Updated: 10:35 a.m.
Wide receiver Chris Henry, one of the Bengals’ most prolific touchdown makers ever in a brief star-crossed career, has died. Henry, 26, died Thursday morning from injuries stemming from a pickup truck accident Wednesday in Charlotte.
The news hit Paul Brown Stadium at about the same time Henry’s teammates were about to emerge from their morning meetings and take the field for their daily walkthrough. Head coach Marvin Lewis and Bengals president Mike Brown planned to meet the media at 11 a.m.
According to police, Henry fell out of the back of a pickup truck driven by his fiancée at the home of her parents. Loleini Tonga and Henry were planning to be married in March.
It is more heart-wrenching news for a team that two months ago suffered the sudden death of Vikki Zimmer, the wife of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. One win away from clinching the AFC North title, the Bengals leave late Friday afternoon for Sunday’s game in San Diego.
Henry, who has been on injured reserve since Nov. 9 with a dislocated forearm, was in the city of his fiancée’s parents. The couple had planned to get married in March.
As Heny lay on life support Wednesday, current and former teammates talked about how he had rebuilt his life and career in a three-year climb from a series of off-field problems. He was on the sidelines at Paul Brown Stadium back on Dec. 6 when the Bengals beat the Lions, 23-13. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth talked to him and said he sounded good.
“Chris is Chris. He’s personable with his guys, but quiet,” Whitworth said Wednesday night. “You could tell he missed being out there with us. He was supportive. He’s a big part of what we are. 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. We’re worried about him and praying for him.”
Until he got hurt after catching a 20-yard pass, Henry, 26, was starring in one of the best comeback stories in the NFL.
He left the Baltimore game with 12 catches for 236 yards, two touchdowns and a 19.7-yard per catch average that reflected his unique and enormous skill at making big plays downfield. But it doesn’t even begin to tell the story.
After four arrests, three NFL suspensions, and a release from the Bengals in April 2008, Henry put his life back together with Loleini Tonga and their three children in the Cincinnati suburb of Wyoming.
“He’s had an offseason like no other; he’s worked here every single day,” quarterback Carson Palmer said back in May. “He has a great attitude. I’m just really proud of the guy. I’m happy for him. He’s at a good place in his life, a good place for his family. He’s showed up to work here and he will all year long. There’s not a doubt about that.”
Palmer had been one of Henry's biggest boosters in an organization that had been routinely criticized for giving him a second chance, led by Bengals president Mike Brown. Henry is one of the reasons that Brown decided to let the Bengals be filmed by the HBO series Hard Knocks.
“Chris Henry is a good example. If you knew him only by hearsay you would think he is some kind of ogre,” Brown said back in July. “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 same is true of other people. We have a lot of good guys. They’re interesting as personalities as well as players and if that comes through in this program I think that helps the Cincinnati Bengals.”
Henry racked up spectacular numbers in his first two seasons in the league, when he scored 15 touchdowns on 67 catches for a stunning ratio of a touchdown every 4.5 catches. His career numbers of 119 catches for 15.3 yards per catch during five seasons represent the seventh best yards per catch average in team history among players with as many catches.
But his journey back had been even more riveting. After the first practice of training camp, Henry was seen holding one of his children.
“I love spending time with my kids,” Henry said. “I was living like I was still in college, you know?”
As he waited by his phone Wednesday night, former Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson thought about Henry fighting for his life and the people with the Bengals that also fought for his life when he was on the comeback trail. He thought about Rusty Guy, the club’s director of security, and Ray Oliver, the associate strength and conditioning coach.
“A lot of teams would have just thrown him away,” Anderson said. “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. We’re all pulling for Chris. He’s been through so much.”
Former Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh got a text Wednesday when he got off the practice field in Seattle and he still couldn’t believe it a few hours later. A lot of times, the text would have been from Henry, asking about the collective bargaining agreement or if he should take an endorsement from Reebok or some other issue.
“Unbelievable. Unbelievable. To go through all that and to have this happen to you?” Houshmandzadeh asked. “He’s turned the corner. He’s been doing it the right way. I don’t care if he comes back to play football, I just want him to see his kids grow up to be young men and women.”
Houshmandzadeh got a text from Henry when he broke his arm and Houshmandzadeh advised him that if he did his rehab he would be fine. He also counseled him to stay with the Bengals if he becomes a free agent after this season.
“He realized when he got cut and no one called what he had to do,” Houshmandzadeh said. “And when he got hurt, he was playing well. He didn’t have the distractions.”
Former Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton had hoped for a speedy recovery because he thought Henry could save more lives.
During the last season of his career in 2008, Thornton watched Henry morph into a different person and he was so impressed that when he retired and began helping players with their community endeavors he approached Henry.
“I think he has a great story to tell kids and that’s what he wants to do,” Thornton said early Thursday morning. “He said he wanted to go into the city and talk to them about his experiences and how they could avoid it. It’s something that we haven’t been able to sit down and complete, but he’s made the effort. I’m hoping he pulls through because he’s a guy that really has changed his life around.”
Thornton, a fellow West Virginia product, saw Henry on the sidelines at the WVU game at the University of Cincinnati last month and what he remembers is when Loleini couldn’t get on the sidelines with them, Henry asked a state trooper if he could get her on the field.
“He’s really into his family,” Thornton said.