Thomas Henderson Is No Longer "Hollywood” - Page 2

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

(page 2)

When you were released in October 1986 from prison, you stayed sober for good. How did you manage to find the path of sobriety in prison? How would you reform the prison system to help others find this path as well?

Well, that question is incorrect. After my arrest on November 2, 1983, I went into treatment three days later. I was on medication for a couple of days for detoxification so my recovery date is November 8, 1983. I was in treatment and in the care of people from the 12 Steps for seven months before I went to prison. I was sober for seven months before reporting to the California Department of Corrections after pleading no contest to a crack house sexual incident that had to do with crack. I pleaded no contest, I had no money, I had an appointed lawyer, and I had explained to police that what happened is what happens in crack houses. If you don’t have your own drugs, you have to do something for it. I take full responsibility for what happened. That incident embarrassed me and my family and my friends so bad that it was either suicide or recovery. 

I made the decision that recovery was good for me. A good friend of mine, Roger Staubach, was one of my old teammates who was supporting and helping me through all of this. He said to me one day, “Thomas, you’re a good guy. You always have been a good guy.” And I remembered that I was a good guy. What I now say about that time in my life is that I’m not my mistakes, I’m who I’ve become. I’ve been becoming who I am for almost 33 years now. 

While in prison for 28 months, I stayed connected with 12-step programs. I fellowshipped inside with people who wanted to hear me. I did exactly 28 months, and it was sort of the best 28 months I had had in a while because I was clean and sober going in, counting my days while I was in, I had both my first and my second anniversary in, and I got out right short of my third anniversary, still clean and sober. 

The prison experience reminded me of where I had come from. I’m a tough guy. I had a couple of fights. You have to stand up for yourself or you get run over. I stood up for myself, but it was surreal. It was like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It was a trip. But those 28 months were better than the previous 28 months when I was in crack houses and alleys and cheap hotels with hookers. It was all crazy, insane behavior that ultimately had me crash and burn.  

About prisons; the prison industrial complex is about punishment and money. That’s why we have all these private prisons now. They do have some programs. I later worked for Ann Richards when I was in Texas, helping to develop prison programs for substance abuse and alcoholism. I went in to speak to inmates, and it made me realize they could do a far better job. There are a lot of people in prison who shouldn’t be there because they’re addicts. I don’t know what the answer is for a collective population like that. From my own experience, I do know that for seven months I attended 12-step meetings in Orange County and people loved on me and told me that it was going to be okay. They told me that I could get through this phase of my life, and I believed them, and I’m glad I did. 

After spending 28 months in prison, you won $28 million in the Texas Lotto in 2000. At the time, you said, “I think it’s karma.” Is the karma expressed in 28 being both your unlucky and lucky number? In terms of your higher power and your spiritual life today, can you give us a little insight into what it looks like?

If you add 28 and 28, it’s 56, and that’s the number I wore on my back in the National Football League. 28 months. 28 million. Number 56. Yeah, it’s karma, it’s numbers, it’s numerology, it’s astrology or whatever you want to call it, but for me, it was a decision. The decision to be clean and sober is by far the biggest lottery that I’ve ever won. I couldn’t imagine this life without being sober. 

What I want the reader of this interview to know is that I already had the propensity to be an alcoholic and an addict from the very beginning. I was raised by two alcoholics. If I was raised by a mother rat, I’d probably like cheese. It’s like that old joke where the rat goes up to the mouse trap and he sniffs on the cheese and the rat ends up biting the cheese. The rat trap slams on his head. With the rat trap smashed on his brain, here’s what you know about what the rat is thinking. He’s thinking, “I don’t want this cheese anymore.” I was raised like a rat in an atmosphere of violence and poverty. I was raised in nasty, very, very unsanitary conditions, which is why I left home at 16 years old.

Look, Tom Landry firing me the Monday before Thanksgiving 1979, he took away from me the best job in the world. He had the power to take it away from me for no good reason, really. I mean, I did a teammate a favor. Preston Pearson had a rally towel that he wanted to promote. He gave me this rally towel and asked, “If you get any time on camera, can you please show the flag?” We were losing to the Redskins. I took the rally towel out of my pants and shook the flag at the camera. Tom Landry fired me for mugging the camera while we were losing. 

Now I came into the Cowboys with 12 rookies known as the Dirty Dozen, and those 12 rookies took the Cowboys to three Super Bowls. We went to three out of four Super Bowls: Super Bowl X, Super Bowl XII, and Super Bowl XIII. Those 12 men contributed hugely to that football team. Arguably, Thomas Henderson was the best player on the team. Now that sounds arrogant, but I’m on kickoff, I’m on kickoff return, I’m on punt, I’m on punt return, I’m on the nickel defensive package, and I’m starting on defense. I’m running kickoffs back, and he gets rid of me. He never goes back to another Super Bowl without Thomas Henderson. Tom Landry never goes back to another Super Bowl without me. That sounds arrogant because I am a little arrogant because I was a great football player. 

