach with my afro sticking out from my neck, and my arms sticking out. It was awful.
Paul Heckmann: How long were you like that?
Thomas Henderson: Six months. I smelled like a Billy goat for six months.
Paul Heckmann: Oh man, oh gosh. So, you get out of this cast and I know that about 1983 really all hell broke loose but with that hell that came, you really ended up with a new lease on life. Can you kind of tell me first about the hell and then how that really redefined you at that point?
Thomas Henderson: Yeah. The phenomenon of the thing called the blackout is where my life was at that time. So, if I was to try to tell you what happened, I’d be lying. I know that I ended up smoking crack with a couple of girls and I don’t remember meeting them. I don’t remember smoking with them. I don’t remember anything. I was in a total blackout because that’s where my addiction had taken me. So, I woke up in the Long Beach Jail accused of sexual assault while smoking crack. I’m still trying to figure that one out. So, it was extremely embarrassing.
I had a lawyer friend actually come extract me from my pipe. I bailed out of jail, and went back to my apartment, and got some more coke. A lawyer buddy of mine wouldn’t stop knocking on my door, and came and got me, and took me to Orange, California to a place called the CARE Unit. I met this Dr. Stone and Dr. Joseph Pursch. For seven months, I just learned how to do life differently and I was faithful, and clean and sober. Then I had to do 28 months in the California Department of Corrections. There was plenty of cocaine, and heroin, and marijuana there too, but I refrained.
I’ve been sober 35 years.
Paul Heckmann: That’s quite amazing. It really is. All the kudos to you my friend.
The next time you and I talked, around ’90. I was down in San Diego working as Chief Purser/Hotel Manager on a cruise ship that was in drydock just under the Coronado Bridge. Myself and the Captain had direct phones to us. I pick it up and 'Hey Paul, it's Thomas.'
I remember thinking it was someone playing a prank on me so I told you to give me your number and I would call you back. I had told my folks about my drinking and they remembered that I knew you and had read a story about you getting sober and somehow got hold of you.
We talked, I took a day off an drove up to Costa Mesa to see you. And we reminisced, told each other our horror stories, you told me the story you noted above, said that if I really wanted to get sober you had a bed waiting for me at Sierra Tuscon. So I walked away from a job I was really good at making a lot of money - and after 7 years, that turned out to be the last time I ever stepped foot on a cruise ship.
On Jan 30th 2020, I will have 30 years with nary a drop to drink. And I owe you a big part of that.
Thomas Henderson: That was all you man.
Paul: 4 months of rehab later, I move back to Dallas, rooming with old buddy Warren Wilkes who have been sober for a couple of years by then. You were in the process of moving to Austin, so I drove down to help unload you Uhaul.
So the next part of your life. You get clean and sober, living the 'boring life' and doing pretty well at it. Then all of a sudden, you win the lottery.
Thomas Henderson: Yep.
Paul Heckmann: $28 million I think it was.
Thomas Henderson: Yeah.
Paul Heckmann: In the Texas lottery. I remember thinking at that time going, man I am so glad he is so straight at this particular point in his life because otherwise, he wouldn’t have made it.
Thomas Henderson: Yeah, that would’ve come with a coffin if I’d of won it at any other time in my life. I can report that I still have some of that money, and I live a good life. I do have regrets and some things I would do differently if I could do it over but I can’t. But I’m grateful to God and my family and friends, and the program that I have remained in these 35 years for helping me because I didn’t have enough sense to do this by myself. So, life is good. I’m working on a documentary that’s gonna be out within a year. It’s gonna be a big documentary on my life story.
Paul Heckmann: I will send you some photos we had together from back in the day. It should be good.
Thomas Henderson: Okay.
Paul Heckmann: Hey, Thomas man, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it. I really do and Thank you so much for your time, sir.
And before we end this, congratulations on your Doctorate from Langston. Very impressive.
Thomas: Thank you so much!
"Out of Control - Confessions of an NFL Casulty" by Thomas Henderson available at Amazon and other
Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/out-of-control-thomas-henderson/1121660149
Thomas Henderson is available for speaking engagements. Send him a tweet at @hollywoodhend
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