On his first flight for operation Provide Comfort on April 8, 1991, one week before a ceasefire would be reached in the Persian Gulf War, U.S. Air Force 1st Lieut. Chad Hennings of the 92nd Tactical Fighter Squadron was maneuvering an A-10 attack plane over northern Iraq, searching for Kurdish refugee camps. Hennings, cruising 5,000 feet above a valley floor at 350 mph, was making sure the area was safe for three C-130 airlift planes to bring food, tents and medical supplies to the Kurds.
"We were flying into the unknown," Hennings recalls. "We knew there were Iraqi Republican Guard troops in the area, but we didn't know whether they'd fire on us. Anytime you fly into a situation you've never been in, you have no choice but to be brave. You have to laugh in fear's face. But if you don't respect the danger of the unknown, you'll get killed."
Following a sensational senior football season at the Air Force Academy in 1987, when he won the Outland Trophy as the nation's top interior lineman and was named a consensus All-America at defensive tackle, Hennings entered the elite Euro-NATO pilot program, in which the Air Force trains its top pilot candidates. For the next three years he dreamed of testing his piloting skills in a war zone—and of exploring the depth of his courage.
As he flashed above an Iraqi convoy in his A-10, he was finally experiencing the moment he had been waiting for. His adrenaline was pumping. But the Iraqis did not open fire, so he doubled back and helped escort the three supply planes to a relief area. As crate after crate parachuted to the ground, he circled overhead and kept an eye out for the enemy.
"All those people on the ground scurrying for supplies looked like ants crawling over picnic food," Hennings says. "The Kurds were devastated by dysentery and diarrhea. Little kids were dying. Families would drive up into the mountains to escape, abandon their cars at the snow line, then walk further into the mountains. So many didn't survive.
"Coming out of the Academy, I was really gung ho. I wanted to die for my country. I wanted adventure, risk, to roll the dice and see if I'd win. But, to be honest, it takes a certain spirituality to give up your life for your country, for a friend or for someone you don't know, which is the biggest sacrifice. I wasn't totally convinced I had that until I flew in the Persian Gulf. Then I knew I had what it takes."
Hennings flew 45 Operation Provide Comfort missions, totaling 195 hours of flight time during two three-month deployments covering April to June 1991 and October '91 to January '92. He earned medals for humanitarianism, air achievement and being a member of an outstanding unit. On June 1 of this year, he was promoted to captain.
Now Hennings, 26, is on another mission, trying to find out if he has the right stuff to succeed in the NFL. When the Dallas Cowboys open training camp next week, Hennings will be the most decorated and longest-awaited Cowboy rookie since Navy quarterback Roger Staubach showed up in 1969 after completing a four-year military hitch, which included shore duty in Vietnam. Dallas hadn't invested much in Staubach—a mere 10th-round draft pick in 1964—but wound up with a franchise player. Staubach took the Cowboys to six NFC title games, four Super Bowls and two NFL championships in his 11-year career.
Dallas has great hopes for Hennings, who also slid well down into the draft because of his service commitment and wasn't taken until Dallas selected him in the 11th round in 1988. Four years later, the 6'6" Hennings reported to the Cowboys for a workout weighing 272 pounds, 12 more than at the Air Force Academy, and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds. Although that's .15 of a second slower than his best time as a senior, it was faster than the times posted by all but one defensive lineman at the NFL scouting combine last winter. Hennings has been penciled in at backup defensive end, behind nine-year vet Jim Jeff coat.
"Because of the position Chad plays, the timing and skills he may have lost are not as big a concern as they would be with a quarterback, receiver or defensive back," says Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson. "Those are finesse positions, with more emphasis on hand-eye coordination and ball skills. The defensive line is physical, down-in-the-trenches, hand-to-hand combat. With the right attitude, you can jump back into it."
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.
Only Hennings's wife, Tammy, whom he met while at the Academy and married in June 1990, knew that before falling asleep each night, Chad was spending 15 minutes visualizing himself playing football. He imagined himself going one-on-one against NFL offensive linemen, on many nights becoming so in touch with the visualization that he could see the blades of grass on the field, feel his fingers grabbing at a jersey or smell the sweat of his opponent.
"You've got to have the dream before you can visualize it," Hennings says. "You have to believe in yourself. I knew I was going to be an All-America, because I dreamed that dream. I knew I could be a good pilot, because I dreamed that dream. The magic is in the person."
After Hennings was deployed to Incirlik, Turkey, in April 1991 for Operation Provide Comfort, his workday began at 3:00 a.m. and ended at 3:00 p.m. If he wasn't helping deliver supplies to the Kurds, he was on reconnaissance missions to make sure the Iraqis were adhering to the cease-fire. During late afternoons he would run three miles around the perimeter of Incirlik Air Base, while jets were landing and taking off, and imagine himself playing football. "My days went like this: fly, lift weights, eat pizza and drink beer," Hennings says. "I got into working out because there wasn't much else to do."
But last spring, because of an overabundance of pilots and a shortage of planes resulting from post-Cold War military cutbacks, the Air Force began offering officers voluntary release by waiving the eight-year pilot commitment and reducing the commitment for Academy graduates from five years to three. In the first week in April, Hennings informed his agent, Jack Mills, about his eligibility for early release. Mills not only alerted the Cowboys but also phoned several other NFL teams that he thought might want to trade for Hennings. The Denver Broncos were interested in Hennings, Mills says, if the Cowboys were looking to deal.
Jones decided to fly Hennings in from England to work out for the Dallas coaches and player personnel staff the day before the April 27 draft. As Hennings warmed up to run his first 40-yard dash in four years, Johnson was so struck by his smooth stride that he turned to Jones and said, "Forget about trading this guy."
Still, Hennings struggled with his decision to leave the Air Force. After all, he had made a commitment. "I had a hard time giving up flying," he says. "I felt like I was quitting. I had a long talk with my dad, and he kept saying, 'You are going to do this. You are going to do this.' Finally, an Air Force friend said, 'Chad, you're not quitting, you're moving on to something bigger and better. Go for it.' "
So when Hennings returned to England, he immediately started the paperwork to obtain his release from the Air Force. He was discharged on June 14 and reported to a Dallas minicamp for rookies the next day. About the time Hennings was pulling on his Cowboy uniform for the first time, his old squadron was again being deployed to Turkey.
"Most people would find it nerve-racking to give up one occupation and start all over with something else," says Hennings, whose two-year contract with Dallas, signed in 1988 and worth approximately $300,000 a year, finally takes effect when camp opens next week. "But if you can push yourself to the limit in one situation, you should be able to do it in another. I believe God has a plan for me. Right now, he has led me to play pro football. The door has opened, and I'm going to walk through it. And I'll be the best I can be. This is the dream."