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A New Blue Yonder
Jill Lieber
July 13, 1992
Former Air Force pilot Chad Hennings reports for duty with the Cowboys
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July 13, 1992

A New Blue Yonder

Former Air Force pilot Chad Hennings reports for duty with the Cowboys

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According to Staubach, who owns a national real estate services company, Hennings's biggest challenge in coming back from a four-year layoff will be the psychological warfare waged by those who doubt he can regain his old form. Pessimistic observers are likely to say that Hennings isn't as dominant as he was at the Academy, because he has lost a step and his reactions aren't as quick. If he starts to believe such criticism, Staubach says, Hennings will become his own worst enemy.

"The academies teach you perseverance, an important quality for football," Staubach says. "I constantly had to convince myself I was still good enough to play. I kept reading stories with lines like 'Roger's giving it a good try, but he'll never do it.' I'd ask myself, Why can't I play now if I could've played out of college? I had to overcome that psychology."

But Hennings, who grew up in Elberon, Iowa, a town of 200 people 35 miles west of Cedar Rapids, is used to fighting through stiff challenges and attaining lofty goals. As a junior at tiny Benton Community High, he was knocked out of the Iowa high school wrestling championships in the first round. He was determined to win the heavyweight championship as a senior—and he did. Then the local skeptics scoffed at his talk of attending the Air Force Academy, saying the Falcons didn't recruit football players from small schools. Hennings showed them.

It helps that Hennings comes from a family that believes strongly in the power of positive thinking. He truly believes he can accomplish anything he sets his mind to. But back in '88, upon graduating from the Academy, even a dreamer like Hennings figured that his getting a shot in the NFL someday was farfetched. He was facing an eight-year commitment to the Air Force because he had decided to be a pilot (had he chosen a ground assignment, he would have had a five-year commitment), and what interest would the Cowboys have in a 31-year-old rookie? Although he was considered the best football player ever to perform at the Academy, it never occurred to Hennings to use his athletic status as leverage to work an arrangement whereby he could be a part-time football player. "I was brought up with the belief that a commitment is a commitment," Hennings says. "I never want to look back in life and say that I wasn't true to my word."

But within a few months after graduation, Hennings learned that it was just as important that he be true to his heart. While in pilot training at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, he made the two-hour drive to Dallas to watch the Cowboys play the Washington Redskins and then again to watch them play the Phoenix Cardinals. The Dallas media kept querying him about his desire to play in the NFL and what his life was like not playing football. Living in Texas and constantly being reminded he couldn't suit up for the Cowboys sometimes left Hennings confused, depressed and unable to concentrate. An honors student who graduated from the Academy with a 3.25 grade point average in financial management, Hennings found that his grades began to fall off while he was in flight school.

Sensing that Hennings was becoming emotionally drained by his transition from football star to fighter pilot, his squadron commander ordered that Hennings could no longer answer the telephone, and all interview requests were to be screened by the base public-affairs office. "For the first time in my life, I wasn't into something heart, mind and soul," Hennings says. "I wanted to be in pilot training, but I was torn about football. I never really talked about it to anybody, including my parents, and we're really close. I was afraid people would think I was trying to shirk my responsibility to the Air Force and finagle a way out. It took a lot of time before I was mentally settled and felt comfortable with myself."

At the same time, Hennings also was struggling to fit safely and comfortably into various planes. The Academy had already waived its weight requirement for graduation (242 pounds) after Hennings took a body-fat test to prove he didn't have any extra weight to lose. His body fat registered 6½%. But Hennings still towered over the average pilot, who stands between 5'10" and 6 feet, and his size limited him to piloting three planes—the A-10, F-15 and F-111. "And the Air Force still had to study the ejection systems to make sure I could clear the tails, and by how much," Hennings says. "I had a lot of problems with the T-38 [a training plane used by prospective pilots], flying certain missions in the backseat. I didn't fit back there at all. If I had had to eject, I would have broken my neck."

In April 1989 new Cowboy owner Jerry Jones got a call through to Hennings at Sheppard and promised to explore every avenue to obtain a special dispensation. Hennings told Jones he was finally so immersed in flying that he had barely thought about the NFL, but Jones went ahead and got in touch with rabid Cowboy fan Robert Strauss, then a high-powered attorney in Washington, D.C., and now the U. S. ambassador to Russia, for help. Strauss spoke to Defense Department officials but found no loopholes that would provide Hennings an early release.

"I felt that Chad's visibility with the Cowboys would be a great trade-off with the Air Force to forgo his commitment," Jones says. "But Chad always had mixed emotions, and I sensed that he wasn't pining away for the Cowboys."

Jones's intuition was correct. Hennings had devoted himself to flying and had developed a special mind-set: He could spend a couple of hours a day running and lifting weights but did not allow his passion for football to overwhelm him. In June 1990, when Hennings was stationed at an RAF base in Bentwaters, England, 90 miles northeast of London, that mindset was readily apparent. Although he was several time zones from Dallas, he could still watch NFL games on the Armed Forces Network, but only if he stayed up until 2 a.m. to do so. Some Tuesday mornings, if he had to get up before dawn to fly, Hennings could watch the fourth quarter of Monday Night Football. If any of his buddies asked about the possibility of a pro football career, Hennings would change the subject to discuss his latest escapade in his A-10—how he navigated through the fog in Great Britain or dodged water towers in Germany.

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