Believe it or not: the life of Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson is so remarkable that it seems to have come right out of, well, Hollywood
HAD A SCRIPT OF WHAT WOULD become Thomas “Hollywood Henderson’s amazing life story been pitched to a movie producer years ago, it likely would have been dismissed as far too sensational to believe. But the former-Dallas Cowboys star is living proof that truth sometimes is indeed much stranger than fiction.
A flamboyant linebacker and Super Bowl champion with “America’s Team” during the 1970s, Henderson had a promising NFL career cut short by alcoholism and drug addiction. He spent 28 months in prison and wasn’t sure he wanted to live after bottoming-out when he was accused of sexual assault.
Yet in a comeback more remarkable than anything that’s ever transpired on a football field, Henderson has completely turned his life around. He has been clean and sober for more than 21 years and is thriving as a motivational speaker, community activist, and philanthropist. He even won 828 million in the Texas lottery in 2000.
Henderson, 51, has experienced so many dramatic ups and downs that he feels as if he has spent the better part of his life on a seesaw.
“I haven’t quite had nine lives like a cat, but I have to say that it’s been remarkable,” Henderson says. “To have a front-row seat to it, it’s been sad, it’s been exciting, and it’s been surreal–but it’s all been worth it.”
Henderson is sharing the story of his recovery from drug and alcohol addiction in an inspirational book written with longtime Dallas Morning News sportswriter Frank Luksa. Published this past September, In Control: The Rebirth of an NFL Legend begins with Henderson’s 1986 release from jail and focuses on his recovery, charitable work, family, and the handling of his newfound wealth.
Henderson’s book is a follow-up to Out of Control: Confessions of an NFL Casualty, which he wrote from his jail cell. In Control was authored to coincide with the 20th anniversary of his sobriety. All proceeds from the book go to charity.
“When I turned 20 years sober, I just thought it was a monumental date,” says Henderson, who hasn’t had a drink or done any drugs since November 8, 1983. “I thought that my story was worth telling, like a continual autobiographical look over my shoulder at my life. To sum it up, it’s a public service, knowing that alcohol and other drugs affect probably every family in America. This is not a ‘Thomas Henderson is a great guy’ book. This is a look over the shoulder of a recovering crack addict.
“I could have stayed in a private life and kept my recovery to myself. But I thought anybody who has been off crack and alcohol for 21 years, that there may be a word, a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter in this story that could actually impact a family.”
At a recent book-signing in Dallas, Luksa marveled at how complete strangers from all different walks of life poured their hearts out to Henderson. “He had people coming up to him telling him, ‘I’ve been clean and sober for six months, for 11 months–I just got out of prison, and I’m trying to go straight. I could use some help,'” Luksa says.
“I’ve had people stand before me crying,” Henderson says. “I had a father and son come, and three days later the father called me to tell me that the son had asked him to help him get into treatment. The family had been enduring him for 10 or 12 years, and he read half of my book in three days and asked to get treatment.”
Luksa has been intrigued with Henderson since the brash rookie arrived in Dallas as a first-round draft pick (18th overall) from Langston in 1975. “I’ve always had some curiosity/fascination with Thomas and how his life and his story were going to turn out,” Luksa says. “I was very pleased and flattered that he asked me to do the book with him. I think it’s a great story.
“He can tell his story better than anyone. I did not have to prompt him very much at all. I didn’t have to fill in a lot of blanks. He had this story in mind for years and years.”
Henderson appeared in three Super Bowls in a brief but brilliant five-year career with the Cowboys before splitting his final NFL season between the San Francisco 49ers and Houston Oilers in 1980. “Being a star with the Dallas Cowboys took a lot of talent and work, and I would have to say some imposed discipline because I’ve never really been very disciplined,” he says. “I never really liked authority, so playing for Tom Landry was quite an experience.”
After chronicling the linebacker’s football exploits, Luksa interviewed Henderson when he was in drug rehab in Arizona and twice when he was in different California prisons. “The last time I was talking to him out there in jail, I said, ‘Look, Thomas, I’ve interviewed you now in one drug rehab facility and two prisons. We have got to stop meeting like this,’ and to his credit, we have,” Luksa says.
“He’s a fantastic example of what willpower and some spiritual help can do to a person, and I think what his book is trying to point out is that if he can do it from the depths of despair he was in, it’s certainly possible for others who are afflicted with these diseases to do the same.
“It’s a remarkable story of renaissance and redemption, of a guy who turned his life 360 degrees because there were a lot of people here in Dallas who wouldn’t have given you five cents for his story turning out this way.”
Things certainly looked bleak in 1983 when Henderson was arrested after smoking crack cocaine with two teenage girls in California. Police said he threatened the girls with a .38-caliber pistol, sexually assaulted one of them, and held them against their will.
“I’ve been a lot of things in my life, but my lowest low was when I was accused of sexual assault,” he says. “It embarrassed me so profoundly that I wasn’t sure I wanted to live anymore. It was so degrading and shameful. Of course I’ll never rationalize it, but when I put it in perspective that I was on a three-year crack run, I am actually grateful that I didn’t kill seven or eight people.”
Given where his life appeared to be headed, Henderson isn’t sure whether it’s more remarkable that he stopped abusing alcohol and drugs or won the lottery. “Winning the lottery is like me getting sober,” he says. “It’s so unreal that I could be this back-alley crack addict and then get sober–and then buy a lottery ticket and win $28 million. They’re both about the same.”
As founder and chairman of East Side Youth Services and Street Outreach, Henderson served as a community philanthropist even before he hit the lottery jackpot. After building a football field in 1991, he raised an additional $300,000 in 1997 to erect a track.
“I told the citizens of Austin that I wasn’t going to eat and I wasn’t going to go home until they donated $300,000,” Henderson says. “On the seventh day, the citizens of Austin put before me $300,000.”
Another remarkable aspect of Henderson’s story is that his recovery from drug and alcohol abuse actually began before he went to jail. “He got sober before he went to prison and stayed sober and clean in prison, which is quite a feat in itself according to him and other people who have been in those kind of environments. Just about anything you want can be obtained there,” Luksa says. “But he avoided all that. I just think it’s a fascinating story and a credit to the human spirit that he’s done what he has done.”
Although he’s been out of jail since 1986, Henderson still is able to inspire inmates. He has produced seven films dealing with recovery from drug and alcohol abuse, behavior modification, and staying sober one day at a time and has distributed them to prisons throughout the United States.
It seems like it’s only a matter of time before Henderson’s life story is turned into a movie, but he believes there may be a more ideal way to chronicle his amazing odyssey.
“I think Cuba Gooding Jr. would make a good ‘Hollywood’ Henderson,” he says. “But I think that my story would be better served as a two-part documentary. My ego and my realism say maybe my story’s not a big-screen story, but it may be of service to the community if you could go through the hard times [and], more importantly, how I’ve been clean and sober for 21 years. That is probably the best part of the story.”
COPYRIGHT 2005 Century Publishing
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group