‘Hollywood’ Henderson looks back at wild, drug-addicted Super Bowl days
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About 25 years ago, when Thomas Henderson met a girlfriend for dinner at a Dallas restaurant, she pulled out a jewelry box and said she had a surprise.
Henderson opened it. Much to his delight, there was the ring the former linebacker nicknamed “Hollywood” received years earlier for the Cowboys’ 27-10 victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XII on Jan. 15, 1978 in New Orleans. Henderson hadn’t been in possession of the ring for nearly a decade and figured he never would see it again.
“It was in 1992 or 1993,” Henderson said. “This girlfriend had paid $11,000 to buy the ring back, and tells me when she gave it to me, ‘You deserve this.’ I just lost it. I bawled like a baby.”
Four decades after the only Super Bowl he won, Henderson, 64, wears his prized ring most days while splitting time between his native Austin, Texas, and South Florida. It’s a reminder of the greatest moment of his NFL career — and also of his downfall and eventual recovery.
Henderson was projected to be an NFL star and did make one Pro Bowl in 1978, but drug addiction and outrageous behavior played a role in his career ending prematurely. He hit rock bottom when he was arrested in 1983 for smoking cocaine with two teenage girls and for allegedly sexually assaulting one of them. He claimed the sex was consensual and eventually pleaded no contest.
That’s when he lost his ring.
“I had to put it up for bail,” said Henderson, who played for the Cowboys from 1975-79 and had stints with San Francisco, Houston and Miami before his NFL career was over in 1981 at age 28. “I had to give them something so they didn’t think I was going to run off to Canada. And then the IRS seized it and put it up for auction.”
The Internal Revenue Service had determined Henderson owed $156,881 in back taxes, a claim he disagreed with and said eventually was worked out. Nevertheless, the ring was sold for $11,000 in 1984 to Robert Briscoe, an avid Cowboys fan living in the small west Texas town of Levelland.
The ring is 10-carat white gold with two 40-point diamonds set in blue stars and surrounded by 25 smaller diamonds. Briscoe, now deceased, agreed nearly a decade later to sell it back to Henderson’s girlfriend at the time without a profit.
By then, Henderson had long completed a 28-month prison term for his conviction. He has been sober since Nov. 8, 1983, the day he said “Hollywood” died.
“When I was 30, if I didn’t change, I wouldn’t have made it to 35,” he said.
Henderson now says he’s “blessed.” He has won the lottery twice. He won $28 million in Lotto Texas in 2000, and took an immediate payout after taxes that netted him $9 million. A decade later, he won a $50,000 prize.
As for his Super Bowl ring, that’s in a special category
“I’ve got three NFC championship rings, which are pretty, but when you win a Super Bowl, it is a special endeavor,” Henderson said. “It’s one of my prized possessions.”
With New England and Philadelphia playing in Super Bowl LII on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, Henderson looked back at the three Super Bowls he played in and some of the wild stories surrounding them.
When he was in rookie, Dallas lost 21-17 to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl X on Jan. 18, 1976 in Miami. After the Cowboys defeated the Broncos two years later, they were going for a repeat but lost 35-31 to the Steelers in Super XIII on Jan. 21, 1979 in Miami.
That’s when even casual fans became aware of “Hollywood.” In the days leading up to the game in Miami, Henderson told the media that Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw “couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the ‘c’ and the ‘a’.” Henderson ended up on the cover of Newsweek alongside Bradshaw with the headline “A Really Super Bowl.”
Three years earlier, though, Henderson was showing signs as a rookie of the unique place he would hold in Super Bowl lore. On the opening kickoff of Super Bowl X, the athletic Henderson took a handoff from Preston Pearson and rumbled 48 yards down the left sideline before being pushed out of bounds by kicker Roy Gerela.
“If (safety) Randy Hughes would’ve went to block Gerela, I would’ve scored,” Henderson said.
Henderson preferred Adidas footwear throughout his career but wore shoes with a Puma logo during Super Bowl X. Naturally, there’s a story behind that.
“Before the game, Puma gave me a bag of money to wear their shoes,” Henderson recalled. “There was $3,000 in there. But I tested out the Puma shoes on the turf before the game and they were like ballet shoes. They didn’t protect my toes.
“So to get the money, I actually painted the Puma emblem on my Adidas shoes. I put like a sock over my shoe and painted over it. I never heard anything from Puma after that, but what were they going to do? I already had the money.”
Former Cowboys defensive back Charlie Waters doesn’t doubt that story.
“He did it,” Waters said. “It was clever. That was typical Thomas. We made a lot more money on what shoes we wore in Super Bowls because you got so much exposure in the game. And Thomas would love to have the cash so he could buy a little more entertainment, if you will, after the game, or even during the game.”
By Super Bowl XII, Henderson said he was already deep into his cocaine addiction. Asked recently if he was doing drugs in New Orleans during the week leading up to the game, Henderson said, “I was with Richard Pryor and Marvin Gaye, so what do you think I was doing?”
Pryor, the legendary comedian who died in 2005, and Gaye, the Motown superstar who was shot to death by his father in 1984, had histories of drug abuse. Henderson hung out with them during his playing days.
“They both loved football,” Henderson said. “This was before crack and smoking crack. It was just more of a hit or two. But I was well into my recreational use of cocaine that I snorted.”
Henderson said he didn’t do cocaine the weekend of the game and was well rested for it. He said he relaxed the night before by “smoking cigarettes and I might have had a joint.”
Henderson had a strong performance as the Cowboys’ defense overwhelmed the Broncos. He made Dallas’ first two tackles of the game, stuffing Jon Keyworth for a five-yard loss on the first one. But it was a play on special teams Henderson remembers most.
