On a warm, early August afternoon in northern Kentucky, Chris Henry and I stood outside the Georgetown College cafeteria between long training-camp practices and talked about unlikely turnarounds.
We started off discussing the revival of Cincinnati Bengals running back Cedric Benson(notes), a former Chicago Bears first-round NFL draft pick who'd found success after a rocky start to his NFL career. Eventually Henry, a trouble-prone wideout who'd washed out of Cincinnati before being given another chance, opened up about his own situation.
As the interview ended, we spoke about the Bengals in a global sense. Coming off three consecutive disappointing seasons, Cincy was expected to struggle once more in 2009. Henry, however, was convinced his team was headed for a big year.
Chris Henry appreciated his second chance with the Bengals.
(Matthew Emmons/US Presswire)
"Oh, man, I can't wait to see how this year plays out," Henry said, rubbing his long hands together. "We've got so many weapons, and right now we're just trying to get everybody going and see where everyone fits in. Once we do. … Man, I know we're gonna make some noise."
It turned out that Henry's optimism was justified – the 9-4 Bengals are headed for their first AFC North title since 2005, and only their second playoff appearance in the past 20 seasons. Yet no matter what Cincinnati accomplishes, the men who made it happen will always look back upon the 2009 season as one steeped in tragedy.
Just two months after Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's wife passed away, Henry, 26, died Thursday morning from injuries incurred in an automobile accident the previous afternoon in Charlotte, N.C. The fifth-year receiver suffered severe head injuries after falling out of the back of a pickup truck after what police described as a "domestic situation" involving Henry and his fiancée, Loleini Tonga. The couple had three children under the age of 4 and planned to marry next March.
As of Thursday afternoon, few details were known about the horrific accident or the events that led up to it. Given Henry's history, which included multiple arrests and NFL suspensions, some have speculated that this will prove to have been yet another example of his reckless behavior.
We may never know exactly what happened, but I can tell you that people in the Bengals' organization are stunned and devastated by Henry's passing. To them Henry, who'd gone on the injured-reserve list after breaking his left forearm in a Nov. 8 game against the Baltimore Ravens, was a prime example of a redemptive strain that permeates the locker room – one which quarterback Carson Palmer(notes) described to me a few minutes after I finished interviewing Henry last August.
"This organization's very forgiving," Palmer said. "It realizes guys deserve second chances. So many others are cut-and-dried. Here, the doors aren't automatically closed. It's paid off so many times. Other times, it hasn't. But our owner believes in second chances, and I think that's what sets us apart."
Henry, the quarterback and others had told me, was like a different person after owner Mike Brown re-signed him before the 2008 season. I was somewhat skeptical – I've written my share of stories about players who'd supposedly turned their lives around, only to be confronted later with evidence to the contrary – so I decided to speak to the man myself.
Obviously, I wasn't in a position to draw any conclusions based on a single conversation with a player likely eager to put the best possible spin on his situation. All I can do is relay my impressions: I found Henry to be shy, soft-spoken and utterly devoid of swagger; he seemed receptive to answering whatever questions I asked, and maybe a little excited that someone was interested; and I got the distinct impression that he'd done a fair amount of self-evaluation and came away liking himself much better than he had before.
"When I came into the league and did the stuff I did, I kind of was not really thinking about the consequences," Henry said. "I figured I could play, so whatever happened, I'd be all right. I was just being young, making dumb mistakes."
I asked Henry if he remembered his lowest moment. Without hesitation, he cited his arrest in March 2008 for allegedly punching a man and throwing a beer bottle through his car. That was the incident which led to his release from the Bengals, before Brown decided to give him another chance.
"Getting released out of the lockup … oh man, that was it," he said. "I couldn't believe I was there, again. I said, '[Expletive], this ain't for me.' And [later], when I thought about everything, I just said, 'Enough. It's just time to get down and show the world what I'm really about. I belong in this league.' "
Henry said he'd had a similar conversation with Benson shortly after the running back's arrival early in the '08 campaign.
"We sat down and talked about some stuff, what each of us had been through," Henry recalled. "We said, 'It's time to put all the b.s. aside and stay focused. …. It's time to do what we love the most. It's time to take care of our families.'"
Henry, as Palmer had suggested, viewed the Bengals as a de facto family and greatly appreciated the fact that he hadn't been cast aside forever.
"It seems like so many people who went through something in the past ended up on this team," Henry said. "We've got some guys who are really talented but just took awhile to figure it out. I know I'm one of them. I did some foolish things. Now I'm mature. I've figured it out a little more."
He said he'd also figured out something that eludes many of the best performers at his position: A realization that individual accomplishments are secondary to the team's goals.
"I'm just gonna get out here and grind every day, do what I can do to help the team," he told me. "My stats don't even have to get sky-high. I just want to win, and to be part of something."
In the end, Henry most certainly was. Statistically, his impact was understated – he caught 12 passes in eight games, gaining 236 yards and scoring a pair of touchdowns. People in the Bengals' organization will tell you that, as the team's only true deep threat, Henry's ability to stretch the field had been sorely missed during the six games, which is a significant reason for Cincy's offensive struggles during that span.
Whatever heights the Bengals might reach over the next two months, Henry's absence will linger among them as a chilling reminder of life's fragility. Tragically, we'll never get to find out what kind of man Henry might have become, how he might have been able to use the lessons he'd learned to touch his children and inspire others.
When I said goodbye to Henry in August, I figured I'd have a chance to see how his season played out and possibly revisit his story when the time was right. We'd exchanged cell-phone numbers, and even after his season-ending injury, I thought he might be someone worth checking up on over the offseason.
Instead, I'm piecing together memories of a four-month-old conversation, trying to read between the lines and search for answers. I won't find them; all I can do is confirm what the revitalized receiver suspected would happen back then.
The Bengals made some noise in 2009, and Chris Henry was a part of it. He still is.
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