Thomas Henderson Is No Longer "Hollywood”

By John Lavitt 04/22/16

From the Dallas Cowboys to State Prison and on to 32 years sober and winning the Texas Lottery and becoming an inspirational speaker, Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson tells The Fix about his astonishing journey.

Photo via EricEnfermero/Wikimedia

Thomas Henderson was selected in the first round of the 1975 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys, becoming a big part of a team that led the franchise to three Super Bowls. After winning the Super Bowl against the Denver Broncos, Henderson was selected to the Pro Bowl at the end of the 1978 season. Becoming one of the first NFL players to brand himself, Henderson gave himself the nickname "Hollywood" for his high-visibility lifestyle. Such a lifestyle led to cocaine addiction and alcoholism. In 1981, playing for the Miami Dolphins, Henderson suffered a career-ending neck injury.

Arrested in 1983 for smoking crack with two teenage girls in California, Henderson served 28 months in state prison. Right after his arrest, he entered into recovery and has been sober ever since. In 2000, Henderson won the Lotto Texas $28 million jackpot. The father of two daughters with five grandchildren, he spends his time traveling across the country, lecturing about his life and giving back through his foundation. In the fall of 2016, he will celebrate his 33rd sober birthday. This period also will mark the opening of the Thomas Henderson Treatment Center for Men in Deerfield Beach, Florida. 

You have said that growing up, “My family was very, very poor. Like no toilet paper poor.” In light of your later athletic success and the spotlight shined upon you, do you think this experience of extreme poverty made it more difficult for you to adjust? When young men enter the NFL from comparative backgrounds and they’re suddenly making tons of money, do you think the league and the individual teams need to coach them on how to handle success?

I’m not sure when you start your life in poverty that anybody can correct it but yourself. I’m not sure the NFL has enough psychiatrists and counselors and psychologists to have an impact on a young man who saw his stepfather shot right in front of him, and who saw his mom get beat to the ground and watched her face get splashed with black eyes. I don’t think that there’s anything that can help you with that but some deep therapy, some psychodrama, and individual counseling and treatment. That has been my experience. If you are a young man and you need help, please stay tuned because The Thomas Henderson Treatment Center for men at Deerfield Beach, Florida will open in the fall of 2016.

In the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys, you were considered to be one of the most talented defensive players of your generation. In 1978, when the Cowboys won the Super Bowl under coach Tom Landry, you earned a Pro Bowl slot. At the same time, choosing the nickname “Hollywood,” you lived a flamboyant lifestyle, including cocaine usage and all night parties. Looking back, do you believe that burning the proverbial candle at both ends was a mistake?

I think it was. In 1976, I went straight from the Super Bowl in Miami, where we lost, to the Pittsburgh Steelers. I met a famous singer, and I went to Hollywood. Marvin Gaye was a good friend; Richard Pryor was a good friend. I stayed at his house and he stayed in my house when he came to Dallas. In that crowd, I was introduced to the fast lane of freebasing cocaine. I wasn’t a big drinker. In fact, I never was. I never did finish a beer so I never really did become an "alcoholic" until I really was at the end of my road.

About thirty minutes after the plane took off, the trainer would start at the front row with a big bag of hydrocodone, and he would walk down the aisle offering them to the players.

The flamboyancy was branding. When you see Cam Newton, the quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, doing his Superman pose, or you see any of the defensive players jumping up after a tackle and running back to the line, shaking their hips, they are trying to brand. The NFL is a brand. In truth, the Hollywood thing started out as a joke with my teammates. The cocaine use at first was recreational. 

I remember being in this elevator in New York one time, and I was there because we were playing the Giants. I overheard a reporter from The New York Times talking to the Cowboys PR Director. I heard him emphatically ask, “Who do you want us to talk to this week?” to our PR Director. Right there, I knew that they weren’t saying, “Go talk to Thomas Henderson.” I sort of knew intuitively that if I was going to get what I want, something has to change. I actually wanted to be an actor after football. I wanted to do the Jim Brown thing so I started self-promoting under a really conservative regime. I think I opened the door to what you see now like the golden shoes, the pink hair and the braids hanging out of their helmet. All of the flamboyant things you see today in the NFL I think were born with Thomas Henderson in 1975. 

About the physical pain of playing pro football, you once said, "You're sitting there crippled, sitting there hurting, sitting there hurting to the point where a grown man's about to cry, and the doctor's standing there with a needle … and a coach standing there says: 'Can you go?' Or, in other words, can you play? And if I don't go, that guy who I've been in the meeting rooms with for the last two years is going to take my job." Do you believe such an emphasis on playing through injuries has led to a higher rate of addiction problems, particularly to prescription painkillers and alcohol, for NFL players, both during and after their careers? Are early interventions needed?

