RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico – It was the week after he broke his arm and a couple days after the Bengals placed him on Injured Reserve. We spotted Chris Henry, arm in a cast, in the locker room, and about four of us reporters walked over to his corner locker to see how things were going.
We asked fairly innocuous questions – did you know the arm was broken immediately; how frustrating is this injury when it comes at a time like this; do you want to be back in a Bengals uniform next year? Like usual, Henry was soft-spoken and pleasant. He wasn’t a great talker – you might have to combine two or three answers together to get a three-line quote for the story – but he was usually agreeable. For a pro athlete, much of the time, that’s all for which you can hope.
But then, just as we were wrapping up an interview that was probably 2 or 3 minutes long, one reporter asked something like this, “Eh, Chris, some people would say that since you’re not going to be around the team on a day-to-day basis, you might fall back into your old ways. What do you think?”*
*Since I’m off the mainland and can’t check notes or tape recordings, this was how I recollect the exchange. It’s not word for word, but the tone of the question is accurate.
This was an interesting query. Henry, as you probably know, was not a poster child for good deeds since the Bengals drafted him in 2005. He had been arrested multiple times, suspended by the NFL multiple times. He once was arrested on gun charges while he was wearing his own Bengals jersey. He had been accused of providing alcohol to minors. He was ticketed for a DUI. A local judge called him a “one-man crime wave.”
He was obviously a troubled soul.
But when the Bengals released him in April of 2008, casting him into unemployment, he apparently began to change. Mike Brown, the Bengals owner who thinks of himself as a redeemer, brought him back to the Bengals squad in August of 2008, over the objections of coach Marvin Lewis, and during the 2009 training camp, Henry seemed poised to play a big role in Cincinnati’s offense. He caught a touchdown pass in all four preseason games, and as the fourth receiver on the squad, he thought he could make a major impact.
The impact was less than major – he recorded a pedestrian 12 catches for 236 yards and two TDs – but his off-the-field transformation was remarkable. That was the word, anyway. He was staying out of trouble, and he was planning to marry his fiancée, make himself into a family man. But then, he broke his arm, and he found himself finished for the season.
The reporter’s question – some people are saying you might screw up again – caught Henry off guard.
“Who’s saying that?” he asked.
“Eh, uh, I guess I am,” the reporter said.
I don’t remember the answer Henry gave, but it was something along the lines of, “Don’t worry about me. I’ve changed. I’ll be just fine.”
That exchange from last month was the first thing I thought about when I saw online that Henry had fallen off the back of a pick-up truck during a domestic argument and was in bad shape. Then I thought: if he hadn’t suffered his broken arm, Henry would still be with the Bengals. He wouldn’t have been in Charlotte arguing with his fiancée. He wouldn’t have jumped onto the back of a pickup truck shirtless and the cast still on his healing arm. He wouldn’t have reportedly threatened suicide. He wouldn’t have fallen off. He wouldn’t have died.
Coach Marvin Lewis called Henry a “beacon of hope.” I’m not sure I agree with those exact words. But here’s what I believe – Henry finally realized he had to make changes and that he was trying to turn his life around. Trying really hard. He was trying to be the best father and the best domestic partner he could be. He made a bad decision during an argument with a loved one, and it cost him his life. The way he died doesn’t make him a bad man. The year leading up to his death showed who he truly was trying to become.
Sadly, we’ll never know the end result. And that’s a shame. He could have really had something to say.