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Gil Brandt gets enshrined in Canton this week, but the players he discovered in three decades with the Cowboys, including one who wrote him letters from prison, have long considered him a Hall of Fame friend

By Andy Fenelon | Published July 29, 2019

Laying on his cot inside the maximum-security prison near the California-Oregon border, just eight days into a 56-month prison term and 244 days into sobriety, Thomas Henderson began writing the toughest letter of his life to the man partly responsible for him not securing a potentially lighter sentence.

Henderson was writing a lot of letters from his Susanville Correctional Facility cell in the latter part of 1984 -- to former Dallas Cowboys teammates, coaches, and friends. It was part of Step 9 in the 12-step program he was undergoing for alcohol and substance abuse: Make direct amends to people you have harmed wherever possible.

But this letter, written on July 9, 1984 -- the first of three he would pen to Gil Brandt, the former Cowboys executive who will be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday -- was particularly agonizing. A few months earlier, while Henderson was awaiting sentencing for the sexual assault of an underage girl, among other serious charges, Brandt had provided a non-glowing statement to a probation officer that would help determine the fate of the player he had scouted, drafted and signed a decade earlier.

The statement brought to light an incident that involved Henderson asking Brandt for money to support his $10,000 a week cocaine habit. Brandt didn't believe much leniency should be granted by the sentencing judge, that the Pro Bowl linebacker -- formerly known as "Hollywood" for his flamboyant and outspoken nature during his playing days with the Cowboys -- needed significant time in prison to fully appreciate the consequences of his actions.

Henderson's conundrum: Should he express forgiveness or blame?

He chose love and hope.

Hi Gil,
I was shocked at the probation report when I saw the statement you gave. I guess I brought it on myself.
I remember that conversation a little. During that time, I was very desperate for money to buy more drugs. It's a damn shame I would do something stupid like that. Bite the hand that could possibly help me. I want to apologize for that behavior. It's not anyone's fault but mine (as) to what happened to me.
I can tell you (from) one man to another that I became a real dope addict. But I must always take responsibility for what has happened to me. It's not the Cowboys' fault or any team member's fault -- just mine.
As good as you were to me, I forced you with bribery and other things to make you work against me. Gil, I'm truly sorry for my past behavior, and know that I'm taking all responsibility for my downfall.
I had forgotten about that incident but remembered it right away when I was sitting in prison and a probation officer told me what you said about me. See, Gil, if I hadn't put you in that position when I did, I'm confident that you would have had nothing but praise for me.
I've been clean and sober now for eight months. Although I'm still in prison, I will be clean and sober for one year on Nov. 8th.
In the next couple of years here I'm going back to school and I want to become an alcohol and drug therapist. Please don't give up on me, Gil. I've still got a chance to be a productive person again.
Tell Too Tall and Harvey (Martin) if you talk to them that my younger brother named Allen -- you met him also -- committed suicide on June 23rd; he hung himself. He had been freebasing cocaine and, what can I say?
If ever I can talk to a guy, write someone or anything, Gil, don't hesitate. I'll do it for you because I owe you. If you will, give my regards to all.
Your friend still -- Thomas Henderson
P.S. Please forgive me for my past actions. Give me a chance on my future actions. -- T.H.

"I had clearly disappointed him. I had disappointed myself. I had disappointed so many people with the Cowboys," Henderson said recently from his home in Boca Raton, Florida. "The Cowboys had always been good to me and I screwed that up. That's why I apologized to Gil in those letters. I knew that I was one of his diamonds in the rough; I was one of his finds."

Henderson is one of the many "finds" Brandt had in his nearly 30 years with the Cowboys. In many ways, he epitomizes Brandt's greatness -- perhaps better than most players Brandt brought through Dallas when he was the Cowboys' vice president of player personnel from 1960 to 1989.

On Saturday, at his Hall of Fame enshrinement in Canton, you're likely to hear stories about what made Brandt stand out among his NFL peers, including the scouting and evaluation system he developed and installed with the Cowboys that led to 20 consecutive winning seasons, two Super Bowl victories and the drafting of nine Hall of Fame players; the introduction of computers to scouting to help find hidden talent; the use of psychological tests to evaluate mental makeup under pressure; the discovery of athletes from previously untapped sources, including small schools and black colleges, and even from other sports.

