Cocaine Cowboy hits the jackpot

 

Twenty-one years ago a young linebacker named Thomas (Hollywood) Henderson sat at a breakfast table at the Dallas Cowboys' team hotel in the Bahia Mar section of Fort Lauderdale. Surrounded by reporters who had just been lulled to sleep by coach Tom Landry's bland analysis of the football game upcoming that Sunday, Henderson had a ready-made audience only too eager to record his own thoughts on the Super Bowl. He did not disappoint.

Of the many quotable statements to escape Henderson's lips that morning, one - that "(Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry) Bradshaw is so dumb he couldn't spell `cat' if you spotted him the `c' and the `t"' - immediately took its place in the sporting equivalent of Bartlett's, and has been revived, in a somewhat misquoted form, before every Super Bowl since.

Brash and cocksure, Henderson was a newspaperman's dream. When he smiled, which was often, one of his front teeth revealed a gold inlay in the Cowboys' star-shaped logo. In an age in which football players were for the most part seen and not heard, he could be counted on to utter the quotable, and often, the outrageous. What none of us knew, and few of us suspected, was that Hollywood had steeled himself for this particular encounter with the press the same way he would prepare for the Super Bowl itself - with a snoot full of cocaine.

In fairness it should be noted that in many respects Henderson was merely a man ahead of his time. As Landry's biographer Skip Bayless noted of Hollywood, "he did coke when a lot of us still thought it was a soft drink." Even in the pharmaceutically-advanced atmosphere of the Dallas locker-room, Henderson was always one step ahead of the pack. By the time the rest of the NFL discovered cocaine, Hollywood was already free-basing crack.

Before one Super Bowl, Henderson later confessed, he had traded a pair of game tickets for a gram of cocaine, which he had snorted up in a locker-room toilet stall just before game time. Before another, he filled a nasal inhaler with coke and stuffed it in the pads beneath his uniform, from whence he availed himself of its contents between plays. All the while he maintained a loquacious and happy-go-lucky facade that charmed coaches and sportswriters alike.

"I could," he once boasted, "talk a hungry cat off a fish truck."

"Thomas Henderson dramatically changed sports history," a Dallas front-office confidante told Bayless in God's Coach, his unauthorised biography of Landry. "He epitomised the Cowboy organisation at its peak in 1979. He could party all night and still be the best at his position."

His star burned brightly and was, predictably, quickly extinguished. From a featured role on three Super Bowl teams, Henderson was out of the NFL before he turned 30. He moved to Southern California with dreams of pursuing an acting career - Hollywood in Hollywood, if you will - but as he would recall years later after becoming sober, "my starring role as a crack addict would not allow me to audition for other parts." "He had it all when he was playing for the Cowboys; that's when he became Hollywood," said a team-mate, former Cowboys' wide receiver Drew Pearson. "Then he got into trouble and got mixed up with the drugs and lost it all. He hit rock bottom."

His drug habit reached its nadir in 1983, when Henderson was convicted of sexual battery after sodomising, at gunpoint, a 16-year-old paraplegic in a wheelchair, while high on crack. He served two and a half years behind bars.

Sober since his release from prison, Henderson has spent much of his time since giving motivational speeches and serving as a drugs and alcohol counsellor, often to clients as rich and famous as he once was. He also founded the East Side Youth Services and Street Outreach in his Austin, Texas hometown, and two years ago he raised $250,000 to build the Yellow Jacket Track & Field in one of the city's poor neighbourhoods by staging a fundraising hunger strike. Earlier this year Hollywood proposed himself as a candidate for the Austin City Council, only to be barred from the ballot due to his status as a convicted felon.

Now, as you may have suspected, even a Hollywood story sometimes has a Hollywood ending.

On Wednesday morning of last week, Henderson dropped by Nau's Pharmacy, a drugstore near his home in Austin. As had become his wont whenever the jackpot swelled to numbers large enough to attract his attention, he bought $100 worth of Texas Lottery tickets, allowing the computer to select the numbers.

When the draw was held that night, Hollywood didn't even check his tickets. It was only when a relative phoned the next morning to report that the winning ticket had been purchased at Nau's that Henderson examined the pile of tickets sitting atop his dresser and discovered that he had just won a $28 million jackpot. "I am just going to continue to do the charities that I do, take care of my children and buy my Mama a town car," said Hollywood, who said that he was "financially secure" even before he hit the lottery.

Given the option of taking the money in payments spread over 25 years or accepting a lump sum now, he opted for the latter. After taxes it will still come to approximately $10 million. Hollywood isn't complaining about the exorbitant tax bite. During his wilderness years, the Internal Revenue Service once confiscated one of his Super Bowl rings to satisfy an unpaid tax lien. Henderson says the IRS would have gotten all three of them if he'd been able to remember where he'd put the other two.

Hollywood Henderson is now 47 and in his 16th year of sobriety. He celebrated his windfall by breakfasting on powdered doughnuts, sausage and biscuits, and a pint of milk from the local 711.

"If this had been 15 years ago," he said, "it would have been laced with cocaine, alcohol - the whole insanity." "He's really come full circle," said Preston Pearson. "This winning is like a sign. Things happen for a reason. I think this happened to Thomas because the good Lord knows he's going to do the right thing with this money."