Updated: 10:55 p.m.
WESTWEGO, La. - The last time the Bengals came to New Orleans, native son Chris Henry had 100 yards, caught seven passes, and gave the youth football league standing on the sidelines in the corner of the end zone the thrill of the summer when he caught a 14-yard touchdown right in front of them.
That was the night they opened this preseason with stats that didn't count. But when they returned Tuesday to Henry's hometown on buses going over the Huey A. Long Bridge, named for another big-play guy, this one was for keeps. And like the man they called "Slim" always seemed to do, he put on another show.
"Look at all the people that came. It just shows you how many people Chris touched," said Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko. "People came from all over the United States. T.J. Houshmandzadeh came all the way from Seattle."
Houshmandzadeh played alongside Henry at receiver for four seasons before signing with the Seahawks this year. Linebacker Brian Simmons, now an NFL scout, played with him for two seasons, and came from Florida. Reggie McNeal played with for one year and came from Texas to be a pallbearer. Ben Wilkerson played with him for two years and came from Baton Rouge.
They rejoined the Bengals to bury the star-crossed Henry, 26 years young and seemingly free of a troubled past, six days after he suffered a head injury falling out of the back of a pickup truck driven by his fiancée. Six days to wonder why the comeback story full of love and football and – what else is there? – was suddenly no longer.
"Tough to see him there. Tough," said Houshmandzadeh, blinking in the bright sun. "It's so tough because everyone liked Slim. You know that locker room. He never had a bad word to say about anybody."
That locker room arrived in a contingent headed by Bengals president Mike Brown and head coach Marvin Lewis at the Alario Center Tuesday morning with some wearing black ribbons bearing the name "Slim."
Quarterback Carson Palmer, who along with Lewis spoke at the funeral service attended by approximately 1,500 people, was accompanied by wife Shaelyn. Fellow Louisianan Andrew Whitworth, the left tackle, came with wife Melissa and recalled how he and Henry talked about loving spending the offseason back home.
"It was tough to see him there; he's a guy we all love," Whitworth said. "It's time for us to do some loving on his family."
Henry was dressed in a white suit with a teddy bear at his head and pictures of his family at his side. His mother greeted each member of the Bengals delegation, which numbered about 115 and also included wide receivers coach Mike Sheppard and strength coaches Chip Morton and Ray Oliver.
Rusty Guy, the Bengals director of security, gave the eulogy after two years of intense mentoring and monitoring with the help of Oliver and Bengals director of player relations Eric Ball led to a deep friendship. Guy drew on quotes from Jim Valvano to Vince Lombardi to Galatians, but he said it all himself when he offered, "I believe the reason we feel so sad is the realization that Chris had the fruit of the spirit and that his life was so full of promise. Chris knew he had this as well ... he recently got a new tattoo that read, "Blessed."
There had always been one constant before and after Henry changed his life, and that was his enormous talent at making big plays. He was still making them Tuesday when the man who suspended Henry three times for off-field transgressions showed up wearing a No. 15 pin on his lapel and pride in his voice.
"Everyone struggles, everyone makes mistakes in life, including yours truly," said Roger Goodell in the NFL commissioner's news conference before the service. "He was on the right path. He was doing all the right things. It just makes it all the more tragic. He seemed to be focused on the responsibilities to his family."
Goodell recalled that he spent a lot of time with Henry and when they talked, it was never about football but life.
"I think he understood as time went on how important his family was and the responsibilities to his family and that includes his NFL family. I think he really tried to take that seriously and he was a very positive person," Goodell said.
Henry had been called the poster child of Goodell's tough new conduct policy that claimed 14 games of a 55-game career. But Goodell disputed the characterization.
"I never looked at him that way. People forget he's a young man that had challenges in his life just like we all do," Goodell said. "He's a young man that made some decisions that he regretted, but he was on the right path and I'm proud of that, I'm proud of him, I'm proud of what he tried to do in his life. That's what makes it so much more tragic to see it all end so quickly."
There were real children there Tuesday. The four that belong to Henry. And the most gut-wrenching moment in the 75-minute service came when Henry's fiancée, Loleini Tonga, the person that Lewis praised for giving Henry stability, said it was Henry that changed her life. As she wept, one of their children grabbed at the microphone with the words, "Mommy, mommy."
