It was a warm day in San Diego, California on December 20th, 2009--one of those days Southern Californians gloss over and take advantage of, while almost everywhere else in the country faces the cold, rain, sleet and snow. Two playoff-bound NFL teams faced off that afternoon at Qualcomm Stadium (AKA "The Murph"), with one team suffering from somber hearts.
Chris Henry, a star-crossed receiver who had been on and off of the Cincinnati Bengals' roster for five seasons, tragically passed away earlier in the week. After practicing and attempting to keep focus in the days that followed, the team made the arduous trek across the country for a big-time matchup.
The home team crowd was respectful to the visitors, given the sadness that hung over those dressed in the orange and black. As the Bengals took the field, stickers were placed on the back of their helmets, simply stating "15", in reference to Henry's jersey number. If anyone in the stadium was unaware of what had transpired a few days earlier, it was made clear by a moment of silence before kickoff that cut through some 72,000 people.
What ensued on the field was added heartbreak in a last-second loss that became the Chargers' 11th win of that season. Chad Johnson, who had changed his last name to "Ochocinco" by then, summarized the emotions in the Bengals locker room after the loss: "It was a little empty feeling. It was bigger than football without him," Ochocinco told reporters after the game. "Today I played with an extra set of hands, an extra set of legs and an extra heart."
One could consider the 27-24 loss a small miracle, given what the team had to endure in a whirlwind week. So much so that then-quarterback Carson Palmer called the entire week "surreal" while looking through the locker room full of stunned faces and misty eyes. It wasn't that the Bengals were unprepared for the game, but rather that the young men might not have fully understood how to deal with their emotions of the day. Some circumstances bring the most out of people, pushing them to rise against adversity. That phenomena doesn't necessarily apply to those experiencing grief due to the death of a close friend and teammate.
After Nate Kaeding crushed the dreams of those hoping for the Bengals to pull out a win for their fallen comrade, the team headed back to The Queen City for an upcoming home game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Amidst practices leading up to the game that Sunday, the team traveled to Louisiana to say their final goodbye to "Slim" at his funeral. After just missing out on a small sense of validation a week earlier, the Bengals beat the Chiefs 17-10 on December 27th.
The College Days:
The story of Chris Henry is far more than just a tragic tale of a football player passing away at far too young an age. It's an age-old cautionary tale to young athletes on how to act maturely, handle early success and the element of coming upon a large sum of money. It's also a story of a talented young man who finally seemed to find that maturity and sought redemption for past transgressions. In an unfortunate twist of fate, Henry only seemed to experience a few short months of a turnaround in his personal life before tragedy struck.
As with any autobiographical glance, you have to go back in time a bit to paint the whole picture of Henry's life. In this case, we'll take a spin back to Henry's days at West Virginia University. Henry played only two seasons as a Mountaineer in their football program, due to redshirting as a freshman and forgoing his senior season for the NFL Draft.
West Virginia was chock-full of talented players on that squad, with Henry on offense and Adam "Pacman" Jones manning the cornerback position. It's hard to imagine that Rich Rodriguez and his staff weren't ecstatic to get a recruit like Henry, a 6'4", 200-pound receiver with good hands and the gait of an antelope. Though Rodriguez often ran an unconventional offense, the staff was able to utilize Henry's strengths in the two brief seasons he dominated Big East competition.
As a sophomore, Henry only had 41 catches on the season, which, at first blush, doesn't pop off of the stat sheet. However, it was his 10 touchdown receptions, 1,006 receiving yards and 24.5 yards-per-catch average that made him a legitimate big-time threat in a wide-receiver-adverse offensive system. He followed that campaign up with 52 catches, 872 yards, 12 touchdowns and a 16.8 yards-per-catch average, solidifying his knack for making big plays--a reputation that would follow him into the NFL.