I wasn’t a very good person, well, I was a good person, but when he fired me, I was like a plate dropped in the kitchen on a concrete floor. I broke into a thousand pieces and I did not know how to put myself back together. He hurt me. I was devastated, and I turned to cocaine, heroin, pain pills, Quaaludes, psychedelics, and whatever I could get my hands on. 

I smoked crack with Richard Pryor and Marvin Gaye. Richard introduced me to freebase early on in 1976. I may be one of the founding fathers of smoking cocaine (laughing). I go back to the Bicentennial in ’76, and I am probably one of the founding fathers of smoking crack. Really. When Richard Pryor would cuss me out like only he could because I wanted to light up a cigarette around the ether—that flammable shit you use to freebase cocaine that could get you in trouble and explode on you—Richard would mf me and scream, “No, don’t spark that lighter. No, don’t light that match! Are you crazy, man? Are you trying to blow us up, mf?” So I would have to go outside to smoke. In any case, I really didn’t like freebase. I really loved crack. Okay, that’s enough of that, next question.

Reflecting on the night of your Texas Lotto win, you said, "Man, this physical strain came over me … I felt like the weight of the world was on me that night. I felt the fear. Y'know, could I handle it? Could I stay sober? Because it was a great moment for champagne. It was a great time for some cocaine." Many people would have said ‘F*** It!’ and started the party all over again. Why didn’t you?

I was 16 years sober when I won the lottery. I’m so glad I was sober (laughing) when I won the lottery because if not, I’d be dead now for sure. You know, I took this lottery ticket home after I realized I was the only winner of this $28 million dollars, and I hid it in a book. Then I couldn’t find it. (laughing) I thought I was getting paranoid again. Then I found the book, took out the ticket and put it in a Bible. Then I couldn’t find the Bible. When I found it, I put it under my mattress. Then I took it out and put it in the trunk of my car. I kept thinking that somebody knew, but, hell, nobody knew but me and my paranoia. I tell you what, that Thursday when I found out—I won on a Wednesday and I found out on Thursday evening—and the weekend was upon us. After that crazy night, I finally went over to the bank on Friday and put it in a safety deposit box. 

A lot of meditation and prayer went along with that moment in my life. I just looked in the mirror and wondered, “Are you okay?” I answered myself and said, “I don’t know if I’m okay.” I went through this whole process of getting the money. I took the cash option so I ended up with $9 million in cash. Back then, they gave you 50% of the jackpot if you took the cash option so I got over $14 million. I paid over $5 million in taxes so I ended up with $9 million in cash. 

Here’s when I knew I was okay. I bought a four-year-old SEL-600 Mercedes with 12,000 miles on it. I bought a four-year-old vehicle as a gift to myself. Now, I could have bought a Bentley, I could have bought a Rolls-Royce, I could have bought a Ferrari, I could have bought a two million dollar house. There’s a lot of things you could do with that money, but I chose not to do those things, and as a matter of fact, I had about $2 million bucks already. I had really worked hard with my film company, distributing films to rehabs, drunk driving schools, prisons, jails, probation departments and so forth. I was already making a fine living and living a really good life at the time.

Recovery is possible. If a guy like me can get clean and sober and live a decent life, anybody can.

I had built a football stadium for kids in my hometown before I won the lottery. I had raised $300,000 dollars by fasting for seven days for my community in order to build a football stadium and a track for the kids. That was November of 1999 and four months later, I hit the lottery. Most people are going to know that most of my good deeds were done before the lottery. I think I passed the test. I haven’t had a drink or a drug since November 8, 1983, and I have gone through losing my mom, losing my stepfather, losing my dad, losing my sister. I have been through some hard things. I lost my sister a couple of years ago to cancer, and she was my favorite human being. She had a mental disease, and she was my favorite human being because I was her big brother.

Supported by the money you won, you established a charitable foundation with this newfound fortune. With this foundation, you give back to the Austin community in Texas where you grew up. Can you tell us more about the work of your foundation?

Yes, but it’s important to note that I set up the foundation before I won the lottery. I started the foundation in 1993. I went back to the high school that I attended. It had been closed in 1971 because of segregation. When integration happened, white kids wouldn’t come to East Austin to go to school, so they closed my high school. When I moved back home, the historic football stadium that I had played in as a sophomore at Anderson High School had been turned into a parking lot. The little kids who wanted to play football and be cheerleaders didn’t have a place to do any of that, so I turned this parking lot into a football stadium and I started the East Side Youth Services & Street Outreach. That foundation continues to do work.

