1975 Dallas Cowboys Player Rankings: #23 Thomas Henderson
With the Cowboys’ computer renowned for selecting young stars at random, there was a tendency from constituents in other football locales to discount certain post-draft reaction from Dallas as just additional evidence of the arrogance that allegedly permeated America’s Team. Those Cowboys, they think all their players are All-Stars!
Therefore, when Cowboys super scout Red Hickey said of newly-christened first-round draft selection Thomas Henderson, “This guy is one of the most tremendous athletes in the country,” certain pundits and fans found cause to immediately roll their eyes. From Langston? Oh sure!
What didn’t make it into many news-briefs was the fact that Henderson was a former track star destined to be christened pro football’s very first “Hollywood” star. Henderson arrived in training camp with all the bravado of an established championship veteran, talking and dreaming of becoming a full-time starter for the Cowboys defense. What came next was a fast-paced education in the complications of Tom Landry’s Flex defense that had the 6-2, 220-pound rookie linebacker suddenly seeking for direction.
On the practice field, he was taken in under the wing of veteran strong-side linebacker Dave Edwards, who impressed his young pupil with a vast wealth of technical knowledge about playing the position. On the sidelines he learned to pay attention to the voice of special teams coach Mike Ditka. Though separated by more than twenty years in age, Henderson and “Iron” Mike shared a hard-nosed, all-out approach to playing football. Ditka admired Henderson’s willingness to hustle and hit, and quickly found him to be an ally to a youthful special teams unit. And though Henderson failed to secure a starting spot coming out of preseason, he still managed to keep busy in a variety of ways.
As one of the fastest players on the team, Henderson was allowed to roam free and follow the ball on the Cowboys’ kickoff-coverage teams, rather than stay in his normally prescribed lane. By mid-season, Henderson was regularly given the duties of one of the two flankers on punt coverage. And on kickoff returns, Henderson was normally employed as a blocker.
But in Week 2, Ditka threw the visiting St. Louis Cardinals a changeup when he had Henderson peel back on a kickoff return and take a reverse handoff from fellow rookie Rolly Woolsey. Following a convoy of blockers down the left sideline, including the rookie trio of Randy Hughes, Randy White, and Burton Lawless, Henderson flashed his sprinter’s speed in one extended moment of glory, streaking past everybody on into the end-zone to complete a 97-yard scoring play, where he immediately capped the moment by dunking the ball over the goal-post. It only seemed fitting that Henderson be rewarded by being named one of the Cowboys’ six captains for their next game in Detroit.
Henderson’s rookie campaign hit a roadblock in Week 6 at Veterans Stadium when his impulsive streak got the better of him. During the first quarter, Henderson talked Mitch Hoopes into a fake-punt pass to the Cowboys linebacker that was knocked down by Eagles safety Bill Bradley, who had correctly anticipated the audible. Then, on the final play of the first half, he was thrown out of the game after punching Po James.
Henderson struggled through the middle portion of the season while saddled with numerous minor ailments. But when he grabbed another Headhunter Award in Dallas’ Week 11 victory over the New York Giants, the general consensus was that “Hollywood” would shine bright during the Cowboys’ December run.
Though he had nothing on Jimmy Liske, who blocked eight field goals for Arkansas State in 1975, Henderson’s contributions in that department late in the season was certainly notable. At Busch Stadium in Week 12, Henderson’s eagerness to notch his first block as a pro cost his team in a big way when he was flagged for using a teammate’s back (in this case Jethro Pugh’s) while attempting to leap and swat a Jim Baaken kick. Instead of a successful kick and a 17-3 St. Louis lead, the drive was extended via the infraction, enabling the Cardinals to author their third touchdown in as many possessions to start the game. Dallas eventually lost 31-17.
In the regular season finale at Shea Stadium two weeks later, Henderson authored another gaffe, this time by fumbling the opening kickoff, leading to a New York recovery at the 5-yard line and a Jets touchdown just moments later. But he redeemed himself later in the first quarter when he broke through the Jets line to block a Greg Gantt punt, allowing the Cowboys to cut into a 14-0 deficit and rally for an eventual 31-21 victory.
With his confidence now restored, Henderson punished opponents with his versatile skill-set. First, he displayed his toughness by nearly decapitating Los Angeles place-kicker Tom Dempsey on the opening kickoff of the NFC Championship Game. Later in the first half, Henderson authored one of the game’s biggest plays by blocking a Dempsey field goal attempt that preserved an early 7-0 advantage for the Cowboys.
“If it goes 7-3 there,” said assistant coach Ermal Allen, “then they might go on and get back in the game.” Instead, Dallas claimed the conference crown in a romp, 37-7.
And in one of the more startling beginnings to a world championship game, Henderson put the finishing touches on a most exciting rookie season by taking a reverse on the opening kickoff of Super Bowl X and lumbering all the way to the Pittsburgh 45-yard line, before cannonading into another place-kicker, this time Roy Gerela. In front of a national television audience and a packed house at the Orange Bowl, Henderson was deemed a star in-the-making with the Cowboys. And Gerela, well, all he received for his efforts on the play was a cracked rib.