But the special relationships he shared and continues to foster with his players, including the bond he's formed and maintained with Henderson over the last 46 years, are Hall of Fame-worthy in their own right.

A few weeks ago, Brandt was checking messages on his answering machine when he came across a voicemail from a man he had drafted more than 50 years ago. The accomplished offensive lineman had called to belatedly congratulate his former boss on his Hall of Fame selection.

After a few words, there was a pause. The man, now in his mid-70s, continued.

"I'm just very, very grateful to have had you in my life at a time when I really needed you, and you helped me tremendously," he said, his voice cracking. "So, I wanted you to know I care …"

Through tears, the man hurriedly said goodbye and hung up the phone.

Ask Brandt about the impact he made in the front office of the Cowboys, and he'll talk your ear off, regaling you with stories from yesteryear, half of which sound beyond belief. Like the time he held up the 1964 NFL Draft for six hours waiting on medical reports for a player who was so distraught over the assassination of John F. Kennedy that he punched a mirror, cutting his wrist badly. Or the time, as a 26-year-old, he signed his very first player, out-bidding Chargers GM Frank Leahy, who had drafted the kid -- Dartmouth halfback Jake Crouthamel -- in the first round of the AFL draft.

But ask Brandt about the impact he's made in the lives of the players he discovered, signed and befriended along the way, and he is suddenly at a loss for words. This 86-year-old extrovert is clearly not comfortable talking about his feelings.

Others, however, are more forthcoming, if not in words then by their actions.

He still draws a crowd at events where his former players are gathered. At his Ring of Honor induction last November, Drew Pearson escorted Brandt everywhere he went in AT&T Stadium, treating him with the gentleness he received from Brandt as a player. And there was Mel Renfro (the player who had injured his wrist after the JFK assassination), placing a kiss on the side of Brandt's head shortly after Brandt had delivered his speech at halftime of the Cowboys-Saints game, formally joining a group that includes 15 of the players he personally acquired for the Cowboys.

There is an unmatched executive-player reverence, a genuine love and affection for a man who has meant so much to so many for so long.

The first time Brandt saw Thomas Henderson, he was scouting Clint Longley, a Small College All-American quarterback from Abilene Christian the Cowboys would eventually trade for in 1974 (and whom Brandt would trade two years later after Longley infamously sucker-punched his teammate, and everybody's All-American, Roger Staubach). Abilene was playing a playoff game against Langston in Henderson's junior year at the all-black NAIA Oklahoma university.

Despite its enrollment of just 1,100 students, Langston entered the game undefeated, thanks in large part to Henderson, who, in Coach Big Daddy Nivens' Sic 'Em defense, was destroying opposing quarterbacks (sack statistics weren't around then, but some estimate Henderson accounted for more than 40 on the season). Langston lost the game, but not before Brandt took notice of Henderson's dominant day; he was named the game's defensive MVP.

A decade earlier, Brandt had hired Dick Mansperger as a scout. One of Mansperger's main responsibilities was to provide the Cowboys lists of draft-worthy players from black colleges, along with their height, weight, 40-yard times and a rating. This quantitative data was placed into the Cowboys' computer system and out spit names of players many had never heard of, or from schools – particularly the black colleges – most NFL teams didn't bother sending their scouts to.

In a time when many teams were still drafting players out of Street & Smith's magazine, it was a system that helped Brandt discover and procure small-school stars like Bob Hayes (Florida A&M), Jethro Pugh (Elizabeth City State), Rayfield Wright (Fort Valley State), Cliff Harris (Ouachita Baptist), Harvey Martin (East Texas State), and Ed "Too Tall" Jones (Tennessee State).

So, by the time Henderson entered his senior year at Langston, the Cowboys' scouting system was well-established and dominating the NFL competition, turning the expansion franchise Brandt joined in 1960 into a dynasty that became known as America's Team.

"Gil was brilliant at finding people," Henderson said.

To drive his point home, Henderson begins to tell the story of how Brandt supposedly found Pugh, a fictitious yarn that "Bullet" Hayes often told in the locker room, and one that was repeated by Wright at Pugh's funeral in 2015.

