Chad Hennings and the tall task of serving his country, playing in NFL

Few men have served in the military and played in the NFL — names that come to mind, of course, are Roger Staubach and Rocky Bleier.  One man, former Dallas Cowboy defensive tackle Chad Hennings, won three Super Bowl championships and flew 45 combat missions over Iraq and Turkey. He said his time at the Air Force Academy helped shape the man he is today, a man who put off playing in the NFL for five years so he could fulfill his commitment to his country.  On this Veteran’s Day, we salute Hennings and everyone, including their families, who’ve given us protection and pride.

Chad Hennings and the tall task of serving his country, playing in NFL - Lesley Visser

“We don’t talk enough about character in this country,” said Hennings at his home north of Dallas.  “Our culture tells too many of us that we are victims, that we have no control over our surroundings — but we do have a choice in the way we live.”

The way Hennings has lived has its roots in the small community of Elberon, Iowa, where his Dad was a farmer and 1,200 cattle had to be fed every day.  There were a total of 194 people in Elberon, the closest neighbor was miles away.  Trick or treating on Halloween meant going to the nearest small town, some 10 miles down the road.

From A-10 pilot to NFL; 64th Air Force Ball guest speaker > 15th Wing > Article Display

“My dad taught my brothers and sister that someone had to feed and take care of the livestock,” said Hennings, who now has two college kids of his own.  “We learned responsibility at an early age.”

There must be many boys who would love to fly jets and play for the Dallas Cowboys.  But not many make that dream come true.  In high school, Hennings was big and fast and was recruited by Big Ten schools, but he wanted more of a challenge.  He chose the Air Force Academy and the great coach Fisher DeBerry.  Under DeBerry, the Falcons always won the Commander-In-Chiefs Trophy, the triangular rivalry against Army and Navy.  DeBerry won it 14 times in his 21 seasons.

3-time Super Bowl champ, AF pilot reflects on America's game > Air Force > Article Display

“We’d start singing, ‘Off we go, into the wild blue yonder’ as soon as the game ended.”  And then Hennings did.

Barely fitting in the cockpit at 6-foot-4, Hennings flew A-10 jets, called Warthogs for the unattractive design of the powerful plane that had a Gatling gun attached to its nose.  The forerunner of the modern machine gun could fire off 4,000 bullets a minute.  Climbing high into the sun, Hennings said he yearned for the NFL but nothing was better than being a brother in arms.

Chad Hennings had a productive career with the Cowboys.
Chad Hennings played 119 games for the Cowboys. (Getty Images)

“I was actually drafted by Tom Landry, but never played for him,” said Hennings, who graduated in 1988.  “I finished my service, flew back from the base in London, and went to try out for Jimmy Johnson and Gil Brandt in the same day. They liked what they saw, this was 1992, and I became a Cowboy.”

It also meant that, within one calendar year, Hennings was flying combat missions and playing in a Super Bowl.  The Cowboys beat Buffalo that year, 52-17, in Super Bowl XXVII.  In Pasadena, Hennings stood on the sideline and looked up as the traditional flyover zoomed past.

“It was emotional for me,” said Hennings.  “The lessons I learned in the military, about character and morality and taking care of your brothers can never be replaced.  It didn’t make dealing with Charles Haley or Michael Irvin all that difficult.”

Hennings has thoughts on Greg Hardy (“Just like Charles and Michael, I think Greg can straighten out his life, I believe in redemption.”) and remains close to coach Jason Garrett and owner Jerry Jones. Hennings has the greatest admiration for those who’ve come home from the military without an arm or a leg, yet find courage to continue their service.

“We don’t do enough for veterans,” said Hennings, who’s written a book, Forces of Character, that deals with building a life of impact.  “Veterans don’t want a handout, they want to be useful to society.  And they need our support.”

So today, we toast those who have guarded us, and make it our mission to honor their mission.

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