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March 04, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

Several months ago, Thomas Henderson got a phone call at his Costa Mesa home from trucking magnate Robert Briscoe of Sundown, Texas.

Briscoe was a diehard Dallas football fan who remembered vividly Henderson's exploits as a linebacker for the Cowboys. He also owns one of Henderson's three Super Bowl rings, all from the Cowboys. "The one the Internal Revenue Service confiscated, the only one they could find," explains Henderson. "Briscoe paid $13,500 for it at an auction."

Briscoe told Henderson that he had read his 1987 book, "Out of Control," and knew that Henderson had kicked cocaine, was living a life of sobriety and was spending much of his time warning young people about substance abuse. Would Henderson be willing to fly to north Texas--all expenses paid--to talk to the children in the elementary school in Briscoe's home town? Henderson would--and did.

"These were little kids," recalls Henderson, "second-, third- and fourth-graders. I wasn't sure at first how to talk to them, but we ended up with 300 piercing voices shouting, 'We have a choice.' I'll never forget that. It's the kind of high cocaine never gave me."

When Briscoe took his guest back to the airport, he shook Henderson's hand and told him he had promised to give the Super Bowl ring to his grandson--but after listening to the schoolchildren respond, he was having second thoughts. Maybe one of these days, he'd return the ring to Henderson.

Henderson doesn't really need it. He managed to salvage one of his rings and was wearing it this night--a resplendent gold symbol of the homage paid premier football players in the country. Henderson wears it proudly but regards it with a very different perspective than he did in his playing days. "Every day now," he says, "I get a trophy in the Sober Bowl--and I've never had it so good. I'm not a celebrity. I'm a recovering addict."

We were having dinner at a local restaurant with Dr. Joseph Pursch, the Newport Beach psychiatrist famous for his successful substance-abuse treatment of Betty Ford and Billy Carter, among many others. Henderson credits Pursch with turning his life around, with making him understand and believe that "anything is possible in sobriety; nothing is possible if you use."

Henderson had just shared the podium with Pursch for a discussion of substance abuse at a local church. The audience had listened raptly. Henderson is a commanding figure--lithe, anvil-shouldered, compact, flat-bellied, gregarious. He looks as if he had just stepped off the football field, and he told stories of his addiction with a kind of ingenuous directness that was remarkably effective.

That didn't change when the conversation became three-way. Henderson--whose self-adopted nickname was "Hollywood"--was known around the NFL for his mouth as well as his linebacking. "I've yakked all my life," he says, "talking about nothing, an empty wagon. Now I have something to say."

In the last year, he's been saying it pretty successfully. His book sold 60,000 copies in hard cover and has recently been released in paperback. "I was the top seller in Dallas for four weeks," says Henderson proudly. "Outsold Bill Cosby and Tip O'Neill." He also talks to a wide variety of audiences--sometimes for a fee, sometimes for free.

So far, he's an undiscovered resource in Orange County. Although he has lived in Costa Mesa for more than a year, no schools have contacted him to participate in drug-abuse programs. He says he'd be happy to help.

"I want it clear what I do," he says. "I don't beat my own rug anymore. I'm part of the education process. I'm willing to talk to anybody."

He'd like to carry his message to NFL locker rooms--but so far the NFL is mostly keeping him at arm's length. (Exception: the Denver Broncos, which welcomed him last year.) He understands the hesitation.

"The people I used to work with are impressed but unconvinced," he says. "They've seen too many players who said they were sober and then started using again. I've been sober now for four years and four months, but the football people are still asking if this is for real. I'm probably a year away from the NFL believing in me."

This disinclination to accept the changes in Henderson reflects his progressively excessive behavior under the influence of drugs that most of his teammates and coaches still remember vividly. It's all recounted in graphic detail in Henderson's book.

He was 21 before he met his father, and he grew up in Texas against a backdrop of family violence that culminated when his mother shot and wounded his stepfather after he had beaten her in a drunken rage. Football was Henderson's ticket to freedom, and he was so good that the Cowboys drafted him from a small black college near Oklahoma City called Langston University. At that time, Henderson had been smoking marijuana daily for more than six years.

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