As legend has it, Brandt was headed in his car down a rural road in North Carolina in the early '60s, attempting to uncover the next great hidden gem for coach Tom Landry to develop. When he came upon a young man plowing a field, Brandt stopped and asked for directions to the house of a player he had traveled more than a thousand miles to meet. Without saying a word, the young man lifted the plow and used it as a pointer. Brandt's eyes widened.

"Forget about him," Brandt said excitedly. "What's your name?"

The Cowboys took Pugh in the 11th round out of tiny Elizabeth City State in 1965. Henderson's wait – exactly 10 years later – lasted only 18 picks into a draft that saw Brandt select an unprecedented 12 players who would make the final roster that year and fast-track the Cowboys' rebuilding project. And while Dallas had enjoyed a lot of success with small-school players by that time, including the selection of "Too Tall" a year earlier, not everyone was completely on board with Henderson.

"A couple of years ago, I asked Gil, 'When you were in the draft room there with Landry and he wants to take someone from Penn State or Notre Dame or Michigan or UCLA, how the hell did you get him to pick me in the first round?' " Henderson said. "And Gil replied, 'I was pounding on the table, saying this is the best player on the board, we should have picked him earlier.' "

Brandt confirmed the story. He and scout Red Hickey were the only two from the Cowboys who had personally seen Henderson play. Back then, game film wasn't readily available, and for small schools like Langston, it was virtually impossible to acquire. But the Cowboys had scouting systems in place they trusted, and even though Henderson might have still been available in the third round, Dallas took its shot in the first, much to the surprise of other front offices around the league.

When Henderson showed up at the Cowboys' headquarters the next day, he met Brandt in person for the first time. In his autobiography, "Out of Control," Henderson described that meeting and his first impression:

"Most of what I noticed about Gil Brandt was the way he assaulted his chewing gum. I'd never seen anything like it. The guy was pretty speedy. He had no chin and his mouth was yapping and he just loved to attack that gum."

After some small talk, Brandt got down to business.

"Abner Haynes is your agent, that right? Abner and I are good friends. I'll be in touch and we can get together and get your contract straightened out. You don't think we'll have any problems signing it, do you?"

"I knew a hustle when I heard one, this was just like pool. I told him, 'I don't know, man. I just know that the No. 1 draft choice gets a lot of money, doesn't he?' "

Later in his book, Henderson describes a visit he made to Brandt's office, telling the team negotiator he had outgrown his second contract and wanted a new deal commensurate with what Steelers All-Pro linebacker Jack Lambert was making. Brandt told Henderson that he was making more than most linebackers in the league, then offered him Lambert's contract.

"You really want that contract? I'll draw it up. You really want that contract?"

Without the aid of an agent or the public knowledge of player salaries that exist today, Henderson declined. He said he later found out what Lambert was making and should have called Brandt's bluff.

"He faked me out. Gil Brandt is a damn good general manager … if you call screwing people (doing) a good job."

On a yearly basis, Everson Walls thought he was being screwed. The cornerback Brandt signed as an undrafted free agent out of Grambling State in 1981 outplayed his contract annually, and each time he did he asked for it to be re-done. Seven times in all. The denied requests often led to public threats of walkouts and retirements and were accompanied by team fines handed out by Brandt.

It got so contentious that Walls considered the unthinkable.

"Someone once asked Everson how it was to negotiate with me," Brandt recalled. "He said, 'If I could have found one, I would have hired a hitman to take Gil out.' "

As with most things, time tends to heal bruised egos. Today, Walls and Brandt are more than cordial; they're friends who have openly campaigned for each other's Hall of Fame bids. Henderson also understands there was nothing personal between him and Brandt in their contract negotiations.

"Gil was the negotiator so our relationship, in terms of business, was tumultuous," Henderson said. "He was the guy who when you asked for 90 thousand (dollars) he wanted to give you 40 (thousand). But Gil Brandt was very good at what he did."

There might not be two people more different than Gil Brandt and Thomas Henderson.

Brandt grew up in a modest neighborhood on Milwaukee's East side in the 1940s and '50s. His father was a district manager for a grocery chain, and his mother stayed home to raise the couple's two children.