Well, consider this story. It’s 1975, week two of the NFL season, we are playing the St. Louis Cardinals, and I run a kickoff back 97 yards and dunk it over the goal post. The backstory of that celebrated moment is this: Before that game, I limped into the stadium because I had a hip pointer. A hip pointer is that little fatty thing right on your hipbone, and I had been hit with a helmet right into that bone. Of course, I could hardly walk and I could hardly breathe because it was so painful. I go in about three hours early to the stadium to get it treated. This doctor pulls out this long horse-looking needle and shoots Novocain and Xylocaine into my hip. Now I don’t have a hip. It just feels like dead in that area so I take a knee pad and put it over that hip.

Lo and behold, I’m going to play that game. Now that’s the first time I’ve ever been shot up: Week two of the season, and I’m 22 years old, and they fill my hip with Novocain and Xylocaine. Now, I run a kickoff back for a touchdown, and I dunk the ball over the goal post. That was the first time that had ever happened; dunking the ball over a goal post. The experience sent a signal to my mind: If I get hurt, give me a shot and then I can play. 

On five or six occasions, I found myself in that situation where my back was hurting or my fingers were broken or my shoulder was separated, and I was asked, “Can you go? Are you going to play?” It was almost a threat. There was not a hint of any bedside manner like, “Are you okay and how are you feeling?” It was more of a threat. If you don’t play, they’re gonna play your backup, and you never wanted that to happen. 

After away games, being a Dallas Cowboy, we loaded onto the planes, and there would be the biggest coolers of beer you’ve ever seen. I would get on the airplane after those games, and we would load the planes from the tail section on the tarmac. I would invariably pick up six or seven cans of beer, and I didn’t even like drinking beer. I would get to my seat and immediately chug down the first three to deal with the dehydration from the game. You should drink water for dehydration, but I drank beer for dehydration. 

About thirty minutes after the plane took off, the trainer would start at the front row with a big bag of hydrocodone, and he would walk down the aisle offering them to the players. The first time he came by, I would say, “Give me one of those.” I just took one at first. Let’s jump forward to the next year. When he comes by, I get a pained look on my face, whether I was hurting or not, and I say, “Can I have four or five?” He always gave them to me. My introduction to drugs was not by prescription, not really for necessity, but just available. 

Throughout my career in the National Football League—and I played for seven years—I had twenty plus concussions. They’d known about the dangers for a long time. My rookie year with the Cowboys, I would have to run down the field during practice and straight into four big guys holding their are together, and that was called the wedge. They would tell you to break up the wedge. Well, I would get five yards from those guys and just go airborne. I mean, I would fly into a three hundred pound guy and just knock myself silly. When I knocked myself silly, I didn’t know that I had a concussion. But I’d lay on the ground completely out of it, and here would come the trainers. They would raise your feet up and ask you questions. They would go, “Who are we playing? What day is it? What city are we in?” Literally, they were doing that protocol in 1975. 

I want to make something perfectly clear for your readers. The game of football is violent and painful. During those twenty games during the preseason and the season, I was hurt every day. Something hurt every day. For a human being, the game is very, very painful because it is so violent, particularly when you play at a high level like I did. 

via Thomas Henderson

By the 1979 season, your drug dependency had grown so strong that you kept an inhaler tucked inside your game pants and you would snort liquid cocaine between plays. Tom Landry lost patience with the effect your lifestyle and addictions were having on the team and eventually placed you on injured reserve. You never played another game for the Cowboys. Landry passed away on February 12, 2000. Were you ever able to make things right with your old coach?

The short answer is, “Yes, I did.” But let’s backup and look at that question. Let me clarify the story about me using cocaine with a liquid inhaler on the field. Let me quantify that story. By 1979, I am still using cocaine recreationally, but I am using a lot of it. Therefore, I tore up my septum. It was one big scab all the way through. I was not very good at grinding the rocks of cocaine and carrying around a little grinder, and being so neat and clean. I didn’t snort snowflakes. I was snorting rocks and pebbles and just stuffing it in my nasal passage. It got the point where I couldn’t even snort flake cocaine. My nose was completely a scab. Now I’m having headaches, my eyes are watering, my nasal passage is blocked, and I’m breathing through my mouth. The only way that I could digest cocaine was liquid form. 

During Super Bow XIII, before the game, during the game, and after the game, I, Dr. Thomas Henderson, a doctor of eye, ear, nose and throat, prescribed liquid cocaine not for performance, not to play better, but because my nasal passage was rotten. It gave me a headache from hell so I squirted liquid cocaine in there to stop the pain in my nose and not to get high.

