A Big Hooray for "Hollywood"

He squandered what fortune he had on drugs and booze and the good times he had off the football field that helped earn him the nickname "Hollywood" on it.  His fame took on a notorious bend after an ignominious departure from the National Football League, where he had been a star with the Dallas Cowboys. 

Since then, years after just a few months separated life on top of professional football and a California prison cell, Thomas Henderson had rebuilt his life, recast his ambitions and slowly begun to follow another trajectory that has helped him emerge from a troubled former life. 

And so on Thursday, when he realized he had won the $28 million Texas Lottery, Henderson, 46, could not help but feel as if it were somehow preordained, as if after years of drug addiction and a 28-month prison sentence, winning the lottery was supposed to happen in what he called his "blessed" existence.  "I think it's karma," he said. 

As the news spread of the most famous person to win a lottery since U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a wealthy Wisconsin Republican who won $250,000 in the Washington, D.C., lottery in 1997, Henderson spent his time Friday between media interviews, discussions with his lawyers and a trip to the bank, where he put his winning ticket in a safe-deposit box. 

It will stay there until he decides how to spend his money.  (He must decide if he is going to set up any trusts or corporations before he cashes in his ticket.)  Then the lottery will check to see if it is indeed the winning ticket. 

"Assuming the ticket Mr. Henderson purchased does pass our validation process, I would say it was a Super Bowl event for the Texas Lottery," said Lottery Director Linda Cloud. 

Texas Lottery spokesman Keith Elkins said Wednesday's Lotto winner is entitled to $14,491,235, the cash value equivalent of the $28 million prize that would have been paid out over 25 years.  The lottery subtracts 28 percent for income tax, leaving a check of $10,433,690. 

While he said the money won't change him -- "I like who I've become," he said.  "I'm going to stay in Austin; this is my hometown." -- it is certainly the latest twist in a life marked by polar extremes.  Henderson has swung between celebrity and notoriety, riches and destitution, addiction and rehabilitation in a life that could be fit for Shakespeare. 

. . . "If I had won the lottery 17 years ago, there would have been drinking and drugging and the police," he said.  "But instead, last night at about 11:30, I went down to the 7-Eleven, got a sausage and egg biscuit, some white doughnuts, a pint of milk, and came home and got into bed.  That was the winning $28 million celebration."  During his NFL career, Henderson succumbed to drugs and alcohol, and when he was 28, Cowboys Coach Tom Landry cut him from the team.  He said the most he made a year was $175,000, and by the time he left the NFL, "I was headed toward zero."

After he completed his prison sentence, he began speaking out against alcohol and drug addiction in prisons and schools, offering his story as an example of what not to do and as evidence of human resiliency. 

He wrote an autobiography called "Out of Control: Confessions of an NFL Casualty."  And in 1997, he went on a weeklong hunger strike to raise money for the $250,000 Yellow Jacket Track and Field at 900 Neal St. in East Austin that he built though his nonprofit East Side Youth Services and Street Outreach. 

"Now that track and field will be endowed for the next 100 years," Henderson said. 

Other than that, he said it was too early to say how he would spend the money, though he vowed that part of it would be invested in the community. 

He did say his mother wants a Lincoln Town Car, "and she's going to get one." 

His 21-year-old daughter wants a house and a car, he said.  When told about the winnings, he said, his 6-year-old said, "Daddy, I just want some Tootsie Rolls." 

From the Washington Post

"I'm tall, talented, neat in the waist, cute in the face, and they call me 'Hollywood.' How can I lose?" -- Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, 1979 

Hollywood loved holding forth for sportswriters. He'd start with his self-appraised greatness as a football player and segue to other facets of his all-around magnificence. He'd run his mouth like Muhammad Ali in pads. 

For Dallas, at linebacker, number 56. 

Go back to when Billy Kilmer was under center for George Allen's Washington Redskins, then Joe Theismann for Coach Jack Pardee. Go back to the second half of the '70s, to the full-throated, blood-lust years of the 'Skins-Cowboys rivalry, when there wasn't a more arrogant, comically outlandish, athletically gifted chest-thumper on Dallas's side than that meteoric madman Thomas Henderson. 

