Ex-Cowboy Henderson Draws On Experience To Press NFL To Better Aid Veterans

By Barry Horn
Updated: August 15, 2007

DALLAS — Thomas Henderson was still feeling invincible when he started at left linebacker for the Super Bowl XII champion Cowboys.

If he wasn’t the Doomsday Defense’s best weapon, he was its best trash talker.

Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders can debate all day who may be the second brashest player in Cowboys history. No. 1 seems destined to remain the man who called himself “Hollywood.”

But that was before Mr. Henderson tried to make a tackle in a meaningless exhibition game in 1981. Having worn out his welcome with Tom Landry’s Cowboys and in the employ of the Miami Dolphins, he zeroed in on Kansas City running back Joe Delaney.

But Mr. Henderson’s aim was off. Or perhaps Mr. Delaney tried to take evasive action. Mr. Henderson’s helmet collided with Mr. Delaney’s hip.

Mr. Henderson didn’t think much of it as he lay on the Orange Bowl field after the collision. His body tingled as it had after countless other tackles. Just another “stinger,” he thought as he awkwardly made his way back to the huddle.

As the teams prepared for the next play, reality set in. Mr. Henderson meekly looked across the line of scrimmage and asked the Chiefs tight end for relief.

“Please don’t hit me,” he pleaded.

That was the end of Mr. Henderson’s career. The hitting was over. His neck was broken.

Mr. Henderson’s history is littered with drug addiction and jail time, but he appears to have overcome those demons. Today, he is 54 and lives in Austin. Come November, he will celebrate his 24th year of sobriety.

But he lives with headaches, balance problems and weakness in his arms and legs. His knees ache. Surgery is a certainty. Most likely, his ailments are remnants from his broken neck. But they could be from the countless concussions he suffered in an era when a player simply had to tell trainers which city he was playing in to be deemed ready to return to the playing field.

“When you play football, you are donating your body to permanent pain and lifelong illness,” Mr. Henderson said.

His broken neck earned Mr. Henderson a disability check from the NFL. For 18 years, he received a monthly check. Ironically, he said, his disability was classified by the NFL as non-football-related. Mr. Henderson never understood why. He said he was told that would speed up the process and his ability to collect.

The last payment amount was $1,325, which translates into $17,225 a year.

The checks stopped coming in 2000, soon after Mr. Henderson won the Texas lottery. The jackpot was a cool $28 million.

With all the recent publicity about NFL retirees struggling on relatively minuscule pensions and battling for improved disability coverage and payments, Mr. Henderson has decided to begin talking about his own aches and pains again.

He will begin by campaigning to have his disability officially reinstated. He understands that given his history, he might not be the most sympathetic figure. But he knows how to make noise and draw attention. He wants to raise public awareness about the plight of aging former players.

“Because I have money, does that mean I haven’t been disabled by football?” he said. “But I’m not looking for sympathy. I’m looking to change a system. I’m looking for the next guy who doesn’t have any money, who doesn’t have a voice, who doesn’t know what to do.”

Mr. Henderson has drafted a letter detailing his story. He plans to send copies to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Gene Upshaw, executive director of the players association, who sat side by side in Washington on Tuesday and detailed a planned coalition that will try to ease suffering among former players who need help.

He isn’t optimistic that the league or the union will remedy the situation.

He admits the Hollywood Henderson who played for the Cowboys in Super Bowl XII probably would not have been interested in the generations who came before him.

“I’d be as guilty as those who look away today,” he said. “Yesterday’s players are like yesterday’s news. People only love you when you are in uniform on Sundays and on Mondays after victories.”

Thomas Henderson’s letter to the NFL commissioner

An open letter to:

Commissioner of the National Football League

Executive Director of the National Football Players Association

Dear Mr. Commissioner:

I was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the 1975 draft in the first round out of Langston University. My career lasted seven years, five with the Cowboys. I played in three Super Bowls and was voted to the 1979 Pro Bowl. In 1980 I played a partial season with the 49ers and Oilers. In 1981, I was a Miami Dolphin.

That August while playing a pre-season game against the Kansas City Chiefs, I suffered a career-ending injury. I broke my neck on a tackle. There was a burst at C-1 and a crack at C-2. I was totally disabled as a direct result of an on-field football injury. In 1981 there was a benefit for players who had career-ending injuries and couldn’t play the following year. Dr Virgin and the Dolphins denied me that benefit. Why? I got a second opinion from a Dallas doctor who took off the mummy cast that Dr. Virgin plastered on me. He replaced it with a Philadelphia Collar. Dr. Virgin fired me as a patient. The Dolphins refused to pay me the $62,500 I was owed. They still owe me. The League and arbitrator ruled against me.

During this time I was completely addicted to crack cocaine. The League took full advantage of that and attached my injury case with my addiction. I would eventually wind up in a California prison for twenty-eight months on a crack related sexual assault charge. Seven months prior to incarceration, I was treated for my addiction and was seven months clean and sober before serving my sentence. After twenty-eight months I was out of prison and started my new life. In late 1986 I filed for total and permanent disability due to my career-ending injury in 1982. This on-field documented injury was a clear fact. I never played again and was suffering numbness in my limbs, severe headaches, balance problems and vertigo. These symptoms exist today. As an NFL hard-hitting Linebacker, I suffered many concussions in scrimmages, pre-season games and regular-season games for seven years. I filed for disability, and the NFLPA lawyers did a terrific job for me. The NFL lawyer though claimed my crack addiction caused my problems. They denied me benefits.