So what was the problem with Henry in college and why did such a talented player fall in the draft? Check out the "negatives" portion of his scouting report by USA Today back in the spring of 2005:
Negatives: Has had problems with the coaching staff ever since he arrived at WVU, struggles with his academics and has had more than a fair share of on-field antics, enough that even his own teammates voiced disgust with his attitude... Despite his size and strength, he gives just a marginal effort as a blocker... Unpolished route runner, especially in the intermediate area, as he rounds his cuts... Can catch the ball in his hands, but will drop the easy ones when he tries to cradle the ball... Fails to find the soft spot in zone coverage, but does display good double moves to elude.
Unfortunately, this was also a reputation that would follow Henry into the NFL.
"Slim", The Talented Rookie:
The Bengals began to become (in)famous for taking on talented players with baggage, usually at a bargain during the mid-2000s. Though they have shed that stigma over the past couple of years, the cynics remain to this day anytime ownersniffs around one of those personalities. Perhaps it was the 12-plus seasons of abysmal football that forced Brown and then-green head coach Marvin to take chances on character problems--sort of a short-term solution to what seemed like a never-ending problem.
Before the 2005 season, the Bengals finally seemed poised for big-time success. After his first season as a starting quarterback (after sitting behind Jon Kitna as a rookie), Palmer looked to be the franchise quarterback that Cincinnati had been clamoring for since the acrimonious departure of Boomer Esiason after the 1992 season. The offense was flush with offensive talent behind one of the best offensive lines in football, an emerging thumper at running back in Rudi Johnson and a handful of talent on the outside.
Chad, then-going by Johnson, was a Pro Bowl wideout and the team found a diamond in the rough with his Oregon State teammate and former seventh-round pick, T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Their third receiver was 2003 third round selection Kelley Washington and almost everything seemed to be falling into place for a playoff run for the first time in 15 years after back-to-back 8-8 seasons.
After going with the much-needed defensive selections of linebackers David Pollack and Odell Thurman (another player who would have personal demons of his own), the Bengals grabbed a first round talent that slipped two rounds further than he could have been selected. Palmer officially had a scary arsenal at his disposal.
Initially, some wondered where Henry would fit in the offense as a rookie. Would he supplant the promising secondary target "Housh"? A lot of people liked what Washington brought the offense as a third receiver, so how would No. 15 supplant him? All it took was Training Camp for everyone to realize how good this young player was.
Still, as has often been the case with Lewis and rookies that stray off of the path he lays out for them, Henry, perhaps the most physically-gifted of all of the talented wideouts on the roster, took a backseat and was no more than a tertiary target in 2005. Even so, he had six touchdown catches on 31 receptions and helped create one of the most powerful offenses in the NFL for the next three seasons.
After capturing a playoff berth through such a long drought, the Bengals tasted familiar failure and heartbreak at the hands of the hated Pittsburgh Steelers on Wild Card weekend, January 8th, 2006. In what was a microcosm of so many things between the Cincinnati Bengals, Carson Palmer and Chris Henry, devastation hit on just the second offensive play from scrimmage. Palmer dropped back looking for the deep strike and connected with Henry on a 66-yard pass. Kim Von Oelhoffen tackled the franchise quarterback at the knee, tearing ligaments, while Henry was injured on the tackle after the long catch. The Steelers defeated the Bengals with both out of the lineup for the rest of the game, 31-17.
The Wonder Years:
Henry's second and third seasons in the NFL were both the best and worst in his career. On the field, he was becoming as dominant a player that a third wide receiver in the NFL can become. He was beginning to shed the image of just being a "nine-route" player, only capable of streaking down the sideline. He was honing his skills of high-pointing the football, and flashed the ability to take short routes a long way for a score.
In 2006, Henry grabbed nine touchdowns on 36 receptions, which landed him in the end zone for a staggering average of four times per touch of the football. Why Henry wasn't truly starting and getting more playing time was partly due to attitude issues that followed him from West Virginia to Cincinnati. Though Lewis and his staff knew what they were getting into when they selected "Slim", as he had begun to be called, the team thought they could eventually mold him to be the man and player that they envisioned him to be after seeing so much promise.
