Any team except the Bengals would have given up on Chris Henry.
Arrested five times and suspended twice by the NFL, Henry was nearly reduced to a cautionary tale for future NFL rookies of how not to squander your talent.
Over the past 18 months, Henry and the Bengals began writing a different story of quiet redemption. Henry wasn’t in the headlines except to talk about his family. By all accounts, he became a professional.
Henry’s second story was just getting started, and that’s what makes his passing Thursday morning following a domestic dispute all the more sad.
Bengals owner Mike Brown said it was a "terrible tragedy'' that Henry died "as he was running to daylight.”
Recently we have been reminded that we can only know so much about our professional athletes from afar. But those closest to Henry through his ups and downs all said the same thing — that he was a quiet, generous young man that they prayed would turn his life around.
"What I saw was a good person at heart,'' Brown said. “Sometimes he wasn't described that way, but that's how I saw him.''
Brown has often been criticized for looking past character for talent. But like his legendary father, Paul, the Bengals owner genuinely seems to believe in second chances and taking a personal approach with his players.
"A lot of teams would have just thrown him away," former teammate Willie Anderson said Wednesday night to the team’s website. "You can say a lot about the Bengals, positive and negative. But you have to commend what Mike Brown and the Bengals did for this kid. They believed in him and it turned out that's what he needed."
One of the reasons Brown allowed HBO cameras to film his team during training camp for the show Hard Knocks was to highlight players like Henry that he believes were misunderstood.
"Chris Henry is a good example,” Brown said in July. “If you knew him only by hearsay you would think he is some kind of ogre. It's not true. He's a good person. When you see him up close, you'll find that you'll like him. He'll be soft spoken and a pleasant person. People who understand him to be different (will) now know better."
The show indeed showed Henry, called “Slim” by his teammates, as one of the team’s favorite sons. He was known as a gentle, kind guy that other players rooted for. Henry knew how lucky he was to have survived his early career troubles with a job.
"I kind of felt like I dug myself out of the hole and started doing the right things," Henry told The Associated Press this summer. "People say, 'How you feeling now Chris? You doing all right?' I just tell them I'm blessed. That's why I got it."
Henry was the team’s prime deep threat, but a dislocated elbow ended his season in November. Henry’s comeback story resonated with his teammates. They say his story was their team’s story.
"He's a big part of what we are," guard Andrew Whitworth told the Bengals website Thursday, when the organization was praying for a miracle to save Henry. "I really admire how he carries himself, how he's changed his life, and how he's made his career his passion. That's what this team has done. He's one of the guys that has helped give this team that attitude.”
“That attitude” in Cincinnati has been one of the most remarkable attribute of the 2009 NFL season. Expected to be an also ran, the Bengals have shown great resilience while building their record to 9-4. The team is on the doorstep of an AFC North title over the Steelers and Ravens, last season’s AFC championship game participants.
The Bengals have faced on-field adversity, losing in the season opener to the Broncos on one of the flukiest plays in NFL history. They responded with a four-game winning streak.
The team has also faced off-field tragedy, when defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s wife died suddenly at the beginning of October. Zimmer was on the sideline the following Sunday, and the Bengals defense carried the team to a victory in Baltimore. There weren’t many dry eyes in the locker room afterward.
This tragedy will test the resolve of the Bengals even further.
With the news of Henry’s passing freshly out, Henry’s teammates were understandably shocked and mostly silent in the locker room Thursday when they met the media.
Chad Ochocinco tearfully said how much Henry would be missed. Carson Palmer spoke briefly about how much he believed in Henry and that the receiver was misunderstood.
It was Palmer who broke the news to the team. Many of the players he spoke to had something in common with Henry, having been cast aside then taken refuge with the only organization that would take them. Palmer told his emotional teammates that Henry was a great competitor and would want the team to become closer and win, starting Sunday in San Diego.
And with that, the Bengals gathered together as one and headed out to the field for the team’s morning walkthrough practice.