He was a starting defensive back on his high school's football team. He also played basketball and ran track. For the most part, he stayed out of trouble.

He attended the University of Wisconsin for two years before dropping out and moving back to Milwaukee, where he started a baby photography business. He arranged for nurses at three local hospitals to take photos of the babies, then he'd turn around and sell them to the new mothers, pocketing 75 percent of the profits.

On weekends in the fall, he scouted players in the Midwest for Tex Schramm, who at the time was the general manager of the Los Angeles Rams. Back in Milwaukee, Brandt had struck up a friendship with ex-Badgers great Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch, who played for the Rams and recommended the young scout whose hobby during his college days at UW was watching film of players and figuring out the qualities that separated the good ones from the great.

When Clint Murchison purchased the expansion Cowboys in 1960, he pegged Schramm as his GM, and Schramm asked the 25-year-old Brandt to run his scouting operation. He was making $14,000 selling baby pictures, very good money at the time; Schramm was offering less but a bigger opportunity.

Henderson, on the other hand, grew up "no-toilet-paper poor" and was raised by his teenage mother in Austin, Texas. He watched his alcoholic stepfather physically abuse his mother and, at 12 years old, witnessed her retaliate by shooting her husband. He hung out with street hustlers and thieves and regularly commiserated with neighborhood junkies.

Despite their striking differences in upbringing, Brandt and Henderson found common ground. It was a practice Brandt tried to foster with all his players, by making himself accessible to them. At training camp, for example, he requested his room be directly across from the entrance of the dormitory on the campus of Cal Lutheran so he could greet players every morning when they came by to check for mail.

"Tex Schramm was a tough guy, some might say even mean-spirited. And Coach Landry was not necessarily friendly," said Calvin Hill, the running back Brandt drafted in 1969 who became the first player from Yale ever taken in the first round of the modern era. "Gil offset the coldness. He was a guy who brought humanity into the (front) office."

Brandt's openness and curiosity about his players' lives -- he inquired about them often -- allowed them to be comfortable enough to bring anything to him, and it worked, although sometimes with unintended consequences.

Before Super Bowl XIII against Pittsburgh, Henderson -- going through his "Hollywood" metamorphosis at the time -- consulted Brandt on how he could stir things up with Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw. According to Brandt, it was he who handed Henderson the famous C-A-T line -- Bradshaw couldn't spell "cat" if you spotted him the "c" and "t" -- and the mouthy linebacker ran with it.

The Steelers, of course, beat the Cowboys, 35-31, giving Bradshaw the last laugh.

On Nov. 28, 1984, Henderson sent his second letter to Brandt from California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo, where he had been transferred after a few months of being locked up in Susanville.

Hi Gil,
After seeing the results of the (Cowboys') all-time team I was disappointed. I hope you and your family had a nice Thanksgiving.
Things here are going as well as expected. I'm a teacher's aide and doing quite well.
My year of sobriety was November 8th, and it's a milestone, not a destiny.
I'm still writing my book and it's coming along quite well. I'm hoping for a finished product by this summer.
This whole experience I've endured is remarkable. Just being alive is a blessing as I look at what I went through.
The program of Alcoholics Anonymous has really been the difference in my life. So many friends and sponsors here in California are really wonderful.
I understand some of the guys on the team put money up to help my mom. I'm really thankful and wish you would pass my thanks along.
I know my last letter to you was about that probation report. I hope you understand how I must have felt when I saw what you said to Mr. Manson.
Good luck to the team for the rest of the season. Do you realize the team hasn't gone to the Super Bowl since I left? "Little trivia for ya."
I hope you have forgiven me for my past behavior. I'd like to hear from you, Gil. It would be nice if you would take time to dictate me a letter and let me know where we stand.
I portray you well when I write about you.
Your friend -- Thomas Henderson

When Letter No. 2 was written, Henderson was 20 days into his second year of sobriety. He was completely clean and attempting to make up for lost time. And there was a lifetime to make up for, especially the previous half-decade, when his cocaine habit -- coinciding with his adopted "Hollywood" lifestyle -- was spiraling out of control.