The Bengals familiarly faltered to another 8-8 finish on the heels of three consecutive losses to end the 2006 season. In the offseason heading into the 2007 season, the Bengals became known as the NFL's "bad boys". After Thurman's numerous alcohol and drug issues, Henry began to follow the same unfortunate and tumultuous path.
After already serving a minor two-game suspension in 2006, Henry was hit with another eight-game hiatus by the NFL for substance abuse and personal conduct policies. Henry only played in eight games in 2007 and scored just two touchdowns--a mark he would never surpass in his remaining two years in the league.
2009: The Year Of Transformation And Tragedy:
After a monumentally disappointing 2008 season, the Cincinnati Bengals re-focused and began to re-discover the roots planted in 2003 which bore fruit in 2005. Palmer had another injury the previous year and was coming back to prove that he was the same guy that led the team on the verge to the promised land, while the rest of the team followed his lead.
The team had a different make-up, full of big-name reclamation projects, looking for their own second or third chances. Tank Johnson, Dhani Jones, Cedric Benson, Lavernues Coles and others sought solace in Brown's refugee camp, with everyone hoping that it would somehow capture lightning in a bottle. Their collective paths were chronicled on HBO's "Hard Knocks", even though most pundits were skeptical the Bengals would regain their playoff form.
Henry was one of those trying to find his way through life after a lot of personal turmoil. After just four accrued NFL seasons and at only 26-years-old, Henry was navigating his way to becoming a true man. For all of the bravado and crass attitude that "Slim" displayed on the field, there was a young man being softened on the inside due to a family that he began to cultivate.
Loleini Tonga was engaged to be married to Henry after a long relationship and had given birth to three of his children. One of the elements that was documented in "Hard Knocks" was Henry and his family and how he seemed to be turning a corner. During the show's candid interviews, Henry seemed to have realized that he had been given multiple chances by Brown, an owner who publicly proclaimed to have a soft spot for No.15, and conceded that he very well could be using his last chance.
For those who have children, the prospect of losing a lucrative livelihood to support your family because of self-inflicted mistakes is suffocating. Without a formal college education and having multiple run-ins with the law, you can only conclude that Henry was scared at the prospect of being unemployed.
"There was a different man that was sitting across from me," Lewis said via The Cincinnati Enquirer when asked about his personal growth amidst all of his personal turmoil. "From that point on, we’ve seen a continual growth of Chris, a degree of responsibility. Quite an expansion both on the field and off the field."
Dave Lee, the man who represented Henry in the final year of his career, recently corroborated the story that "Slim" indeed was becoming a different person. "When he switched over to us, he was in a bad state," Lee said. "He was completely broke and had no one really around but his mom and his fiancée. He was just looking for a fresh start," Lee remembers.
"Talk about a kid who did everything you asked for. He was that guy. The way it ended was sad, but it was amazing to see the type of person he had matured into. The personal growth and job satisfaction we got out of that — being able to help somebody. I don’t think we could forget him ever. That’s how much impact he had on us. To see a kid come from making a ton of mistakes and turn into a mature adult was amazing."
Henry played the first eight games of the 2009 season, but suffered a broken forearm against the Ravens on November 8th. One of the concerns of NFL front offices about their players, especially the ones with legal issues, is how they will react when away from the football field. Usually, this fear crops up in the late winter and early spring months, but sometimes it stems from an injury.
Would Henry be the kid he had been from 2003-2008, or the man he was working to become during that prior year? If he couldn't live up to the standards that he was building for himself, would it be his fault?
December 17th, 2009:
Anyone who has been in any kind of serious relationship knows about the emotional craziness that comes with an intense argument. Sometimes they conclude with laughter at reminders of how silly the issue was; other times there are days or weeks of silence; while other times the relationship ends, depending on the crux of the argument.
