The world of professional football was saddened today when it was learned that Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry had died Thursday morning after falling out of the bed of a moving pickup truck the night before during a domestic dispute with his fiancée.
Those with a passing knowledge of football or the Bengals probably think of Henry as a problem-causing thug who had trouble seemingly follow him wherever he went. The image is founded on the multiple arrests for marijuana possession, assault and gun charges that led to a 2007 NFL suspension and a subsequent release by the Bengals.
The release seemed to be a wake-up call for Henry, however, and it appeared he began to make steps to turn his personal life around, spending more time with his family and staying out of trouble. Bengals owner Mike Brown gave him another chance and resigned him to the team, and as teammates and commentators saw a marked change in his off-the-field demeanor, Henry looked to have a very decent year before breaking his arm in a game against the Baltimore Ravens.
There’s no doubt he had great athletic ability and tremendous professional potential. Indeed, the Bengals’ passing game has suffered noticeably since he broke his arm, and with the numbing loss of a teammate, they must now travel to San Diego and play the Chargers in a game with tremendous playoff implications.
But the football aspects pale in comparison to the plain human sadness of Chris Henry’s death. Henry’s three children must now grow up without a father, his fiancée must now be tortured with guilt over what she could have done differently that night, and Henry’s potential both as an athlete and as a human being can never be fully realized. At 26 years old, he was only a few years younger than me, and I shudder to think of the long life he might have had before him, lost now in what wasn’t a gun-related fight at 2 am in front of some nightclub, but in an odd accident that probably could have been avoided.
What’s the most disheartening is that Chris Henry’s story is one of personal redemption that can never be completed. There’s no doubt he was a problem child in the past, and he readily took ownership of his self-inflicted legal and personal problems. But he seemed genuine in his desire to turn it all around and become a better person, and was poised to reignite a nascent NFL career that showed much promise. Listening to Cincinnati sports radio today, I was impressed at local host Lance McAlister’s recounting of the change he saw in Henry as well as the expression by fans and callers of the respect and humanity he showed his supporters in his city, and I heard an interview on ESPN where he said he wanted to make them all proud of him again.
Is Chris Henry, simply by virtue of playing a game and being famous, more worthy of our sympathy and remembrance than the thousands of other people who died today? Of course not – his contribution to society wasn’t as great as the many other firemen, policemen, teachers, soldiers, husbands, grandfathers and sons who passed away. But the story of Chris Henry is a reminder of how easy it is to squander away the precious gift of life, and how uncertain second and third chances can be. Opportunities and rebirths are few and far between, and when they fall into our laps, we have to make the most of what’s given to us. It’s easy to paint Chris Henry as a thug, but for his recognition of his mistakes and his efforts to change, he has my understanding and my respect.
Rest in peace, Chris Henry. God bless your soul and your family.