Legends of The Fall: Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson

When I came up with  The Legends of The Fall, my thoughts were to remember Hall of Fame players of yesteryear, and those whose “what if” legacies due to injuries or circumstances that kept them from becoming all time greats. Yet we still talk about them because they were supernovas that burned bright in our collective mind when we think of their transcendent play. One of those players was Thomas Henderson.

Artwork by Clarence Pointer signed by Hollywood Henderson available.

Now everyone remembers Henderson as one of the most flamboyant players of the 1970’s and he was. However lost in why he was so acclaimed were the distinctions he brought to pro football many observers obscure. Not this historian…and we’re going to take you through a few today.

One of those was his becoming one of the social icons of his times as a man of the 1970’s. A black cultural icon of transcendent play, outspoken black identity, and a reach that went beyond the football field.

In 1974 the NFL instituted several rule changes, the most visible had been the goal post moved to the back of the endzone. A more subtle change was the narrowing of the hashmarks which eliminated the short side of the field as you still see in college football. This called for Outside Linebackers with greater lateral speed and range play after play to either side.

Another subtle NFL rule change in 1974 made it illegal for all but the outside players on the punt team to leave before the ball was kicked. Enter Thomas Henderson. The Cowboys second #1 draft pick in 1975 who had been discovered out of Langston by Red Hickey. It was his speed and athleticism that led to his being used to help revolutionize the game from a tactical standpoint. This gave birth to the modern gunner where Henderson was also used. His size allowed him to bull through the two DBs as he came off the ball in pursuit of the punt returner

He was a special teams standout on a veteran laden ball club that had to get him on the field. He flashed downfield to make tackles and was used on reverses. A Linebacker on reverses?? Do you remember his reverse on the opening kickoff of Super Bowl X??

It was one of the first glimpses into what he was doing down in Texas. By 1977 Henderson had become the starting OLB where his speed was on display to match with some of the NFL’s best athletes covering backs out of the backfield and covering TEs out in space. The NFL was speeding up as a sport on astroturf and Henderson was among the new breed of athletes being moved to defense.

What most pundits don’t realize is how 1 penalty altered the perception of Hollywood Henderson.

Over the next four years Henderson’s Cowboys were the best team in the NFC as they became Super Bowl champions in 1977 and repeated as NFC Champions in 1978. In those two seasons the Flex defense was ranked #1 and #2 in the NFL and going into Super Bowl XIII were ranked higher than the #3 ranked Steel Curtain. If they win they become a dynasty as back to back champions and Henderson, who had made his 1st Pro Bowl, would have been lionized instead of the team being scrutinized because of the loss.

We all remember Super Bowl media day when Henderson claimed Terry Bradshaw was so dumb he couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the “c” and the “a”. Well think back to the game. Henderson made a huge play when he sacked Bradshaw and Mike Hegman stole the ball to give the Cowboys a 14-7 lead. Their only lead of the game.

In what became known as a seesaw game it really was one the Cowboys defense had taken over. They dominated the 2nd half as Pittsburgh couldn’t move the ball. It was the bogus pass interference penalty on Benny Barnes that changed the field position and put the Steelers in scoring position at the 22 late in the 4th quarter. Then a fumbled kickoff, two quick scores and they were up 35-17 en route to a 35-31 win.

That pass interference, which is now called incidental contact and no penalty, caused Henderson and the Cowboys to be scrutinized because of the loss. He had played a tremendous game but now pundits pointed to the press conference and even an on field altercation with Franco before his 4th quarter touchdown as turning points. Great story telling but very…very inaccurate accounting of the facts.

The history books don’t tell you Dallas had set a record holding the winning team to just 75 second half yards. Nor the fact Henderson is the only person in the 51 year history of the Super Bowl to be involved in scoring plays in both the conference championship and subsequent Super Bowl on defense. In the video above when he scored against the Rams, it was the finishing touch on a 28-0 win out in Los Angeles.

That Benny Barnes pass interference penalty made the Steelers the Team of the Decade and sent 10 Steelers to the Hall of Fame and only 4 of the Cowboys from that era.

Henderson smashes into Denver QB Norris Weese in Super Bowl XII.

We know of the pressures and build up to his release in Dallas but where would he have been had they become back to back champion?? Greatest defense in history?? No one has been #1 on offense and #1 on defense and champion since his ’77 Cowboys. How much did the fallout from Super Bowl XIII lead to his dismissal in Dallas??

Keep in mind Tom Landry in his A Football Life episode said on stage had he handled the situation with Henderson differently we could have won 6 or 7 Super Bowls. Dallas went on to lose the ’80, ’81, & ’82 NFC Championships without him. When you look back at those losses Dallas didn’t have a defensive playmaker on the field. Not like they had in 1977 and 1978. In fact he would have been in his prime going into his 6th, 7th, and 8th seasons. Lawrence Taylor & Bruce Smith recorded defensive player of the year honors in that 6th season.

Would Joe Montana have all that time to scramble to the sideline and find Dwight Clark with The Catch in the 81 NFC Championship had Hollywood been chasing him??


I’m still mad at him for this…he ruined 2nd grade for a kid in Denver.

Henderson was still in the NFL…just not in Dallas where they would have featured him. What could have been?

Epilogue: Last Saturday on February 10, 2018, Thomas Henderson was inducted into the Black College Football Hall of Fame. An incredible honor. If you think I was waxing hyperbole when I opined he would have made the Pro Football Hall of Fame had his career stayed on the same arc…guess where the BCFHOF is moving to?? Try Canton, Ohio inside the Pro Football Hall of Fame.


Congratulations on your induction Thomas Henderson!! A supernova! A Hall of Famer!