He made you sneer and made you smile--and then he was gone. A first-round draft pick in '75 who went to three Super Bowls with the Cowboys, an all-pro in '78, he was dumped by Dallas in '79--ruined by cocaine. You heard later he wound up in prison. 

Before you meet the sober Hollywood now and see how he resurrected himself--and before you marvel at the bolt of good fortune that struck him here last spring--remember his embarrassing final Sunday with Dallas, 21 years ago this month. He stunk up RFK Stadium in an ugly loss to the 'Skins; he mugged for a sideline camera as his teammates were being mugged on the field; he got in the faces of coaches who dared to reprimand him. Fed up with his antics, the Cowboys canned him the next morning. 

Reporters flocked for his reaction, and he laughed. His brain was coke-fried by then. He said he'd make out fine in the world; fate was on his side; he was tall, talented, neat in the waist, cute in the face--he was Hollywood! 

"How can I lose?" 

The Strain of Winning 


A little wire story ran on sports pages all over the country. Henderson hadn't made the papers nationwide since 1984, when he got a 56-month prison sentence in a cocaine-and-sex case. 

"Man, this physical strain came over me," he says now, recalling his Lotto Texas win. "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."

Other people thought that, too. But being Hollywood means you know you're better than people think. 

After opting for a $10.4 million lump-sum payment, Henderson recently proposed using $1 million of the prize to build affordable homes for poor families in his native East Austin. His generosity as a benefactor of youth sports programs in that blighted community in recent years has made him a hero there, a role model of sobriety and civic responsibility. He also says he'll donate a sizable chunk of his winnings to East Austin Youth Services, the charitable foundation he started after moving back to Austin from California in 1990. 

"I knew I was going to win," he says matter-of-factly. In 14 years, he says, he spent about $30,000 on jumbo-jackpot lottery games in the unwavering belief that he was destined to hit. "I can't explain how I knew," he says. "I just knew." 

That's part of the Hollywood package--the big-play instinct, born of brash self-confidence. It served him on the football field, until he lost his mind to coke. And it has served him in his recovery, which began 17 years ago. By the time his numbers came up (a 60-million-to-1 shot), Henderson already had rebuilt his life, largely on the strength of his king-size personality and his faith in himself. 

"I'm an optimist," says Henderson, now 47, and not as neat in the waist as he used to be. "I've never been a guy to focus on the possibility of failure. 

"He began his climb out of emotional ruin on his sobriety date, Nov. 8, 1983, he says. Then, after being paroled from prison in 1986, he launched what has become a lucrative career as a motivational speaker and anti-drug lecturer. Before the lottery win, he says, "I was already worth a couple of million dollars. 

"This fall, he surprised local officials by proposing to use $1 million to jump-start a long-stalled city plan to build 74 moderately priced homes in East Austin. After forming a nonprofit corporation, Henderson would develop about two dozen lots, then use the sales proceeds to build additional houses. 

"Thomas wants to make a difference," says Paul Hilgers, the city's housing director. "He's committed and he's sincere. I really hope we can find a way to make use of his passion for East Austin." 

But myriad legal and financial details remain to be worked out. And Henderson has no experience in housing development. "I'm working with him," says Hilgers. "Thomas's feeling is, the rules and regulations be damned--let's just get it done. And I keep saying it's not that simple." 

Henderson was just as hard-charging in raising $150,000 in 1993 to build a stadium for an East Austin youth football league that had been playing for years on a scruffy baseball field. 

One of his half-siblings, Frank Rivers, recalls planning the construction: "Thomas says, 'Let's go, get the shovels.' And I'm like: 'Well, we need to go to the library, get some books. We need to make some calls, talk to some engineers.' And Thomas is like, 'No, let's go, we'll just start digging.' " 

East Side Field at Yellowjacket Stadium is a community jewel today. "I want to rebuild East Austin one step at a time," Henderson says now, calling it part of his recovery. 