Also, Tom Landry didn’t put me on injured reserve. Tom Landry tried to waive me, and I retired, I quit. When I quit, the Cowboys were later able to trade me to the San Francisco 49ers. If I had let him waive me, the San Francisco 49ers were going to claim me off of waivers. I didn’t want to go to San Francisco. When Tom Landry fired me—let me make this point—I had the best job in the world. I had the greatest opportunity in the world to be a Dallas Cowboy, but Tom Landry and I did not get along. Tom Landry grew up during the 1930s and '40s, and he played in the '50s and '60s. When Tom Landry was a New York Giant, he knew that the black players on that football team stayed in black hotels when they traveled. They knew their place. 

Tom Landry coached in an atmosphere of fear. I played for the man for five years, and he never asked me once, “How is your mom? How are you?” When my daughter was born, he didn’t ask, “What’s her name? How is she?” He never asked if you were having a good day or a bad day. He coached and ran that organization with a sense of fear. 

Thomas Henderson was the new black guy in 1975. I didn’t know my place. Teammates who had been there for 10 or 12 years when I got there, and I won’t mention any names but I mean the African American players, they knew their place. They were from South Carolina. They were from Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama. I’m from Austin, Texas, and it’s one of the most liberal towns in the world. Never had I faced racism. No one ever called me the N-word…successfully (laughs). For better or worse, I was the new black guy before anybody knew what the new black guy was. 

After being released by the San Francisco 49ers, you began your first stint in recovery. After going through rehab, you signed with the Miami Dolphins, but this second chance was cut short by a neck injury that you suffered in preseason. Without any chance of playing pro football again, your life spiraled into greater addiction and eventually prison. Do you believe that you might have stayed sober the first time around if you had not suffered that career-ending injury? 

First, let’s get the story straight. I went to the 49ers the summer of 1980, and I played four games with the 49ers during the 1980 season. I finished that season in Houston, Texas, with the Houston Oilers. By that time, I was smoking crack. I couldn’t even snort cocaine anymore because my nose was just a big scab. I started a relationship with crack cocaine, and I couldn’t stop. I was powerless. I was crazy. I came back to Dallas after the 1980 season with the Houston Oilers. John Wooten, who had played with Jim Brown, called me one day to meet him. I was leery about meeting him, but I went anyway. John Wooten said to me, “Thomas, we all know what’s going on with you. Here’s a card. Go get some help.” I looked at him like he was crazy and left to go smoke some more crack, and I kept smoking crack, barely missing getting busted and all the ugly stuff that happens when you’re running wild, but I kept the card.

Finally, I made the call to this rehab in Scottsdale, Arizona, and told them I was coming. I smoked crack the whole ride over on Braniff Airlines to Phoenix. In the spring of 1981, I go to this psychiatric hospital, and I was in that facility for three months. During that time, I had surgery on my septum where they cut out the rot and sewed my nose back together inside. In this hospital, I never heard about the 12 steps and I never really paid attention to what this was all about. I thought that since I got my nose fixed and I got some sleep, I would be okay. I’m in this place with people who have mental problems, and I don’t think I’m anything like them.

But a funny moment happened. I’m in group one day, and I’m looking around the room. There’s an Eskimo guy grinning at me, there’s a woman pulling her dress up, there’s an Indian guy looking really strange, and I’m thinking to myself, “These people are crazy.” Then I thought, “I’m in the group.” Then a thought came, “I wonder what they’re thinking. Something like there’s a black guy who thinks he’s a Dallas Cowboy. So we’re all crazy.” Rather than feeling a connection, I felt completely on my own.

That treatment was not successful. I went back to Dallas after that treatment and just started drinking gin and tonics. I didn’t know and I felt that I had to use something else. I didn’t think sobriety was an option. In other words, if they said anything about 12-step meetings or recovery, I missed the boat on it. Shortly thereafter, I would go to happy hour in Arlington, Texas, and then find myself at the phone booth calling the coke dealer. I never put that connection together: okay, after you drink, you start to want to do cocaine.

At that time, Don Shula met me at the DFW (Dallas-Fort Worth) airport and wanted to sign me with the Miami Dolphins. I went to DFW airport loaded up on cocaine to meet him. The high beams are on, and I’m talking to the great Don Shula. They sign me to go play for the Miami Dolphins. And I’ll say this about the early 1980s, there’s not a worse place in the world you could send a cocaine addict than Miami, Florida. It was like sending me to hell. I wished there had been a football team in South Dakota or somewhere like that.

I played six preseason games with the Miami Dolphins and I was going to be in the starting lineup, but in the last preseason game of 1981, I broke my neck. I broke the C-1 vertebrae and that’s where your heart beating and your breathing is, and I should be dead. I should be a quadriplegic at best. It was a life-ending injury that I walked away from. While I was in the hospital in Miami, I had a girl come over with crack. I’m in traction, in the intensive care unit, and I smoked crack right there in the bed in the ICU. 

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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