On December 16th, 2009, Henry had an argument with Tonga in North Carolina. Though details are sparse, Tonga drove away upset in a pickup truck, either to flee or separate herself to let cooler heads prevail. Henry, broken forearm and all, leaped into the bed of the truck to try and get Tonga to return. Tragically, Henry fell out of the truck and subsequently hit his head on the pavement.
The next morning, Henry died in a hospital bed from his head injuries. So many questions lingered, other than "why?" and "how?". If Henry had never injured himself and was with the team, would this have happened? If Henry had sustained a different injury than a broken forearm, would he have been better-suited to brace himself from a sudden fall and avoid a head injury? If Henry hadn't allowed the inner-fiery guy to surface amidst his change, would he have even hopped in the car? "If".
Aside from a young 26-year-old professional athlete dying well before his time, the biggest tragedy was his leaving behind three young children. Tonga attempted to get into Henry's mindset in the minutes before his death and didn't think the incident would end the way it did. Per a January 2010 interview with ESPN, Tonga said:
"He jumped," she said. "He jumped. He jumped from the back of the car."
"I think he thought maybe he was going to land. He was going to land right," Loleini (Leini) Tonga told ESPN Outside the Lines reporter John Barr in an interview, her first public comments about the day Henry died.
"I wasn't going fast. Maybe he was scared because he saw someone calling the police," Tonga said.
"I have no idea what was going through his mind," she said. "But as far as him wanting to end his life, no, he had too much going on. I know he wouldn't want to be gone away from his kids. He loves his kids. And everything was going really good. It's just that one day ..."
Henry Still Gives After His Passing:
As many NFL fans know by now, the league has been entrenched in many legal battles surrounding injuries and deaths potentially due to brain trauma associated with concussions and hits to the heads of players. Sad stories have surfaced including the suicides of players like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, while other retirees have come forward claiming poor diagnoses and continued long-term effects from concussions.
After his untimely death, Henry's mother made the decision to donate her son's brain to the Brain Injury Research Institute, a research center affiliated with West Virginia University for research. They found Henry suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), often linked to depression and other rash behaviors.
After his death, Henry's vital organs were donated to eight people in need. If there is a rainbow to come from the rain poured down by Henry's tragic death, it's in the lives he has touched with the organ donations.
Even with the CTE findings in Henry's brain, no direct connection can be made between potential head injuries and his death.
Chris Henry, The Supernova:
Sometimes it's hard to describe a particular person, particularly an athlete. When that person is deceased, it's exponentially harder, given the respect deserved. To this day, Chris Henry brings both smiles and tears to Bengals fans' faces given the story behind the player.
A saddened Brown, the sometimes-aloof owner who had a major soft-spot for the talented receiver, would be surprisingly candid about his feelings on Henry's passing: "We knew him in a different way than his public persona. He had worked through the troubles in his life and had finally seemingly reached the point where everything was going to blossom. And he was going to have the future we all wanted for him. It’s painful to us. We feel it in our hearts, and we will miss him."
It's hard to call Henry an NFL "superstar", seeing as he was a No. 3 receiver and amassed 232 receptions, 21 touchdowns and 1,826 receiving yards. Unfortunately, casual NFL fans remember Henry for his past transgressions and unfortunate premature death. Bengals fans remember him for the big plays and what-could-have-been.
Is there a more apropos comparison to Randy Moss than Chris Henry? Maybe not with the stats, but size, big-play ability and, unfortunately, attitude. Moss will go down as one of the best receivers the NFL has seen, but if you watch some of Henry's clips, he exudes many of the same skill set traits.
Unfortunately, the only person who could ever stop Chris Henry the football player was Chris Henry the young man. The self-imposed roadblock that he placed upon himself, whether he was cognizant of it or not, leaves many saddened by his untapped potential--both as a football player and a family man.
As cliche as it may be, this tale ends with a definition of a term that might best describe the most enigmatic player in Bengals history.