"When I was with the Cowboys, I used to think community service was showing up on time for a charity golf tournament and signing some autographs," he says. "But I'm not who I was then." 

Flying High 

He'd been a small-college star in Oklahoma. The Cowboys gambled on him with the second of their two first-round picks in the National Football League's 1975 draft. 

"Thomas was probably as good an athlete as we ever had on our football team," says Gil Brandt, the player-personnel boss who helped build Dallas's powerful teams of the '70s. "If Thomas had settled down and been the way he is now, with his natural ability, there's no limit to what he could have been. 

"Not until his rookie season with the Cowboys did he get a taste of top-dollar cocaine, during the party swirl before his first Super Bowl, in January '76. After that, his nose habit grew with his celebrity. 

He partied with Richard Pryor. He got high with Marvin Gaye. He fell in love with the media lights, strutting in his calf-length beaver coat. He led the Cowboys in tackling in his second Super Bowl, in January '78. Then a year later, in the media ballyhoo before Dallas met Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XIII, he shared the cover of Newsweek with Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw. 

Coming off his all-pro year, Hollywood rolled into Miami ready for his close-up, extolling his greatness and making fun of Bradshaw's country dimwit rep. 

He was 25 and wired round the clock. He had wads of cash and lustful lovelies undressing for him any night he wanted. He was flying on his fragile celebrity. He should've glanced down and seen the ground coming up. That self-adulation Super Bowl in '79 was the apex of the Hollywood Henderson trajectory. He arced to the bottom fast. 

After Dallas got rid of him the next season, he tried coming back with other teams, but he didn't last. He wound up broke in Long Beach, Calif., where he was arrested on Nov. 2, 1983. Two teenage girls told police that he'd sexually assaulted them while they were partying. Henderson says he didn't know they were minors and that the oral sex was consensual, paid for with crack, a routine transaction in the squalid junkie culture. In 1984, he pleaded no contest to sex felonies. 

Before he went to prison, though, he got sober in a rehab center, starting Nov. 8, 1983. And he says he kept that date in mind during the champagne moments after his Lotto numbers hit. He felt the fear, all right. But he passed a liquor store and walked into a 7-Eleven. 

"A pint of milk, some white doughnuts and a sausage-and-egg sandwich," he says. "That was my celebration."

Dear Dallas

An open letter of confession and apology from former Cowboys linebacker Thomas 'Hollywood' Henderson

Thomas Henderson
The Dallas Morning News
Sunday, January 5, 1997

This is a letter I have wanted to write to you for over 13 years.  The truth shall make me free.  Abraham Lincoln once said "When I do good, I feel good.  When I do bad, I feel bad.  That is my religion."  That is not my religion, but it is exactly how I feel.  I did good and bad as a Cowboy and a Dallas citizen. 

Here goes: 

A little more than 13 years ago, I was hopelessly addicted to crack cocaine and the lifestyle.  I had arrived in Dallas eight years before as a 21-year-old, wide-eyed big mouth rookie from Langston University as the Cowboys' No. 1 draft choice.  There was a problem.  I did not know how to live. 

I had a covert life in the fast lane of stardom, cocaine, and sex. I made a name for myself early with a 97-yard reverse for a touchdown.  I ran right in front of our bench and coach Tom Landry that day.  I impressed him.  I was getting an equal reputation on the cocaine and sex scenes in Dallas.  I became addicted to the fast lane -- and did not refrain from it. 

Looking back now, I realize I was always on my way to prison.  Before Coach Landry fired me the Monday before Thanksgiving 1979, John Wooten of the Cowboys told me the team knew of my cocaine use and underworld friends.  As I walked to my car, I had this overwhelming feeling of powerlessness. 

I knew there was nothing I could possibly do about my cocaine use.  I was addicted, I couldn't live without it.  My friends and associates were none of their business.  I loved these characters. 

