Cincinnati Bengals  

 

True tragedy in Henry's death is we never got to see his full rebirth

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CINCINNATI -- It's interesting how tragedy can humanize someone.

There, on Thursday at the Cincinnati Bengals' training facility, was wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, the fine-drawing, look-at-me joker, crying in silence as he faced his locker. He couldn't hide his red, swollen eyes or the tear tracks that ran down his puffy cheeks.

Then, as he tried his best to speak to the media, he fell apart in a matter of seconds. Think what you want about Ochocinco, it was as sad and emotional of a scene as anyone with a soul could fathom.

The reason why he was crying: The death of fellow wide receiver and teammate Chris Henry, who passed away Thursday morning from injuries sustained fewer than 24 hours earlier in a bizarre domestic dispute in which he fell from the back of a pickup truck his fiancée was driving Wednesday in Charlotte, N.C.

Henry was never really human, in life, to most of us. He was more of a symbol of youth and exuberance gone bad in the hands of someone too immature to have a clue about professionalism and responsibility. We saw a football player, a talented one who wasted a lot of his potential, only to suffer a season-ending broken arm -- and now death -- when he finally seemed to get it.

It took fines, an eight-game suspension, and getting released because of off-field issues before reality seemed to take hold that he better get it together. And to his credit, he at least seemed to try.

Now that he is gone we're hearing more about someone who took advantage of the second or third or eighth chance the forgiving Bengals provided him.

He'd embraced his family, stayed out of trouble and behaved like someone who finally realized his immense talent could lead to a productive NFL career.

"We liked him," Bengals President Mike Brown said on Thursday morning, shortly after learning of Henry's passing. "He had worked through trouble in his life and had seemingly reached the point where everything was going to blossom, and he was going to have the future we all wanted for him -- and he wanted for himself. And then this tragedy cut him down. It's painful to us. We feel it in our hearts."

Brown, who was probably more sympathetic to Henry than most, recalled how he was once drawn out of his disengaging shell by the disarming Henry at a Christmas party. Brown admitted that he really doesn't talk with players much anymore, but he couldn't get enough of hanging with Henry.

Soft-spoken, funny, not hardly the reckless troublemaker the police, fans, media and everyone else who judged him to be. That was the Chris Henry nobody knew, player after player and even coach Marvin Lewis -- who grew sick of Henry's act in 2008 -- testified, in retrospect.

The good stories are the ones often remembered in death. In fact, that was Lewis' message to his team. Remember the good. Henry had turned the corner. Hang onto those memories. Play hard for him.

The Bengals rallied behind beloved defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer when his wife, Vikki, who routinely baked cookies for the team, unexpectedly died in early October. Players, however, admitted that Henry's death hits closer because he was a peer. He was 26.

All of the conversation at the Bengals training facility on Thursday -- and their wasn't much because of the widespread grief -- was positive reflection, but Henry shouldn't be canonized. He nearly sank a lot of people, especially himself.

Lewis said a lot of Henry's issues were because of the folks he chose to surround himself with, especially those from his native Louisiana who counted on him to care for them, particularly after Hurricane Katrina.

Recently, Henry had shed most of them and created an inner circle that was healthy, supportive, independent and accountable. At the nucleus of that circle were his fiancée, Loleini Tonga, their three young kids and Tonga's family in Charlotte. That hub of support is why the Bengals had no problem with Henry being in Charlotte, even though most players on injured reserve remain with the team while rehabbing every day, attending meetings, practices and home games.

"We were very comfortable with him in that environment," Lewis said.

Now, Tonga and her family have to bear a burden much bigger than the one Henry's teammates must carry as they try to play, win and extend this special season that likely will end up with an AFC North title and a playoff berth.

Tonga has to live with that horrific moment, and the ones that led up to the sequence in the pickup truck that ended with Henry dead. Who knows if there ever will be a viable explanation that comforts her or the kids? There won't be relief from that snapshot -- maybe ever.

Worse, no matter how hard Henry's teammates, coaches, and family and friends try to tell us about how good of a person Henry had become, it is painful irony that one of the last recordings of his life will be documented on yet another police report.

So sad.

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