Thomas Henderson is no longer "Hollywood"
Sports writers describe Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson as an outrageous, witty and talented athlete. He was a first round draft pick for the Dallas Cowboys and an All-Pro Bowl linebacker...One of the best linebackers in NFL history, in fact. He has been called one of the most flamboyant football players of the seventies. Thomas, however, simply describes himself as a miracle, because despite all fame, glory and talent, he was also a substance abuser.
During his colorful seven-year career as a top NFL player, Thomas played in three Super Bowls. On the field he could woo the crowd with his rare talent. Off the field, he attracted the masses with humor and wit. This combination of talent and flair landed him on the cover of a 1979 issue of Newsweek. He was one of the stars of America's Team. Alcohol and drug abuse, however, quickly brought his brilliant career to a stunning halt. He lost it all. He lost his career, his family and his friends. Because of alcohol abuse and drug addiction, Thomas even lost himself. Fortunately, in 1983, Thomas' life began to change. Through therapy and the twelve step programs, Thomas established a new way of living.
He has been clean and sober since November 8, 1983. Today, he travels the world, openly sharing his story. He is a lecturer, an educational filmmaker and a promoter of recovery programs throughout our nation's criminal justice system. Thomas has also become a community philanthropist in his hometown of Austin, Texas. As founder and chairman of East Side Youth Services and Street Outreach, he has built a stadium in East Austin complete with an 8-lane track...all for the recreational enjoyment of East Austin youth. He is also President and owner of Thomas Henderson Films, ™ an educational video visual aid distribution company that provides the incarcerated community with much needed information on prevention, recovery and sobriety. Thomas has devoted his new life to the prevention of substance and alcohol abuse by helping the youth and the incarcerated individuals of today understand that sobriety is an option.
Thomas is also the author of the best-selling book, Out of Control. His speaking tour has taken him to high schools, college campuses, treatment centers, companies and prisons. Always an interesting and eloquent speaker, Thomas willingly shares his firsthand knowledge of the pain, suffering and helplessness one encounters in the midst of alcohol or drug addiction. He has been from the Super Bowl to the cell block with many horrifying stops along the way. Today he is a new man sharing his story of hope, courage and change...one day at a time.
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.
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.
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.”