|Sunday, April 30
There's little 'Hollywood' left in Henderson
AUSTIN, Texas -- Forget for a moment everything you've ever heard about Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson.
Forget about him being a first-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys and playing in three Super Bowls in his first four years.
Forget that he snorted cocaine on the sideline during a Super Bowl, then became the first NFL player to confess his addiction, seek treatment and return to pro football.
Forget his arrest for having sex with two underaged girls and the two years, four months in prison that finally got him to sober up.
Even forget that he recently won a $28 million Texas Lottery jackpot.
The past tells little about the man he is now.
Meet the new Thomas Henderson: Philanthropist. Entrepreneur. Drug-free for more than 16 years.
"I know how far out there Thomas was, and if he continued to be out there he wouldn't even be alive today," former Cowboys receiver Drew Pearson said. "But he's turned his life around and he's using the negatives, the adversity, the obstacles he had and he's turning them into positives.
"I had a lot of teammates I was proud to say I played with. At the time I played with Thomas, I wasn't proud to say that. Now, without hesitation, I'm proud to say that Thomas Henderson is a friend of mine."
Building East Austin's field of dreams
On some visits, he never unbuckles his seat belt. He just lets his eyes drift down the sloping grass to the seven-lane running track and the green playing field inside that orange oval.
He gazes at the new bleachers, the new lights, the new scoreboard. Anderson High closed in 1971, but the ticket booth and fieldhouse shine with fresh coats of yellow and black paint.
The Yellowjacket logo is on a sign at the front gate and is more prominent on the fieldhouse. That sneering insect is as menacing now as it was when Henderson wore it, or when Dick "Night Train" Lane had it on his helmet a generation earlier.
Odds are, somebody is there. Maybe a youth football team. Possibly a track team or just some locals trying to stay in shape.
Henderson just stares and smiles, hoping nobody sees him. This place is his gift, you see, the vision he turned into a reality long before buying that slip of paper with 5-8-17-35-38-41 on it.
Where others saw an abandoned field overrun by 6-foot-high grass and cracking asphalt, Henderson saw a place where kids could play and stay out of the kind of trouble he got into as a youth.
"I just look at it and say, 'That's good,"' he said. "Then I pull off and go home."
Living in the fast lane
The early influences for young Thomas were drug dealers, pool hustlers, drunks, pimps and thieves. He saw his best friend, an accomplished burglar, shot to death playing Russian Roulette in the high school parking lot.
Henderson knew he was part of a bad scene, so he moved to Oklahoma, where he became a star defensive end in high school and at Langston University.
In 1975, the Cowboys made him the 18th overall draft pick. The team had built a dynasty by finding big-time players at small schools, but it usually took them in later rounds.
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Henderson became such a good linebacker that Dick Butkus once called him one of the league's best. Lawrence Taylor was so impressed that he wore No. 56, Henderson's number.
Being a Cowboy gave Henderson access to whatever he wanted: women, cars, drugs. And he wanted it all. Often.
Early in his third year, teammates dubbed him "Hollywood" because of his limousine-loving lifestyle. The name stuck because, well, it fit a guy who once went to the Grammys with one of the Pointer Sisters and snorted cocaine with celebrities.
Football remained Henderson's main stage, but his interviews could be even more entertaining. Before Dallas played Pittsburgh in the 1979 Super Bowl, he said: "Terry Bradshaw couldn't spell 'cat' if you spotted him the 'c' and the 'a."'
Henderson's career peaked at that time. Then drugs slowly took over his life. He'd been using for years, but now he couldn't stop.
He learned how to get even higher during that Super Bowl week by inhaling liquefied cocaine through a nose-spray bottle. He played against the Steelers with the bottle inside a pocket on his uniform pants and took whiffs during the game. The Cowboys lost 35-31.
The next season, Dallas cut him just before Thanksgiving after a drug-induced rage.
He was in and out of San Francisco without playing a game early in 1980, then spent the rest of that season with the Houston Oilers. He was hurt, high or both most of his time in Houston.
Henderson realized he needed help, so he asked the NFL. The league sent him to a rehab center in Arizona, but it didn't work.
The Miami Dolphins thought he was clean and signed him in 1981. In the final preseason game, he broke his neck and his career was over. He was 28.
Despite being unemployed, addicted and nearly broke, Henderson managed to keep going for two years -- until November 1983, when he was arrested on charges of having sex with two minors.
Henderson made things worse by trying to pay them to get the charges dropped. He then pleaded no contest to sexual assault and bribery and was sentenced to prison for four years, eight months.
After serving half his term, Henderson walked out a changed man. He'd kicked his habit and dedicated his life to making sure others got off drugs.
Saint it ain't so?
"As long as I've been in Austin -- and that's since 1941 -- I don't know anybody that's done more for East Austin than Hollywood Henderson," said Rooster Andrews, owner of a sporting-goods chain.
Henderson also does motivational speaking, using his gift for speech to tell his own story. He wants kids to learn from his mistakes and convicts to see there is a way out.
He sells tapes and videos of his speeches and charges businesses $15,000 per appearance. His fee was $7,500 before he won the lottery, but now it all goes to his charity, East Side Youth Services & Street Outreach. Besides, he figures, the increase is worth it because his story is now twice as good.
Henderson made his first post-lottery speech a few weeks ago at Freedom Missionary Baptist Church in Dallas. He worked in his newfound riches to add to his do-gooder message.
"He was captivating," said the Rev. Mack T. Flemmings.
