Walter Cronkite came to the Super Bowl last year and said it was swell that so many people "get together for an event that means absolutely nothing." Nearly 300 newspaper reporters spend the week reporting all that nothing, and a clever football player can achieve everlasting notoriety, if not fame, by the simple act of letting words fall from his mouth onto the notebooks of those 300 under-newsed journalists.

Which explains Thomas Henderson's ascension from regional eccentric to national flapdoodler. Newsweek magazine put his pretty face on its cover this week and unless the editors of People are asleep at the switch, we soon will look Henderson in the eye at the grocery checkout counter. May heaven spare us Thomas Henderson in panty hose.

That strange thing, a footballer in panty hose, would be nothing new, for Joe Namath broke male ground in nylon commercials a few years ago. "If they make these legs look good, just think what they'll do for you," Namath said with his senior prom leer. Popcorn poppers, reclining chairs -- Namath shilled for them all on television, and as the money piled high at his cleated feet, Joe might have said a silent thank you to America's sportswriters.

That's because, in 1969, those masters of literature made Joe Namath Joe Namath. "We will win the Super Bowl," Namath said, speaking for the New York Jets who were about to do battle with the 17-point favorite Baltimore Colts. And Namath also said, "I guarantee it."

Except for Muhammad Ali, professional athletes of a decade ago did not come right out and say, "We will win... I guarantee it." So Namath's bold declaration became news, transformed from braggadocio by the journalists' hunger for anything besides blocking and tackling.

At the first Super Bowl, in 1967, a Kansas City defensive back, Fred Williamson, advertised himself as "The Hammer." Those big, bad Packers better watch out, Williamson said, because they've never run into anything like The Hammer.

"If Boyd Dowler or Carroll Dale or any of those other guys has the nerve to catch a pass in my territory, they're going to pay the price," Williamson said. "I'm going to lay a few hammers on 'em and they're going back into the huddle with their heads ringing like they're chimes and their eyes full of stars and dots and their legs twanging like rubber bands."

Namath made good his guarantee with a 16-7 victory, but The Hammer was hammered. They carried Williamson off the field after a Green Bay sweep leveled him in the third quarter. Success has little to do with hype, however, and both footballers, thanks in part to their Super Bowl images, are now devotees of the thespian art, paid real money to act in movies and TV despite no visible aptitude for the work.

What they did is what Ali did, and it is what Thomas Henderson has been doing with the Dallas Cowboys this year. Henderson has made noises so different and so entertaining that the media, in lust for something that doesn't sound like a Tom Landry sermon, has stood on tables to make him famous.

Really. A TV cameraman stood on a breakfast table to get a shot at Henderson over a surrounding circle of 50 writers the other day. The cameraman kicked over water glasses on the table, broke a plate and risked tetanus by daring a sportswriter to stab him with that fork, which the sportswriter did, ever so gently. "Gotta get Tom," the TV cameraman said.

"It's not Tom," Henderson said.

Why not?

"I have a niece named Monique and I don't want her ever to call me Uncle Tom."

His Eminence, Pete Rozelle, spends $1 million of the National Football League's money to put on the Super Bowl. He is too busy counting out greenbacks to wonder what the Super Bowl says about American culture. He gives the back of his hand to deep thinkers who see football as a homosexual circus. Neither is it war, he has decided.

"It is purely entertainment," Rozelle said. Without the kind of escape football provides from domestic and professional problems, the commissioner said, "we would be a sick society."

Thomas Henderson is good for our mental health.

A child of big-city poverty, Henderson wound up playing football at Langston University in Oklahoma, where it was his custom to suit up and dash into the opponents' locker room an hour before the game. "I'm Thomas Henderson," he would say, "and you better touch me now 'cause when the game starts you won't get near me."

Before the Cowboys played the Rams two weeks ago, Henderson paraded onto the field with his hands clutched around his throat in symbolic reference to the Rams' reputation for choking in important games. It was a tasteless, infuriating thing for an athlete to do. Ali grew rich being tasteless and infuriating, and when Henderson ran back an interception for a late touchdown against the Rams, he stood in the end zone and waved the "We're No. 1" sign at the L.A. fans.

As the big, bad Packers were anxious to separate Fred Williamson from his senses, so the Steelers must hope for a shot at Henderson in this Super Bowl. That is an assumption made by reading between the lines. The Pittsburgh coach, Chuck Noll, said of Henderson, "Empty barrels make the most noise."

At breakfast the other day, the Pittsburgh wild man, linebacker Jack Lambert, looked like a helicopter pilot who in the dark of night set down his machine with a load of guns for jungle mercenaries. He wore a yellow cap pulled low over darker-than-dark sunglasses. A cigarette shrouded his bearded face in evil smoke.

"If they put a chimpanzee in a football suit," Lambert said, seeming to growl, when someone brought up Henderson's name, "he'd get interviewed in Super Bowl week."

Henderson, on hearing that, said, "Tell Lambert he looks like a chimpanzee when he takes his teeth out."

The assembled journalists laughed, and Henderson, who has anointed himself "Hollywood" Henderson because he plans to be a movie star, turned on the bright smile of a man who will be famous, or at least notorious, for evermore.