The difference between football disability and non-football disability is money. Football disability would pay me $4,000 a month for life. Non-football would pay $1,200 a month. The NFL currently pays disability to only 317 players. That number says it all. The NFLPA lawyers fought hard for me, and I have nothing but respect for those men and women. There was a board meeting for benefits in New York in 1987, and I was allowed to attend. I testified at this hearing to make my case in front of NFL owners and NFLPA lawyers. I begged for the benefit. Even cried. Gene Upshaw was there, and I thought he would help me. After my testimony, I was asked to step outside while they voted on my benefits. Shortly thereafter Gene Upshaw came out and asked me to accept the non-football benefit because the NFL owners and lawyers didn’t want to pay me the football benefits I deserved. He explained to me that the NFL had a Darryl Stingley standard for granting total and permanent disability football benefits. Darryl Stingley injured his neck and was a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. I felt like Gene Upshaw helped and failed me at the same time. He helped me get something but failed to get me my rightful benefit. I accepted the non-football benefit because that is all they were going to grant me. It was clear then and now that my addiction and character were the issue for the league. The NFL denied me my rightful benefits because I was a crack addict. My permanent injury was never in doubt. I collected my non-football benefits for eighteen years. They paid me about $1,200 a month for those years.

In 2000 I won the Texas Lottery and got a letter from the NFL immediately. They stopped my check. There is a clause in the benefit plan that says that a player who collects disability benefits cannot make any profit or remuneration. What is this, social security disability or NFL disability? Am I not still disabled? Because I have money I don’t still have disabilities caused by playing football? The NFL Disability Program demands that a player who is disabled can’t own a home or have income. You must be homeless and broke. The NFL denied me my rightful benefits many years ago. From 1982 to 2007 is twenty-five years. If I had been paid my football benefit I would have received $4,000 a month. That would total about $1,200,000. The NFL owes me. I want my back pay.

I am 54 years old now and still have the same symptoms I had over twenty-six years ago. Last year I had knee surgery. I never hurt my knees as a player, but my surgeon said the wear and tear in both my knees was caused by my NFL play. The NFL lawyer would deny that. I am going to need knee replacement in a few years. I wonder what the owners are going to say to that claim. We literally gave our bodies and limbs to this game. A few years ago Gene Upshaw said he doesn’t work for former players. All of us have known that for a long time. He should not have said it though.

I recently filed for my pension. At 54 I am taking it early. They are paying me $1,420 a month. Who can live on that? I thought a pension was life-sustaining income. My seven seasons qualified me for this pension. The NFL retirement “plans” are associated with the decade you played. Guys who played before 1959 get almost nothing. The non-profit NFL grosses nearly 7 billion dollars a year. That is a lot of profit for a non-profit. There are really not that many vested players who qualify for a pension. This is a rich pension paying pennies to its retirees. All the men who played one, two or three seasons don’t get a pension. The average player plays less than three seasons. During my day you had to get four years in to qualify for the pension. In recent years they changed it to three. I have friends in their late fifties and early sixties that are not doing well at all. Health problems and money problems consume their lives. The NFL does not provide health insurance for its former players. The NFL should take better care of their alumni.

I hear Mike Ditka and others are trying to help our brothers. These men need health insurance and a pension they can live on. Would you believe sir, that Bob Lilly, former Dallas Cowboy and Hall of Famer, collects $112.50 a month as his pension. Yes, one hundred twelve dollars and fifty cents. His ex-wife gets that amount as well. This August the Hall of Fame is having another show. It is these men who really know how bad our pensions, disability and non-insurance coverage are really impacting veterans lives. Watch them limp, wobble and shuffle to the podium. I went to the Hall of Fame inductions last summer to support Rayfield Wright. Seemed like everyone was limping, stiff, and living with NFL injuries. Bobby Bell walks funny; Carl Eller can barely walk at all. A lot of these men need knees, hips, shoulders and other repairs. Why show up and honor the NFL owners when they don’t honor you with better pensions, better disability benefits, or health insurance? It seems reasonable that the NFL at a minimum should offer knees, hips and other joint replacements to vested retired players. We sacrificed our bodies for this game. The men who built this game are struggling with rent, health care and basic living necessities. A pension is supposed to be a sustaining income. My $1,420 a month is real close to poverty. I am glad I won the lottery. Current players must remember us. You will want future players to think about you.

The NFL cheated me out of my disability. This is what they do. I have personally helped former players and friends in their time of need. I am clean and sober for almost 24 years so I will do fine. It is my brothers that I am worried about. I worry about them more than the owners and Gene Upshaw do. That is a shame.

To current players:

You too will be sixty years old one day.

You too will be limping and hurting.

You too will need hips and knees replaced

You too may need a better pension.

When you do your new deal in collective bargaining reach back to us, the men whose shoulders you are standing.

Thank you, Mike Ditka.

Thomas Hollywood Henderson