Here’s what I came up with: There’s all kinds of foundations and scholarships. I thought that if I put in a football stadium and a track and bleachers, letting the kids have the same opportunities that I had, they would have a better chance to succeed. When it came to that opportunity for me when I was a kid, I dug my game out of the dirt. I learned how to run on the track and in the alleys and on the streets. I learned how to play football on the playgrounds of Austin, Texas. With athletics having been my ticket, I thought I should offer that same opportunity to the children of that community. I can’t do it for everybody, but I could do it for them. Today, that football stadium is open and has been open for over 25 years. The gates stay open for people in the community to push their strollers around the track, to jog, to walk, to play in the field. It’s just open, and I continue to cut the grass, water the grass, pick up the trash, clean the restrooms and keep this opportunity a reality for that community. It’s the greatest thing that I’ve ever done. Giving back to my community is greater than even the Super Bowl I won. 

You once described your ability to talk and keep on talking until you get what you want by saying, "I could talk a hungry cat off a fish truck." How has this changed over the years? What’s different today?

Well, I’m still a pretty good talker because I’m a highly educated man. I have a college degree where I studied the Renaissance period, English literature, psychology, and kinesiology. My degree is in science. What I appreciate about myself is that this knucklehead and thug is also very highly educated. 

I started school at three years old because my mother was a cook at a monastery school in Austin, Texas. Every day she worked, I was left in the grocery closet with a toy and a pillow until the headmaster found me back there. He told my mom, “Let this child come out of there and go to school.” My mother put me in the classes at three years old so by the time I was in the first grade, I was reading and writing. I was ahead of everybody. As much of a knucklehead that I am, I am intelligent as well. My plan was to be an actor. Jack Gilardi at ICM was my agent. His only other client of color was O. J. Simpson. I had the opportunity to go to one of the top acting schools in Los Angeles, but I couldn’t stop smoking crack. I had big plans, but cocaine interrupted all of it. 

At Langston University, you were known as “Wild Man” as well as being awarded the Southwest District Defensive Player of the Year. Later, you were the first NFL player to dunk a football through the goalposts after scoring a touchdown. Do you miss that wild side of your personality that pushed boundaries and lived on the cutting edge? How is that part of you expressed today?

It’s expressed in the live lectures that I do across the country. From 1986 to 2000, I put almost two million miles on American Airlines. I’ve spoken at the Air Force Academy, at major universities, and lots of prisons. I have 11 film titles at the website FMS Productions. They are all about my recovery, and I also tell a lot of jokes. I have written two books. 

Speech was one of my favorite classes in college. As an elective, I took that class every semester. I had so much fun because I would show up to class unprepared, and they would tell me, “You’ve got to do ten minutes today.” I literally could pick up a piece of lint off the floor and do ten minutes about where that piece of lint had come from. I learned the craft of public speaking early on, and I knew I could be funny when I needed to be while still having an articulate delivery. I have a video on YouTube called “Yes, I’m Still Clean” and I gave that to the public. There are nine parts in total, and you can see my gift of talking in action. It’s really wonderful to be honest and open about my disease. By talking about alcoholism and drug addiction, it helps other people. In a weird kind of way, I think that’s what I was sent here for. 

“If you fall, fall on your back. Because if you can look up, you can get up. And I got up,” you told a packed Douglass High School auditorium in 2016 in Oklahoma. Thinking of those kids, many experiencing the struggles of your own childhood, what else would you say to them about navigating the challenges of growing up?

The first thing I would say, and I would say it ten trillion times until somebody heard me: When it comes to mind-altering substances like alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes, cocaine, heroin, pills, bath salts and anything else—you name it—I would tell every kid out there from eight to 80 that sobriety is an option. You never have to use drugs or alcohol. You never have to experience drinking because you can leave it alone. 

When I was 10 years old, I wish someone would have said to me, “Hey, Thomas, you know your mom and dad are drunks and most people around you are drunks, but you don’t have to do that. It actually would be good for you if you don’t drink and you don’t use.” In our country, in my opinion, prevention is not talked about enough. Sobriety is an option for every human being on this planet. If I was able to speak to every person on the planet and tell them one thing, that would be what I would want to let them know. Recovery is possible. If a guy like me can get clean and sober and live a decent life, anybody can. I’m not a Holy Roller by any imagination, but I always say a prayer during my lectures. I always say this prayer: “God, thank you for letting me, Thomas Henderson, laugh and smile again, but please God, don’t ever let me forget that I cried.”

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

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 with his beautiful wife, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.