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Football is No. 1 to Hennings After His Stint in Gulf War

February 01, 1993|ALAN GREENBERG | THE HARTFORD COURANT

When he picks up a newspaper, he says he only reads the front page, never the sports section.

And while Dallas Cowboys linebacker Ken Norton is sitting at an interview table talking about the blitzes that flatten quarterbacks, Cowboys defensive end Chad Hennings sits at his, talking about the blitzes that blow up tanks. While most of his teammates watched the last Super Bowl in living rooms and bars, Hennings was watching his altimeter and flight coordinates as he cruised some alien azure space above the clouds.

The last time they held the Super Bowl, Hennings was living in England and making $25,000 a year sitting on his very cramped butt. He was a fighter pilot -- at 6 foot 6, 272 pounds, the biggest fighter pilot -- in the U.S. Air Force.

Now Hennings is paid $300,000 a year to sit his butt on the Cowboys bench, and except for a few cameos on special teams, that's where he'll be in the Super Bowl Sunday. He left Air Force duty as a decorated captain who flew 45 missions over northern Iraq and southern Turkey in the aftermath of Desert Storm. But in NFL rank, he's no more than a buck private, his old football moves as rusty as a rifle left outside since the Persian Gulf war.

Oh, how he used to fire. When he wasn't crammed into a cockpit as an Air Force Academy senior, Hennings hunkered down in his defensive end stance and scored so many direct hits on quarterbacks -- 24 sacks -- that he won All-America honors and the 1987 Outland Trophy, awarded annually to the best interior lineman in college football.

But while knocking out enemy offenses in the NFL wars was a dream, knocking out enemy targets in real war was the dream. Hennings entered the elite Euro-NATO pilot program, in which the Air Force trains its top pilot candidates. For him, the prime cut was his 195 hours of flight time during two three-month deployments (April to June, '91 and October '91 to January '92) on behalf of Operation Provide Comfort, in which the mission was to safeguard Kurdish refugees from Iraqi forces.

Hennings, 27, said that on his initial deployment, during what was supposed to be an 8 1/2-hour flight from England to his new base in Turkey, an oil malfunction forced him to shut down one of his two engines over the Mediterranean Sea, near the island of Crete. It was Greek Easter, and Hennings, after several miscommunications with ground control -- "they didn't speak too good English" -- made an emergency landing.

The next day, on his first mission, one week before the mid-April cease-fire in the Persian Gulf war, Hennings, a member of the 92nd Tactical Fighter Squadron, was maneuvering his A-10 attack plane over northern Iraq, searching for Kurdish refugee planes.

No, he didn't get to bomb any targets, personally. But there was more than enough lurking danger to rev up this gung-ho guy.

"The Super Bowl was another dream, but flying in a combat situation, that was the ultimate," Hennings said. "What price can you put on the experience of flying in a conflict, flying a multimillion dollar jet aircraft? I'd pay a million dollars to do that."

In Turkey, Hennings' workday was 3 a.m. to 3 p.m. When he wasn't escorting planes delivering supplies to the Kurds, he went on reconnaissance missions, making sure the Iraquis were obeying the cease-fire. His workday done, he'd run 3 miles around the perimeter of the airfield. Nostrils full of the smell of burning fuel as the jets took off and landed, Hennings imagined himself playing football.

The Cowboys' 11th-round draft choice in 1988 imagines no more.

"When we played Detroit," Hennings said, "and I was on special teams, I got my first tackle against Mel Gray. That's a big charge, hitting the guy inside the 20-yard line. It was like dropping the bomb on a target, getting a rush. But flying at 250 feet over southern Bavaria in the German Alps, doing a long-range strafe shot, taking a run at a moving tank target, that's pretty exciting, too."

Hennings gets excited about lots of things. Especially challenges. This blue-eyed blond farmboy/flyboy was one of the biggest things in tiny (200 people) Elberton, Iowa, where Hennings graduated from Brenton Community High. As a junior, he lost in the first round of the Iowa high school wrestling championships. As a senior, he won the heavyweight division.

Some people told him the Air Force Academy didn't recruit football players from small schools, but Hennings went there and became the best player in Air Force history.

But that's short corn next to the challenge he faces now, joining the Cowboys after five years away from football. The comparisons with Navy quarterback Roger Staubach, who did a similar service stint before joining the Cowboys, are inevitable and perhaps unfair. Cowboys Coach Jimmy Johnson says he is confident Hennings can regain his Outland Trophy form because his is not a finesse position. Staubach, whom Henning calls "a fantastic guy," has advised him to be humble off the field and not take any bull on it.

"I've gone up by leaps and bounds," Hennings said. "I'm 100 percent better than I was in July, when we started. By next July, I hope to be burning up the gridiron."

Because of Hennings' unique background, most of the interviewers prefer to ask him about flying and his political views (pro-Bush and adamantly against gays in the military). That's fine with him.

As much as he loves flying, he doesn't dwell on what he left behind by leaving the Air Force, or the huge loss of income he suffered by delaying his NFL career. "If I dwelled on that, Hennings said, "I'd have to see a therapist."

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