This was someone who had partied with Marvin Gaye and Richard Pryor. Who had dated a Pointer sister. Who had punched out one teammate and -- coked out of his mind -- contemplated murdering another. In Super Bowl XIII, Henderson tucked an inhaler of liquefied cocaine inside his game pants and squirted it into his nose before, during and after the game. He popped Quaaludes like Pez, and free-based with teammates and complete strangers. He promised himself he'd never drink like his stepfather, but by the end of his NFL career, that reared its ugly head, too.

Brandt says he approached Henderson once about his cocaine habit after a member of the Cowboys' security team alerted him to it, but the linebacker went into full denial. What couldn't be denied was his insubordination to Landry, which was in full view for everyone to see.

In his final act with the Cowboys in 1979, Henderson was seen mugging for the TV cameras, waving a towel on the sidelines in a late-season loss to the Redskins, a rare game in which he finished without a single tackle. The following week, Landry called him into his office for a meeting that didn't go very well.

"I basically told Landry to go f--- himself," recalled Henderson, who was deactivated for the remainder of the season, one that ended in the Cowboys losing a divisional playoff game to the Rams.

The following May, Brandt traded his Pro Bowl linebacker for a fourth-round pick to the San Francisco 49ers. Bill Walsh waived Henderson after one game. After six weeks with the Houston Oilers he was waived again. In 1981 with the Miami Dolphins, he suffered a neck injury in a preseason game and never played another down.

"It was a complete waste because the guy could have made a lot of money and had a Hall of Fame career," Brandt said. "He was that good."

In November 1983, two years out of the NFL, he was arrested on one count of sexual assault and two counts of false imprisonment after smoking crack with two underage girls in his Long Beach apartment near Los Angeles. He pleaded no contest to the charges, was sentenced to four years and eight months in prison and was released after serving 28 months.

Roger Staubach was Henderson's most faithful correspondent from the Cowboys while Henderson was locked up for his crimes. Brandt was a close second.

Brandt included Henderson on his Christmas card list in 1984, surmising how lonely a place like prison could be around the holidays. Four days before the new year, Henderson replied.

Thanks for the Christmas card. You mentioned that you would like to see me in person when you come to the West Coast. Well, if you were really serious about that you can contact Mr. Tony Guerrero here at CMC. He's the Community Resource Mgr. He can set up a tour for you and whoever else might be interested while you are all at camp. CMC is about 3 hours from Thousand Oaks.
There are a lot of Cowboy fans here in prison.
I've been trying to help Mr. Guerrero make some contacts with people who might be willing to donate equipment and any other items that might be used here at the prison. Bob Ward called Mr. Guerrero and said that he wouldn't be able to do anything at this time.
Would it be possible for you to send twelve footballs for the prisoners to play with? This prison has four quads: A, B, C, and D. Three footballs per quad would be really nice. We have hard rubber balls at the present time.
If you decided to send the balls, please contact Mr. Tony Guerrero and send them through him. I know this isn't really a tall order for you to fill so I'm confident that you'll do it.
I hope you and your family had a nice Christmas. Drop me a short note and let me know what you might do.
Old 56 -- Thomas Henderson

The balls arrived shortly after Brandt read his final prison letter from Henderson. Similar to the time he sent footballs to Staubach while the quarterback was stationed in Vietnam during the war, the kind gesture helped Henderson gain favor among his peers.

That first year in prison was particularly difficult. Henderson found himself trying to navigate a new life outside of football, sober and without the high-society parties, women and drugs that had dominated his life for a decade. Making matters worse, it was in his first week of being locked up that he received the news of his brother's suicide.

"I had just gotten to prison and they came and got me to come to the phone," Henderson recalled. "I have to say, I had never cried like that before or since. I was paralyzed with grief.

"But something really profound happened on my way back to my cell; they had to carry me because I didn't have the power to walk. When I got there, I realized I wasn't crying for him; I was crying for me.

"I had swam in this swamp of cocaine addiction. But now I was starting to talk to people in my life that I had known I had disappointed."

He started writing the letters, lots of them, one by one asking for forgiveness. Brandt had already heard about Allen's death even before he received Henderson's first letter telling him about it. He contemplated going to the burial but couldn't work it out because the Cowboys were preparing to embark on another training camp in Thousand Oaks, three hours south of the California Men's Colony prison.