"As a father, that really hurts you," Simmons said. "That's the toughest part of the deal. The kids. That's four kids that aren't going to have a father in their life. ... The man changes his life around and didn't get to reap the benefits of his own work."
After seeing so many of Henry's former teammates like Simmons, Houshmandzadeh, McNeal, Wilkerson, Antonio Chatman, Glenn Holt, Eric Henderson and Skyler Green, Lewis said, "Chris Henry in his very short life touched a lot of people."
NFLPA director DeMaurice Smith, as well as two people from his office who are former Bengals in Scottie Graham and Tom Carter also attended.
Lewis also spoke at the service, but he was just as eloquent in a news conference after he went to the visitation.
"We'll miss Chris. His sparkling smile in his eye. Knowing that he got it. That's what we'll miss most," Lewis said. "The joy he brought many. Chris' fault is he was loyal to a fault. He was loyal to his friends, he was loyal to his family, and he never thought much about Chris. We who knew Chris the best will remember him as the guy he started to grow into."
As for Henry's legacy, Lewis described it as "Through time, through effort, through what's inside the man, his soul, he can turn things around and be an example. A light for others to realize."
But it was fitting that Palmer should be the trigger man Tuesday, the guy that elicited some laugher and emotion. Every big-play man needs a trigger man and Henry had one of the best. Palmer threw him 19 of his 21 NFL touchdowns, eight for 25 yards or longer, and at the Alario he teamed up with Henry one last time.
He got some laughs when he described Henry coming by his locker every day, shaking his hand and always greeting him with, "What's up, cuz?"
"Everything about (him) was cool," Palmer said. "His walk, his style, his swagger."
Palmer quoted from Henry's favorite poet, Lil Wayne (Dwayne Carter) and took some lines from "Tie My Hands," an ode to growing up tough in New Orleans:
"and if you come from under that water, then that's fresh air
just breathe baby God's got a blessing to spare
yes i know the presses is so much stress
but it's the progress that feels the best"
Palmer also talked about the Saturday night chapel service the team had in San Diego before Sunday's game against the Chargers. At the service the players were asked if they had any memories of Henry and were encouraged to talk about them.
Palmer said Jeremi Johnson spoke of five years of having his locker next to Henry and that he never heard him say anything negative about anybody. Tank Johnson remembered walking around New Orleans with Henry the day of that preseason game and recalled how much pride Henry had in the city.
Someone else mentioned how Henry wept on the phone while talking to his fiancée when she told him they were expecting a son. Palmer's voice broke at the end when he said, "People should know just how kind and gentle his heart was. I don't know what God does with us right after we die but, Chris, I hope He gave you a break and He let you catch a glimpse of all the faces here, of all the people that love you. You will never, ever be forgotten."
Guy, who used to joke with Henry that they were an odd couple since he was a middle-aged white former cop, sounded the service's central theme of second chances and open-mindedness, Guy talked about when he met Henry, he came into the relationship with "biases and prejudices. After all, this was the notorious Chris Henry."
But Guy recounted how Henry had a deep love for his children and Tonga and how he never complained or blamed anyone while he was out of football in 2008.
"We're all better for knowing Chris Henry. I know I am," Guy said.
Henry's mother, Carolyn Henry, also talked about how her son had changed and became a different person from what the news media reported.
"Look at my baby. Look at how he changed. God had a plan for this 'bad boy, this thug,' " she said.
Houshmandzadeh, who traveled with wife Kaci, could only shake his head.
"I thought Carson did great, the way he described him, and he described him to a 'T,' " he said. "It's still surreal. It's still almost like it didn't happen. I mean, it's like a fairy tale."
They saw a chunk of where the fairy tale sprouted as the buses rolled down the hard streets of Belle Chasse, La., to Westlawn Cemetery. They passed Belle Chasse High School, where Henry was named New Orleans' Small Schools Offensive Player of the Year as a senior, and as the casket was slid in place just down the road where all the hope began, a sudden roar rumbled in the sky.
Belle Chasse is home of the state's air national guard and two Navy fighter jets just happened to be putting on a rather coincidental and brief but still spectacular chase scene that caught the attention of the mourners.
Leave it to Slim. Another trip to New Orleans and he put on another show.