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Grieving Bengals Must Shift Focus to San Diego

Dec 17, 2009 – 7:45 PM
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Nancy Gay

Nancy Gay %BloggerTitle%

Carson PalmerQualcomm Stadium on Sunday will become more than a place where the grieving Cincinnati Bengals will challenge the San Diego Chargers for the No 2 seed in the AFC and a first-round playoff bye. The contest between two division leaders clinches, at the very least, a playoff berth for the winner.

For the Bengals, San Diego's home field will be where they test their unity and their resolve yet again.

After learning of the death of teammate Chris Henry early Thursday, after the wide receiver on Wednesday fell from the back of a moving pickup truck allegedly driven by his fianceé, Loleini Tonga, during what Charlotte, N.C. police describe as a domestic dispute, Bengals players say they are dedicating their already impressive 9-4 season to Henry and his memory.

Players will wear a commemorative No. 15 decal on their helmets, and Bengals coaches and staff will wear commemorative pins during Sunday's game. Across the NFL, teams will observe a moment of silence before they take the field for Week 15's games, as requested by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

The Bengals already have experienced loss this season, and know all too well how the pattern of shock, sadness and intense grief can affect their livelihood.

In October, Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's wife Vikki, 50, was found dead at the couple's home, and the news rocked the franchise. Vikki Zimmer was a beloved figure within the team. She baked cookies for the defensive players, which her husband brought to team meetings, and she was a fixture at the Bengals' Friday practices.

Vikki Zimmer died on a Thursday; a coroner concluded she succumbed to natural causes. In the Friday practice, coach Marvin Lewis noted how distracted his players seemed and how badly the workout had gone. Mike Zimmer announced he would coach in Sunday's Week 5 game against the Ravens, but few expected the Bengals to prevail in that contest.

Instead, they surprised the NFL and perhaps themselves, focusing their sorrow and rallying to defeat Baltimore, 17-14 on Oct. 11.

The following Tuesday, the Bengals players and staff attended Vikki Zimmer's emotional funeral mass. But the bereavement process finally overwhelmed the team in Week 6. Cincinnati played host to the Houston Texans and lost, 28-17.

What will happen to the Bengals now?

Henry's personal transformation from a troubled young man and athlete to a more stable person, teammate and father had been uplifting for a franchise that has matured admirably this season, right along with him.

His on-field skills were never an issue. Henry was blessed with all the physical tools to be a magnificent football player -- at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds with 4.3 speed in the 40 and an impressive vertical leap, he was often compared to Randy Moss, and was considered one of the NFL's elite receivers.

Henry had 12 catches for 236 yards and two touchdowns in eight games this season before being placed on injured reserve after suffering a fractured forearm during a Nov. 8 game against the Ravens. His presence on the field was missed.

The former West Virginia University standout and a third-round pick by Cincinnati in the 2005 NFL draft, Henry had been examined by the Bengals medical staff last weekend was cleared to return to his offseason home in Charlotte, where he lived with Tonga and the couple's three children.

The Bengals leave Friday for the long trip to San Diego, where they again must face the daunting task of gathering themselves to be at their professional best. This time, the stakes are much higher.

Cincinnati maintains a two-game lead in the AFC North and is tantalizing close to only its second playoff berth in the last 19 years.

Chris HenryBut Sunday's game against the streaking Chargers (10-3) -- winners of eight in a row -- already figured to be a supreme challenge. San Diego has won seven of the last nine meetings against Cincinnati and the Chargers have won 16 consecutive games in December dating to 2006.

Whatever happens, an already critical AFC contest will take on another dimension. There will be grief and sorrow, compassion and empathy on both sidelines. The NFL is like an extended family, and injury losses and tragic deaths affect all.

Chargers left tackle Marcus McNeill knew Henry, having spent time with him the past few offseasons in the company of mutual friends. McNeill spoke for many Chargers on Thursday when he said he hopes the Bengals can rise above this tragedy.

"It hits close to home to the NFL family," McNeill told media in San Diego. "We never want to see a player lost. I think everybody is feeling it. Our remorse goes out to everybody.

"Hopefully, the Cincinnati Bengals bounce back from it. They have to come in and be professional, and I think they're going to do a great job of doing it. At the same time, we've got to show our respect."

As the Bengals have experienced before, the football field can be a place that fosters healing and recovery. Vikki Zimmer, through the memories of her loving and generous nature, showed them this in October. Chris Henry, a man who overcame his demons and flourished again in large part because of a game he dearly loved, proved this to his teammates before his death: Let the game lift you from your troubles and anguish.

Henry has left them this gift, and the Bengals can carry it in their hearts on Sunday.
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