After the Cowboys were stopped on their opening drive, Danny White punted to Denver’s Rick Upchurch, a former University of Minnesota star who was then one of the NFL’s top punt returners. Before Upchurch could field the ball at Broncos 32, Henderson went flying into his left shoulder, and was assessed a 15-yard penalty.
“Mike Ditka (then a Dallas assistant) had come up to me and said, ‘I don’t care where the ball is, I want you to hit Upchurch,’ ” Henderson said. “We wanted to put something in his head. I was aiming for his throat, but I missed him and just kind of hit him on the shoulder. After we got the penalty, (then Cowboys coach) Tom Landry was irate. I just said to him, ‘Go talk to Ditka. He told me to do it.’ Then I walked away.”
At Super Bowl XIII the next year, Henderson was coming off the best season of his career. He had been named to the Pro Bowl in 1978, and was regarded as one of the NFL’s best linebackers.
He also was becoming known as one of the most flamboyant. In 1977, Henderson picked up his “Hollywood” nickname from teammate Robert Newhouse when he showed up for practice one day in a limousine and wearing a fur coat.
Henderson said he decided to take his antics to a new level in the days leading up to a game midway through the 1978 season.
“We’re playing a game in New York, and I’m in an elevator and I hear a (Cowboys public relations official) talking to four or five New York reporters,” Henderson said. “He’s saying, ‘We want you to talk to (Dallas players) Charlie Waters, Randy White and Roger Staubach.’ In other words, they were telling the press who they wanted them to talk to. That was the first day the self-promotion and marketing of Thomas Henderson was born.
“So I started saying outrageous things, and the reporters started running to find me. I said that the Rams didn’t have any class, and I said Bradshaw couldn’t spell.”
Henderson said the idea for the quote about Bradshaw came from a conversation with then-Cowboys vice president of player personnel Gil Brandt.
“Gil sits down at my locker and says, ‘Did you know that Terry Bradshaw really wanted to go to LSU?’ ” Henderson said. “He said that his grades weren’t that good and he didn’t pass the SAT and ACT, so he had to go to Louisiana Tech. So that put it in my head, ACT, SAT. That’s when I said he couldn’t spell C-A-T.”
Brandt, who said he tried to swing a trade to get Bradshaw before the Steelers took him with the No. 1 pick in the 1970 NFL draft, recalls having a conversation with Henderson but said that’s not how it went.
“What I told Hollywood before our game with them was that we loved Bradshaw coming out of Louisiana Tech but that the thing about him was that you could confuse him,” Brandt said. “Because he’s so strong and with his ability, he thinks he’s so good, that he’ll take a chance. I never said the guy was not smart. … I had the utmost respect for Bradshaw.”
After Henderson made the comment, Landry, the legendary coach who died in 2000, was not happy.
“It sure didn’t help us any,” Brandt said.
“I just rolled my eyes and thought to myself, ‘Surely you understand the world of competition, and do you really have to get everybody (on the Steelers) madder?’ ” Waters said.
Henderson did have one big play against Bradshaw, sacking him in the second quarter while linebacker Mike Hegman yanked the ball out and ran 37 yards for a touchdown. Bradshaw, though, had the last laugh, throwing for 318 yards and four touchdowns; he was named Super Bowl MVP.
On the sidelines at the Orange Bowl that day, Henderson said he utilized a small spray bottle that contained a mixture of water and cocaine.
“I had a deviated septum that was a bloody mess, and I had this big scab,” he said. “When you’re snorting (cocaine) pebbles up your nose, it’s going to hurt the lining of your nose. But I was only using the (the spray bottle) for medical purposes to ease the pain, not to get high.”
There already had been plenty of that going on during Super Bowl week.
“I’m in Miami, the headquarters of cocaine, and I was trying some new stuff,” Henderson said. “Some Colombian drug dealers were just giving me stuff. I had about four ounces on me when I got on the team plane to go back to Dallas after the game.”
By the next season, Henderson’s antics and cocaine problems had worsened. Brandt said he confronted Henderson after he received an anonymous call about his drug use but that the linebacker denied it.
During a 34-20 loss at Washington on Nov. 18, 1979, Henderson was seen late in the game on the sideline mugging for the camera and displaying handkerchiefs with a Cowboys logo. Landry became so incensed he cut him after that game.
After stints with the 49ers and Oilers, Henderson broke his neck in a 1981 preseason game with the Dolphins, landing him on injured reserve. Although he was able to recover, he never played again.
“If he didn’t have his problems, he’d be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame right now,” Brandt said. “He had the speed, the size and the smarts. But I think he’s done a marvelous job of turning his life around.”
Henderson said he has spent the past 34 years sober, trying to make amends for his once-destructive behavior. He gives lectures around the country to those with drug-abuse issues. He has made a number of instructional videos that are used in prisons.
And in 1999, he apologized to Bradshaw for his remark prior to Super Bowl XIII.
“He came out to Austin when I was building a track for kids in my community,” Henderson said. “He came to interview me (for Fox Sports), and off camera I pulled him to the side and I said, ‘I want to apologize. I shouldn’t have said it. I want to make amends for that.’ ”
Henderson said Bradshaw, who is in the hall of fame and won four Super Bowl rings, accepted his apology.
Henderson has one ring, and he treasures it. He doesn’t deny, though, that he wonders what might have been.
“Tom Landry came to my 10-year sober anniversary (in 1993) and he got up on stage and he said to the audience, ‘If Thomas would have been playing, we might have won three or four more Super Bowls,’ ” Henderson said.
Former Dallas Cowboys star linebacker Thomas 'Hollywood' Henderson has one Super Bowl ring, won in 1978. But he and those he played with and against wonder how many he might have won if cocaine weren't part of his life during his playing days.