Brandt, instead, sent flowers. He had known Allen as a teenager, when Henderson brought Allen and another brother to live with him in Dallas. Brandt would get the boys sideline passes to practice and give them Cowboys t-shirts and other souvenirs.

"Gil went out of his way to treat my brothers very kindly and generously," Henderson said. "They always left there with something from Gil."

And so did Henderson every time Brandt did something nice for him; he left with gratitude.

When Henderson's biological grandfather, a former coal miner living in New York, was dying from black lung disease, it was Brandt who got a pass for the 80-year-old to roam the sideline at a Cowboys-Giants game.

It was Brandt who snuck a bonus into Henderson's second contract that allowed him to buy his first house in Staubach's neighborhood. Brandt had told the linebacker to keep it a secret between the two of them.

And it was Brandt who allowed Henderson, after all the damage he had left in his wake on his way out of Dallas, to use the team's facilities and work out while attempting a return to the league.

"Love is a tough thing," Henderson said, "but I really do think Gil cared about me."

Brandt did, deeply, just like with all his players. Even if it was in the form of tough love that resulted in a longer prison sentence for Henderson.

"I thought at the time he needed to be shown a program that could make him believe he could turn his life around," Brandt said of the pre-sentencing statement he gave to the probation officer. "I was touched when he asked for my forgiveness, which he didn't have to do."

"Those letters were really important for me," Henderson said. "Although I was down and out, I was starting to enter the second phase of my life. Thirty-five years later, I'm living the truth of those communications."

About 15 years after Henderson walked out of prison and about a decade after Brandt's final season with the Cowboys, Brandt sat in his vacation condo in Montana, re-reading the letters that had been left undisturbed in a box at the back of his house for nearly two decades.

He decided to take Henderson up on the offer made in the first letter to "talk to a guy, write someone or anything." Brandt extended an invitation for Henderson to speak to a group of recovering addicts in Big Sky. Henderson, a drug and alcohol counselor who at the time was traveling around the country on the recovery speaking circuit, accepted.

"I can have a dangerous mouth, so Gil was taking a chance on me," Henderson said, laughing. "Gil is a scout, so I really think he was trying to see, Is Thomas OK?"

Henderson made the most of that trip. He told his inspiring story to an attentive audience, learned how to ski, met new friends, and became better acquainted with old ones, breaking bread with Brandt and his wife, Sara, and their young son, Hunter.

When he returned home, he entered the $28 million Texas lottery and won. Ten years later, he remarkably won the lottery again, this time $50,000.

He used some of those winnings to maintain two football stadiums and tracks his nonprofit, East Side Youth Services and Street Outreach, helped build in Austin. He also bought a 4-year-old Mercedes, even though he could have easily afforded a new one.

"Hollywood" was long dead. Thomas, sober and clean going on 36 years now, is alive and well, and thankful to have loyal friends like Brandt in his life who supported him along the way.

He plans to be in Canton this week to celebrate his friend and former boss. Brandt says Henderson was the first to accept his invitation and will be one of his special guests at the Gold Jacket Dinner on Friday night.

"One of the kindest things he's said to me, during a very short conversation recently, I asked him why he was inviting me, and he said, 'Well, you're one of the reasons I'm going into the Hall of Fame,' " Henderson said. "I owe a lot to Gil Brandt for finding me in the weeds. I still feel a responsibility to prove him right."

Henderson has something special lined up for Friday's dinner; he said he might wear a gold jacket to match Brandt's and the ones earned on the field by his previously enshrined Cowboys teammates -- Rayfield Wright, Bob Lilly, Roger Staubach and Randy White -- who will also be in Canton supporting the man who hand-picked them to be Cowboys.

Brandt smiled when told of Henderson's plan. He knows the linebacker's talent level on the field was equal to those players mentioned above, but it's Henderson's sobriety, Brandt says, and how he's spent the better part of the last three decades pulling others out of the darkness of addiction that puts him in a whole different kind of Hall of Fame.

"I never lost faith in Thomas," Brandt said. "As much as he did wrong, I never lost faith in him. I still consider him like one of my children because I scouted him, I drafted him, I signed him. He was -- and still is -- a part of my family."


Editors: Tom Blair, Dan Parr | Illustration: David Lomeli
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