Yet not everybody feels warm-and-fuzzy about the new Henderson.
Skeptics wonder whether his transformation is real. His critics aren't the vocal type, just folks who hear about his deeds and instinctively look for ulterior motives.
"I guess he has to live with things like that because of his past," Pearson said. "But the people who think those things certainly don't know what Thomas Henderson is all about now. Those of us who have seen it don't have to be convinced.
"I'm not trying to make Thomas out to be a saint, but some of the things he does are saintly."
Henderson pays no mind to detractors.
"What people may think of me is not my business," he said in a soft, serious tone. "What I think of me is pretty important because I'm the one who has to live in here.
"I have become the guy I am because of what I went through, but I am not my mistakes. I'm pretty pleased with who I've become."
Many doubters became believers in 1997 when Henderson finished the youth football field and decided to start on the track. He knew it would take a lot of money, so he decided to do something radical -- a weeklong hunger strike.
"People thought he was crazy," said Howard Ware, track coach of Huston-Tillotson College and the Austin Striders junior Olympic team, both of which train at the track. "There wasn't really much support at first. But once they saw he was serious, then Bam!"
Henderson raised $250,000 and used it to build the rubberized track, which was finished last year.
That's the ticket
"Hollywood was sort of an alter ego of drug addiction and women. Hollywood never played football. He was hanging out with Marvin Gaye and doing wild things," Henderson said.
He can't completely shun it, though. It gives him name recognition in the business world, allowing him to avoid what he calls the abyss of all the Tom Hendersons out there.
"I can't have it both ways," he said.
Henderson sounds as if he's back in his "Hollywood" mode when he says he always believed he would win the lottery. Spending $20,000 on tickets over the last five years certainly improved his odds.
"I sort of had a cosmic understanding that I was going to win," he said. "Sometimes, it'd be like $70 million and I would sit up at night and do the math to figure out what I'd do with the money. And I've done exactly what I said I would do in my dry run."
On March 22, Henderson went to Nau's Pharmacy to pick up some medicine to help fight bronchitis. He saw the jackpot was $28 million and asked for $100 in tickets.
The next evening, he was driving to a friend's house after a round of golf when his ex-wife called to say the winning ticket was sold at Nau's. His stack of tickets was still on the front seat of his truck, where he'd left them the night before.
The magic numbers, picked by a computer, were on the fourth of five lines on the eighth of his 20 tickets.
A week later, he got a check for $14,491,235 because he chose a lump-sum payout rather than the full amount over 25 years. After taxes, there's $10,433,690 for the newly formed HHH 56 Investments Ltd.
The Hs are all Henderson, one each for him and his daughters, 21-year-old Thomesa Holly and 6-year-old Dalis. Thomesa has a 21-month-old daughter named Taylor, making Henderson a grandfather.
"I prefer Big Daddy," he said, laughing.
He remains close with his mother, Violet Faye, taking care of her with the money he's made -- or won -- over the years.
Henderson estimates he's given $400,000 to friends and family, mostly in $10,000 chunks because that's the most anyone can receive without being taxed. The checks are sent with a note that reads, "Don't ask me for any more money."
He said the most satisfying gift went to someone whose name he didn't even know: Mike Huffman, the cashier at Nau's Pharmacy who sold the winning ticket.
"I was just amazed," said Huffman, who at 49 plans to use the money to return to college after a 22-year layoff and hopes to become an elementary school teacher. "I told him I knew he was a football player, but now he's my favorite lottery player."
Henderson has done little for himself. No new house, yacht or remote island. Not even a new set of golf clubs.
His biggest purchase was a 1996 Mercedes 600 sedan that he bought from a friend.
"It's the model I've always wanted, but never wanted to stretch out and buy," he said.
Don't get the impression that Henderson has become shy.
He still considers himself among the best linebackers in NFL history. He estimates that if he were playing today, his signing bonus alone would be more than $10 million with annual salaries of around $4 million. His biggest Dallas contract paid $650,000 over five years; he was cut three years into it.
In general, though, Henderson's ego seems in check.
At Anderson High, the only hints of his involvement are a sign that lists T.H. Henderson as the developer and a fieldhouse inscription that reads: East Side Field, Est. 1994 by E.S.Y.S.S.O. -- T.H.H.
He picked up his lottery winnings without holding the traditional winner's news conference, turned down dozens of offers to be on national TV and says he's not interested in making a movie about his life.
"The only film I want to do now is one my little industrial films that would be called 'Alcohol Doesn't Come With Instructions,"' he said.
He also has no plans to update his 1987 autobiography, "Out of Control -- Confessions of an NFL Casualty."
Henderson tried running for a city council seat in January, then learned he was ineligible because of his felony record.
He plans to spoil his daughters, play golf and continue making donations.
He wants to subsidize Huston-Tillotson's athletic budget to cover food, clothing and equipment costs, and he and Thomesa will soon start a business to provide low-cost housing for first-time home buyers.
He'd also like to persuade pro athletes to do more for their communities than signing autographs and checks.
"Your energy, your time, your money and your labor is the most important contribution you can make," Henderson said.
And there is still work to be done at East Side Field -- more bleachers, more storage and a playground for children too young for football or track.
"Why did I do all this?" Henderson said. "I don't quite know where the notion came from to grab a shovel and build something that doesn't belong to me.
"But I understand now that it's the greatest thing I've ever done. Playing for the Cowboys is not the greatest thing, winning the lottery is not the greatest thing. Building that facility, which will be there when I'm dead and gone, that's the greatest accomplishment of my life."