Paranoia became real 

Without giving all the ugly details of the volumes, times, places and behaviors having to do with cocaine, lets just say I went paranoiac nuts smoking crack.  At many points along the way, I wanted to quit but didn't know how.  I was a crack addict before crack addiction hit the national scene.  It got weird, to say the least.  An out-of-body experience would best describe the insanity I witnessed.  It is me physically doing these paranoiac gymnastics, and the inner me was a spectator.  The paranoia became real, and I could not tell if something was real or imaginary.  That got scary.

While all this was going on, I was still trying to be a football player, husband, father and celebrity.  At some point, I intuitively knew something real bad was going to happen.  I just hoped I wasn't there when it did. 

After escaping an arrest for possession of more than an ounce of cocaine and a series of mishaps, I moved to Long Beach, Calif., to pursue an acting career.  My starring role as a crack addict would not allow me to audition for other parts. On November 2, 1983, I was arrested and charged with one count of sexual assault and two counts of false imprisonment.  I had been smoking crack with two young women in my apartment.  I received a sexual favor from one for letting them smoke crack with me.  Sex for crack.  That is the way is was. 

With that said, I admit I was wrong.  The other woman had been in a car accident and was recovering in a wheelchair from a back injury.  She smoked crack with us as well, but I never had sex with her nor was I ever accused or charged with having sex with her.  It never happened. 

I am sure that when you read or heard about this incident in your paper, on television or on the radio, you probably thought I had.  This has haunted me for thirteen years.  What happened was wrong, let me make no mistake about it -- I just wanted to clarify this fact. 

When I read the papers and all the coverage, I surely thought you thought I had sexually assaulted someone in a wheelchair.  It did not happen. 

I was above the law 

I was 30 when this went down.  In my arrogant cocaine mind, I did not think I had done anything wrong.  That could be defined as a moral deficiency.  I damn sure had that.  I was above the law in my ex-Cowboy mind. 

When a celebrity is accused of a crime or immoral act, it is reported by the press, and thus, people presume guilt.  In essence, by the time a lie or allegation gets halfway around the world, the truth is just getting up to catch up.  The recent Michael Irvin situation is a case in point. 

After that night in Long Beach, I was arrested and charged.  When someone is arrested and accused, the district attorney, police and lawyers are usually the only one stating the case . . . and then there is the truth. 

The accused, under orders from the attorney, normally never publicly defends himself.  Well, I am going to change that.  The truth is better than anything I can come up with. 

After I was arrested, I was interviewed by a detective and confidentially told him exactly what happened in my apartment that night, just to clear the deal up so I could go home.  He informed me that the truth, as I told it, was a felony.  At 30, even while smoking crack, I still was the responsible adult that night. 

Over the years I never have defended, rationalized or spoken publicly about that night until now.  Why now?  For closure and my own esteem, I had to share this with you. 

Going through my life with people thinking I had assaulted someone in a wheelchair was painful.  I had to tell you the truth, or I would suffer in my own conscience.  Whether you choose to believe me is none of my business. 

It is still shameful 

It has taken all of the 13 years to find the courage to confess, apologize and set the record straight.  It is still shameful and painful to discuss.  That night does not define me. 

There is no window to go to get my reputation back.  Hell, I wouldn't want my old reputation back anyway.  In my life I have done some things I regret.  This case was one of them. This tragedy that shamed me, my children, family, friends, fans and Dallas, Texas, devastated me.  I had to explain this to my teenage daughter.  I wanted to commit suicide on many, many occasions. 

What you thought of me haunted me.  What I think of me is the deal now. 

Luckily, I found the answer to my troubles . . . stay sober and see what happens.  This simple decision has saved and changed my life.  Since I have been clean and sober, I have made better moral and social choices for myself.  While in prison in California, I felt rescued rather than punished.  I needed that time to really change. 

Thomas Henderson is not the same guy he was 13 years ago or 20 years ago.  I am self-confident, emotional and dedicated to the cause and lifestyle of sober living.  I have never been a humble man.  False humility is a con.  I never have tried to come off like that.  Never will. 

Family, friends and acquaintances who know me today will tell you Willie Nelson described me, in part, in the song Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.  The verse says: Them that don't know him won't like him, and them that do sometimes won't know how to take him. 

