Of all the athletes to pass through the University of Utah, few produced more wondrous, Hollywood-like feats than Manny Hendrix. Some of them were so extraordinary that you wonder if they really happened; they sound more like folklore.
But he really did beat a speedy NFL running back during a halftime race, barefoot and backwards. And he really did catch a pass and sink a 23-foot shot at the buzzer all in one leap to win a basketball game. And he really did play cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys without playing football in college (unless you count the time he got his bell rung during a one-day tryout).Hendrix really did those things, and yet most fans have probably forgotten him. It has been only eight years since he left the Utes, and he is largely lost to a new generation of fans and athletes.
And that is precisely Hendrix's point as he talks with a visitor in the Hunstman Center. Athletes think they'll always be on top of the world when they're playing, he is saying. They think people will always want to do them favors and give them special treatment. But as soon as their athletic careers are finished they are Everyman again. People are no longer buying them dinner and giving them a free education or a job. By then the opportunity to secure a future is gone.
This is what Hendrix hopes to communicate to athletes at Utah. Now 30 and retired from pro football, he moved his family from Dallas to Salt Lake City in November to assume a newly created position with the Utes - manager of athletic relations. It's a job he helped develop, along with Vice President Ted Capener and Athletic Director Chris Hill. Besides helping the Utes with recruiting and fundraising, he will counsel athletes about personal problems, academics, careers, summer jobs and anything else they can think of.
"We had some needs and weaknesses," says Hill. "We needed people available who can relate to all our athletes and their problems, who can build relationships with them. Here is a guy who's been there. He pulled himself up. He has a lot of credibility."
A football and basketball All-American in high school, Hendrix chose to play only basketball at Utah. He starred for four years, leading the Utes to a conference championship during his senior season. At times he was spectacular. He won back-to-back tournament games by hitting shots of 23 and 19 feet, with one and three seconds left, respectively. He had 34 points in a win over BYU.
Shortly after playing his last basketball game for the Utes, Hendrix was watching the Utes' spring football game when former Ute Del Rodgers, then a running back for the Green Bay Packers, challenged him to a footrace over the P.A. system. Hendrix refused, but Rodgers continued his friendly teasing, calling him "chicken" and "scared." ("I was scared," says Hendrix.) They stepped onto the field at halftime and raced 30 yards. Hendrix, running in bare feet, won. They raced again, this time 40 yards. Hendrix won again, running the last few strides backwards.
It turned out to be more than an afternoon of fun. A scout for the Dallas Cowboys happened to be in the stands that day. Intrigued by what he had seen, he told the Cowboys about Hendrix, and they signed him to a free-agent contract. Never mind that he had never played football for the Utes. Never mind that he had tried out for the Ute football team earlier that year and quit after one day of spring practice.
"I got hit real hard and quit," he says. "I had a headache for a week."
There were 30 defensive backs in the Cowboys' camp that year competing for eight spots on the roster. Hendrix, 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, with no college experience and no weight training, didn't have a chance. His goal was to be released personally by Tom Landry, so he could brag about being cut by the famous coach.
On the first day of camp, the rookies were supposed to bench press 225 pounds as many times as they could in one minute. Hendrix couldn't do a single rep; he was almost crushed by the bar. But the next day he ran a 4.3 40 and whipped everybody.
In an exhibition game against the Chicago Bears he opened some eyes when he broke up a long pass to former BYU star Glen Kozlowski. "What are you doing out here?" Kozlowski asked. "You're supposed to be playing basketball."
He was still thinking like one, too. "The first time I got hit I was looking for a foul," he says. "And I was always referring to the field as a court."
Hendrix made the club as a cornerback, but he was as much a star-struck fan as a player, gawking at famous teammates Herschel Walker, Tony Dorsett, Danny White and Too Tall Jones, as well as his oponents. "I would catch myself watching these players I had read about - Stallworth, Payton, Montana, Rice - and I was supposed to be tackling them," he says. "It took me a long time to get over that."
Hendrix played six years for the Cowboys and one year for the Buffalo Bills before he was released during the '93 season. Rather than bounce around from team to team, he retired. He had restaurants and auto detailing businesses to oversee; he also had an idea he wanted to pursue. During his playing days, he noticed that many of his teammates were ill-prepared for life after football, and he wanted to do something about it.
"Players can get real caught up in believing they're important," says Hendrix. "That they're better than the next guy. They're setting themselves up for failure. They don't realize that people are not amazed by who they are, but by what they do. Once that ends, people are not jumping to help them. There are no more discounts. No more free meals in restaurants. No more shortcuts. And for the player, to be normal, to do what everyone else does, is a failure."
Hendrix survived the experience himself. He knows what it's like to have a car salesman loan him a car. He knows how it feels to be given a wardrobe in exchange for a commercial. He knows what it is to go to the front of the line and to have people buy him dinner.
His father, Willie, warned him not to believe any of it. They were doing these things because he was a Cowboy, he told him, not because he was Manny Hendrix. It wouldn't always be this way. In the off-season Manny finished a degree in sociology.
"I always knew who I was, because of my dad," he says. "He saw ahead of me what I didn't see."
After he retired, Hendrix began his own research project, which he later used to formulate the goals and duties of his current position with the Utes. He called some 50 Division 1 schools to discover what had happened to some of their players 10 years after their athletic careers had ended.
"Some of them had looked for other ways to get that high back (that they had had in athletics)," he says. "They had turned to drugs or alcohol. A lot of them were doing things they didn't like doing, like maintenance work. They were just trying to make it. There was nothing to do. They were starting all over. I'd say that was the case in 60 percent of the cases. It's hard to prepare for the end of something you don't want to end."
Hendrix believes if those athletes had utilized their notoriety and their opportunities as athletes while they were athletes, things would be different. This is what he will tell Ute athletes: "If all they're concerned with while they're here is sports, and they don't use the resources to set up their future, then all they're doing is making money for the school. If they wait until after they're done playing to take advantage of these things, then they have nothing to offer them. They're not players anymore. It's important to utilize their name during their careers, getting their education, getting summer jobs that will help them in their careers. It's important that they understand that the four or five years they're here will dictate what they do the next 20 years."
Hendrix believes he might have been caught in the same trap himself, if he had not been benched briefly during his junior year at Utah. Wounded and angry, he told his father he was going to leave school. His father talked him out of it, and it was the best thing that could have happened to him.
"Now figure out what you're going to do 20 years from now," he said.
About this same time, Hendrix announced on a weekly coach's TV show that he wanted to start his own business someday and talked of life after sports. As he was leaving the studio after the show, he was met by Chase Peterson, the university's president at the time.
"How can I help you accomplish this?" he asked Hendrix.
Peterson used his contacts to help set up job interviews for Hendrix. As it turned out, Hendrix never pursued those jobs because the Cowboys came along unexpectedly, but he stayed in touch with Peterson and other university officials through the years and they helped him set up his current job.
"There are people who want to help," says Hendrix.
Now he is one of them. "I wanted to get involved in college athletics," says Hendrix. "but I didn't want to just make a living; I wanted to make a difference if I came back. Maybe these athletes will listen to me. I've been there."