Sad Thing Is, Henry Really Did Change
First, they said he was seriously injured during a traffic accident in Charlotte. Then they said he was dead. Actually, he was alive at that point, but the last breath inside of his 26-year-old body was only a pulled life-support plug away.
Before long, word surfaced about a domestic squabble between Henry and his fiancée, Loleini Tonga, with Henry jumping into the bed of a pickup truck less than a mile away from where they were staying.
Henry's body was found in the middle of the street.
After the horror became complete on Thursday morning, when it was announced that Henry didn't survive the most senseless of tragedies, I thought about Brittanny. She lives in a Cincinnati suburb. I thought about Brittanny, because she was a close friend of Henry's, and she also is my niece.
"I'm really sad. I'm shocked. I'm kind of upset. I still can't believe this is really happening," said Brittanny, 22, pausing to collect her thoughts. Then she lightened the mood with a chuckle after a three-year-old memory. "It seems like it was just yesterday when I first met him at that club, and I was trying to dodge him. He kept asking me for my telephone number, but I didn't like him."
She didn't like what she saw. "I'm not a groupie, but he always came in to the club, and he always left with this woman and that woman. I didn't know who he was, and I didn't care. I certainly didn't know he played for the Bengals."
More specifically, Brittanny didn't know Henry was a notorious bad boy of the NFL, with five arrests during a 28-month stretch at one point. "It's just that, after I started talking to him, I discovered he was totally different than his image," said Brittanny, who bonded with Henry, partly because Brittanny's deceased mother was from Louisiana, Henry's native state. "I know he was portrayed as a jerk and as somebody you wouldn't want to be around. But he really was a very, very sweet person. His problem was that he wanted to help everybody, but he didn't realize that everybody couldn't be helped.
"For instance: He had a bunch of his friends from Louisiana come up, along with some of his cousins, and they were from the bad part of New Orleans. And they were living with him. Some of them had drug charges, and they said they wanted to turn their lives around, and that's why Chris invited them up.
"Instead, they wanted to party. They liked the fact that Chris was a big star and that they could get into all these places and do bad things. Chris didn't have enough guts at the time to say, 'Hey, I can't do those things. I have an image to hold up.' But during the last couple of years, he pushed those people out of his life."
In other words, Henry changed. And, no, this isn't one of those tired clichés that you always hear in these situations. According to Brittany and others who knew the guy best, he was the antithesis of the knucklehead that he once was, and there were more than a few stories covered with tears to prove it on Thursday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium, especially inside a morbid Bengals locker room.
Defensive tackle Domata Peko spoke of how Henry often stopped by the house to play video games with his kids. Said Peko, easing into a smile after a sigh, "When he was having a baby, I'll always remember how he stopped me in the bathroom and said, 'Hey, Peko. How is it to be a father?'"
Across the way, wide receiver Andre Caldwell recalled how Henry eased Caldwell's financial struggles as a sophomore in the NFL, saying, "When we were in California [during the summer working out in unofficial practices near the home of Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer], he took me wherever I wanted to go, because he was the only one who had a car. He bought me food. He did everything for me."
Then there was Chad Ochocinco, the usually gregarious wide receiver, who spent an eternity facing his locker. He kept his hoodie-covered head lowered as he picked at the lunch on his plate. When he finally turned around with red eyes, he said, "Chris was a very good friend of mine, extremely close. It's sad to see that it has come to this. Tuesday night, we talked. He called to see how I was doing. I told him I was good. We talk before every game, and he said, 'Handle your business.'"
Ochocinco stopped to clear his throat, then he with a quivering voice, "He was doing everything right. He was doing everything right."
Yes, Henry was, especially since he used to do everything wrong. He was the poster child for a franchise that led the league in mug shots for more than a year after the Bengals managed their first winning season in 15 seasons in 2005. With Henry leading the way, the Bengals had 10 arrests in 14 months.
Funny how things work. Henry's life-changing moment came in April 2008 with his sixth arrest. It turns out that he really wasn't at fault after he was charged with assault and criminal damaging at a club near the University of Cincinnati. Nevertheless, the suddenly image-conscious Bengals cut Henry after a Hamilton County judge told Henry in court, "You've kind of become a one-man crime wave."
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis wanted Henry gone forever, but his boss, Mike Brown, had other ideas. Four months after telling the Bengals' best deep threat to get lost, Brown brought him back, and Henry didn't disappoint.
He became even more potent on the field.
He disposed of his shaky acquaintances.
He stayed out of trouble.
Then, in early November, Henry's renaissance season was interrupted after he fractured his left forearm against Baltimore. He was placed on injured reserve, but Brown's compassion toward Henry already was vindicated.
"Well, I don't regret what I did," said Brown, 74, the son of the legendary Paul Brown, the Bengals' founder and first head coach. "[Henry] had troubles. 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 re-group, catch himself, re-start his life. And to his credit, I think he did that. And it's a terrible tragedy in that, just at the time that he was running to daylight, if you will, his life was snuffed out."
Brittanny preferred to remember the living Henry, which is why she chuckled again, because she kept recalling how she used to join Henry, his brother, Marcus, and Marcus' girlfriend for movie nights at Henry's house. "We'd sit around eating waffles and pork chops that I would cook," Brittanny said. Then she recalled the first time she told my parents in Indianapolis that she had befriended Henry.
"Paw Paw said, 'Oh, that's a bad crowd to get in," Brittanny said, perhaps forgetting that her uncle (ahem) told her something similar.
That was the old Henry, though.
Now the new Henry is gone, and Brittanny joined a bunch of shaken folks around Paul Brown Stadium by saying, "It seems like a bad dream."