I can live with that.  I was a proud man long before I had troubles.  By osmosis, I inherited some of the values and principles of Tom Landry.  I respect that man today.  In a weird way, all the troubles have been worth it.  How else would I be who I am today if I had not been who I was? 

I apologize 

A simple faith and a sober-living decision has given me the opportunity to build a new life based on the principles of sobriety, honesty and hard work.  I am not perfect, and that is not the point.  I still have plenty of fun and I live an open life.  I have confessed my wrongs, stayed the course and helped others as part of my walk to freedom. 

I read a writing that described success as winning the appreciation of honest critics and enduring the betrayal of false friends.  I have done some of that.  Got some to go.  A sin or mistake should not define a man his whole life.  Just like all the great games I played as a Cowboy does not make me a great guy.  Many former Cowboys who made mistakes would set the record straight if given the chance.  None of us are all bad.  Forgiveness and understanding comes with confession. 

Dallas, I have hung around sober long enough to get my act together.  I apologize to Dallas, the Cowboys, fans of football, fans of Thomas Henderson and the kids then and now for what I did 13 years ago.  I take full responsibility and have paid the dues. 

I know some of you felt bad for me.  Others were rightfully angry and disgusted.  I was disgusted, too.  The amends I offer are to go on in my life and never shame you or my family again.  That is the road I will trudge to a happy destiny, hopefully.  Forgive me even if you do not love me anymore. 

We all make mistakes 

I close with this: We all make mistakes.  Admitting my mistakes to you was a must for my sanity, recovery and future.  To anyone suffering from alcoholism or drug addiction, I say this: If Thomas Henderson can get sober and stay sober, anyone can.  If you have made serious mistakes in your life, you can change the outcome over time.  If you work for change, you will get the results you want. 

This chapter of amends to Dallas is now closed.  God, thank you for letting me laugh and smile again . . . but please, God, don't ever let me forget that I cried. 

No Food, Lots of Thought

Fast Raises $180,000 for Track
Seven days and $180,000 after Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson said he would give up food until he raised enough money to build a track in central East Austin, he is ready to go home. 

Henderson will leave East Side Field, the stadium he built on Rosewood Avenue, at noon today, close enough to his goal to declare victory. 

East Austin Track Races Toward Grand Opening

Flashes from the Past

When Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson returned to Austin in 1990, he visited his old high school to find that the legendary stadium where he and other stars such as Dick "Night Train" Lane once played had been turned into a parking lot.  Rather than complaining and pointing fingers, he decided to take it upon himself to transform the old, abandoned lot back into a beautiful place for kids in East Austin to play.  With this vision, Henderson formed ESYSSO in 1992, and in 1993 he built East Side Field at the old Yellow Jacket Stadium. 

In 1997, Henderson noticed that people in East Austin had no place to run for sport or health.  East Austin track teams were forced to ride busses to other facilities far across town.  Henderson had a new vision: to add a first-class running track to the field so kids and teams in Central-East Austin would have a place to run and compete.  Determined to raise the money for this endeavor, he pitched a tent in the middle of East Side Field and announced to the city of Austin that he would not eat or leave the field until the Austin community pulled together and brought him $250,000 for the construction of the track.  The fast lasted seven days, and by the end of 1998, he had raised a total of $300,000 . . . and the track was built.

Group Wants Site for Youth Football​

East Austin - A group led by ex-Dallas Cowboys star Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson wants to build a youth football field on the site of the old L.C. Anderson High School field. 

Henderson says it would be a "field of dreams," referring to the Anderson Yellowjackets football greats who once played there, like Richard "Night Train" Lane. 

The field would be built on the west parking lot of the Austin school district's Alternative Learning Center, the site of the old Anderson campus at 900 Neal St. 

Under the plan, Henderson's East Side Youth Services and Street Outreach would raise the money to remove the parking lot and build a football field that would be used by the Greater East Austin Youth Association. 

The school board tentatively has approved the plan, pending details to be worked out in a joint-use agreement.