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Our Proposed NFL Changes To Aid NFL Defenses

Green Bay Packers sacking Carson Palmer. An event we are not seeing enough of in today’s NFL.

What a completely goofy NFL season we just watched.  We knew that teams were going to be thrown off after the lockout but the fallout was greater than we thought.  We knew folks were going to have record offensive seasons, but what we saw was beyond our original thoughts. Dan Marino’s all time passing record of 5,084 yards being bested by nearly 400?? Where only twice in history we saw individual 5,000 yard passers give way to a season where we had three?? The NFL saw it’s first ever season in 2011 where multiple quarterbacks threw for more than 40 touchdowns in the same season. Seriously??

After an NFL season where the league cracked down on helmet to helmet hits on the field, we saw records for passing yards from multiple teams. When you look up and see a Matthew Stafford become the third quarterback in the same season to throw for over 5,000 yards, yo u know something is definitely wrong. Not only was it Stafford’s first complete season as a starting quarterback, he was outgunned in the season finale by Packers 2nd string quarterback, Matt Flynn. In that game, all Flynn did was shatter Packers passing records for yardage (480) and touchdowns (6) in his only start this year while the Packers rested Aaron Rodgers. This in microcosm was the NFL this season, high flying offense playing against pensive defenses scared to attack quarterbacks and receivers. It’s at this point, we claim the rules have been altered too much to aid the offense and something must be done. Yet where do we begin.

Sports Illustrated cover featuring the Amazing Orange Crush’s Rubin Carter once the Broncos went to 6-0 in 1977.

Well we have to take you back to 1978 to understand how we got here. The NFL adopted several rules to open up offenses that had been shut down during the mid 1970s. Most of these were in effect to legislate the Pittsburgh Steelers out of dominance. In 1976 the Steelers had a string where they gave up only 28 points over their last 9 games and shut out 5 of their last 8 opponents. This was followed up in 1977 when the Denver Broncos, on their way to Super Bowl XII, only gave up 148 points and 18 touchdowns. So something had to be done.

Well in 1974 the NFL widened the hashmarks and thought that would bring about more open space for the offense to move. Also wide receivers were not allowed to be chopped “hit below the waist” at the line of scrimmage. These changes weren’t enough. So in 1978 the rules were amended to where defenses were only allowed to “chuck” receivers within the first five yards of the scrimmage line. This is known as the Mel Blount rule. Offensive linemen were allowed to extend their arms while pass blocking to stop hard charging linemen.  Then about a decade later the league deemed that not enough and employed the cheat step. You’ll see tackles with their outside leg pivoted 2 to 3 yards back in the backfield to get a head start on blocking an opponents speed rusher. Couple this with “in the grasp” and any touching of the helmet of a quarterback culminating in a fifteen yard penalty and defensive players are playing on egg shells…

So what gets repealed?? Wide receivers getting hit all over the field if the ball isn’t in the air?? Well there are those that like to see a good bomb thrown in a football game so we won’t go there. Yet what we will do is return play at or near the line of scrimmage to it’s roots.

Article I Roughing the Passer – This will be called when the defensive player takes more than one step to hit the quarterback or if a hand extended to knock down a pass is swung to make contact with the quarterbacks helmet only. No more bogus 15 yard penalties to keep drives alive when a defender’s hand grazes a quarterbacks head. While reaching up to knock down a pass, it’s inevitable a defenders hand will hit a quarterbacks helmet. Only call it if the defender blatantly slams forward hitting the helmet. That’s why a quarterback wears one…for head protection.

Article II Repealing the offensive tackles cheat step to aid against speed rushers. Defensive players should be able to rush the quarterback better which should cause a few more errant throws and quarterback sacks. Enough with watching a Drew Brees throwing a football 62 times as he did in yesterday’s playoff loss to the 49ers with few hands in his face. Furthermore this would force offenses to employ smaller and quicker tackles. In light of the health issues and the mortality rate of 300 lbs. linemen after their playing days, this could be a move in the right direction.

Article II a. Repealing the rule that if a defensive linemen moves, which forces the offensive lineman to flinch, then penalizing the defender. This was another dumb rule that came along within the last 15 years. Nope…sorry. Return offensive linemen to having to play football and allow defenders the chance to rattle a young lineman or an injured one. Defensive players should be able to manipulate line play as much as the offense.

Article III Allow receivers to be hit within the first ten yards of the line of scrimmage. Enough of watching basketball players in shoulder pads, a helmet and nothing else, running unencumbered down the green fields of the NFL. Defenders should be allowed to have a cornerback “chuck” him and then a linebacker be able  to do so afterward to throw off the offensive play. Make receivers play football again.

The last change is a subtle referendum on pass interference. Re-emphasize the incidental contact rule made famous after the Benny Barnes /Lynn Swann Super Bowl XIII tripping moment. If there isn’t blatant pass interference where the defender disrupts the receivers attempt to catch the football, don’t throw the flag!! Far too many cheap 50 yard penalties because some primadona receiver flails his arms calling for one. Half the time, you’ll see receivers throwing their hands up instead of just trying to catch the football and this cheapens the game. It makes defenders gun shy in playing their position when the ball is in the air, and this is football, some contact will be made.

This is where the competition committee has given way to the corporate nature of the NFL’s non football playing brass. Everything isn’t about offense, offense, offense. Football fanatics remember reverently the ’85 Chicago Bears whom many feel were the best in history because of the 46 Defense. Steeler nation is right behind them having gained fans from the ‘Steel Curtain’ days and the current ‘Blitzburgh’ edition. Same thing with the Doomsday Defense in Dallas, and the 2000 Ravens. Teams where great defense was as beautiful to watch as tons of offense. This isn’t roller derby or basketball on grass. Lets return football to it’s fundamental roots that we all recognize.

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