Grief-stricken Bengals dedicate rest of their season to Henry

CINCINNATI -- For the second time in their breakthrough season, the Bengals are dealing with death.

Teary players held a somber practice Thursday and dedicated the rest of their season to wide receiver Chris Henry after learning that he had died one day after falling from the back of a pickup truck during what police described as a domestic dispute.

Shocked players huddled by themselves in the locker room once they received word that Henry had passed away at a hospital in Charlotte, N.C. They said a group prayer, then went out on the Paul Brown Stadium field to walk through some of their plays for an upcoming game in San Diego.

No one said much.

"It was tough," wide receiver Andre Caldwell said. "We were crying."

Not the first time, either.

The team was grief-stricken in October when Vikki Zimmer, the wife of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, unexpectedly died at the couple's home. Three days later, Zimmer coached the defense during a 17-14 victory in Baltimore that put Cincinnati in control of the AFC North. Afterward, players teared up when Zimmer received the game ball.

Losing a teammate hit the Bengals (9-4) even harder Thursday, leaving them in no mood to prepare for a game against the AFC West-leading Chargers. Cincinnati can clinch the division title and only its second playoff spot in the last 19 years with a victory.

Players will put a commemorative No. 15 sticker on their helmets Sunday, and coaches will wear commemorative pins during the game.

Henry's death was particularly stunning to his teammates because he had put so much effort into changing his life in the last two years. Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco couldn't finish his plate of lunch -- he dumped broccoli into a trash bin -- and slowly shuffled around the locker room.

Ochocinco sniffled and blinked back tears that welled in his eyes when he remembered how he had talked to Henry on Tuesday night, catching up on things. Henry had been in Charlotte, where his fiancee's parents live, recovering from a broken arm that ended his season.

"He was doing everything right," Ochocinco said. "My grandma always says you never question the man upstairs on decisions he makes. Everyone makes mistakes, but I don't see how Chris was supposed to go already, especially when he was on the right path."

Players silently walked past Henry's locker in the corner of the room -- his nameplate and No. 15 were still affixed to the top of the cubicle; a wooden stool rested upside-down on the shelf; Henry's shoes were lined up at the bottom; his tiger-striped helmet hung from the side.

Ochocinco wore Henry's white No. 15 practice jersey for an afternoon workout that started in a somber mood -- no joking, no laughing, hardly any talking as players stretched.

When they learned of Henry's death, quarterback Carson Palmer called the players together and suggested that they dedicate the rest of the season to the receiver and Vikki Zimmer.

"Carson spoke about one thing ... that Chris was a great competitor," said defensive tackle Domata Peko, who often had Henry and his family over to his house. "What he would want us to do is go out and win, not be sad. You're going to go through these times and be sad, but to pull together and dedicate the rest of the season to Chris and coach Zimmer's wife."

Following the afternoon practice, Zimmer said it was difficult to deal with another tragedy.

"I don't think anyone knows how to deal with it," Zimmer said. "Like I told somebody, the world's not going to stop. That's how it was with me. That's the one thing I learned from this whole deal -- the world ain't stopping. People still get up and go to work. Everyone's got to deal with different issues, and unfortunately we're dealing with this one."

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Bengals players received calls and text messages from around the league. Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who left the Bengals for the Seattle Seahawks after last season, got through to Ochocinco and traded texts with other players and coaches.

"I can imagine what everyone is feeling because everyone liked him," Houshmandzadeh said. "Carson really took a liking to him. The owner, who matters the most, really liked him, talked to him and realized that he was a real good person and gave him multiple chances, and he was starting to make him look good. He was going to stay out of trouble. And for your life to end like this is unbelievable."

A talented player, Henry, 26, had struggled through a number of mistakes away from the field -- he was suspended five times -- and the Bengals at one point released him after the 2007 season as he dealt with an assault charge. But Bengals owner Mike Brown decided to give Henry another chance and brought him back on a two-year deal before the 2008 season.

Brown liked Henry's personality and was glad that he gave him another chance.

"I don't regret it," Brown said. "He had troubles, and some of them were made more of than I think they actually were. But we knew him here as the person he was in fact.

"And yes, it was challenging at times with him, but he was someone who we liked and thought could regroup, catch himself and restart his life. And to his credit, I think he did that. And it's a terrible tragedy that just at the time he was running to daylight, if you will, his life was snuffed out."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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