I am speaking today at the Oklahoma City Town Hall and have enjoyed returning to this wonderful city. Yet, while this city never ceases to amaze me, it was the flight to Oklahoma that proved overwhelming. Before my flight, an older man called me over at the gate to say hello. It turned out to be Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, the Super Bowl champion and Pro Bowl linebacker. It then turned out that we were not only flying on the same flight but were seated next to each other. What followed was an incredible conversation with the former member of the “Doomsday defense.“
It turns out that we are both speaking in OKC on Thursday. However, the subject of Henderson’s speech is particularly poignant. The only thing more impressive than Henderson’s football career is what occurred after his career. It is a story of redemption from the ashes of utter self-destruction. In the case of Henderson, his demise was played out in front of millions and, for most fans, he vanished from the public eye.
On November 8th, Henderson will have been sober for 39 years after tackling addiction to alcohol and drugs that left him with blackouts and left his career in tatters. He will be speaking at a sobriety center about his struggle and it is a story that everyone should hear.
The flight was filled with stories about playing against football legends, including my hero Walter Payton on the Bears. (He cut me little slack as a Bears fan and noted that he never lost a game to the Bears or Payton ).
Henderson is living NFL history and offered vivid accounts of working with the likes of Roger “Captain America” Staubach and even O.J. Simpson. He was even coached by Mike Ditka during his stint as an assistant head coach with the Cowboys. He also discussed his diagnosis (and settlement) for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) like many in his generation of NFL players.
Henderson was part of the “Doomsday defense” that was the most feared line of its time. In his carry-on bag were his three Super Bowl rings, including the Cowboys defeating the Broncos in Super Bowl XII in 1978. (I was more freaked about the rings than Hollywood and pushed him to zip up the bag on the way off the flight).
Henderson played against the Steelers in Super Bowl X in 1976. He played again against the Steelers in Super Bowl XII in 1979. All close games that were some of the most exciting in history. He was known for his taunting of the Steelers and Terry Bradshaw (who shared the cover of Newsweek with Bradshaw before the Super Bowl).
Yet, Henderson was struggling with a towering drug addiction to crack and cocaine. We discussed how he fell more and more deeply into addiction while partying with his close friends Richard Pryor and Marvin Gaye.
It would ruin the remainder of his career in a crash-and-burn played out on national television. He even reportedly did drugs before Super Bowl XIII. He reached the bottom when he was charged with sexual assault after snorting cocaine with two teenage girls. Henderson says that he remembers nothing from the incident but he vividly recalls the shame that he felt later in telling his mother of the charge. He pleaded no contest and entered a rehab program. He would be there for months and it changed his life.
He has been clean ever since and now actively works with addicts around the country. His trip to OKC holds particular meaning for him because he graduated from high school in the city. He recounted how he was heading into an all-too-familiar pattern in Austin, Texas where he was born. He decided to call his grandmother and ask if he could live with her. She said yes and changed his life. He would go on to become a first round draft pick after playing for Langston University and being selected as Southwest Defensive Player of the Year.
As an avid football fan, I was enthralled by the football stories that flowed from Henderson. However, the most inspiring moments came from his account of his struggle against addiction. It was self-effacing and honest, particularly in discussing the deep shame in facing his mother over his conduct. She would live to see him sober and dedicated to helping others who are facing the same struggle.
He is flying high in exactly the way that his mother hoped he would: as a symbol to others that they can recover and rebuild from lives left in self-induced destruction.
Henderson came to the speech despite being less than four weeks out of knee surgery and still in pain when walking. I insisted that he allow me to get him a wheelchair after the flight and, as we waited, asked if he might need a bit more recovery time. He said he had to come. It was not just that it was OKC or that it was part of his commitment to sobriety programs. Knowing my Bears allegiance, he said wryly with a smile, “you just learn that when Payton’s on the field, you got to get in the game.”