Chris Henry dies at the age of 26.
Posted: 2:15 p.m.
The Bengals will wear a No. 15 sticker on their helmets Sunday in San Diego and wear Chris Henry's heart on their sleeves.
In a locker-room huddle before Thursday morning's walkthrough at Paul Brown Stadium, quarterback Carson Palmer broke the news all the players knew was coming. Henry had died in a Charlotte, N.C. hospital from injuries sustained Wednesday in a pickup truck accident.
"Carson spoke about one thing that Chris was a great competitor and what he would want us to do," said defensive tackle Domata Peko in the stone-cold silence of the locker room. "To go out and win. To pull us together and go out and dedicate the rest of the season to him and Coach Zimmer's wife."
The Bengals' December run has now taken on a deeper meaning than anything like championship rings and playoff bonuses. In the last two months they have lost to sudden death Henry and the wife of their defensive coordinator, Vikki Zimmer.
And they are trying to cope.
"You have to grieve," said right guard Bobbie Williams, who also spoke in the huddle. "Maybe go home tonight and hug your family a little tighter."
Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, the NFL's clown prince, broke into tears and couldn't finish his thoughts in front of the cameras as he tried to reason his grandmother's counsel of things happen for a reason with Henry's sudden departure.
"He's been doing everything right," Ochocinco said. "My grandma always said you never really question the man upstairs on a decision he makes because he never makes mistakes. But I don't see how Chris was supposed to go already. Especially because he was on the right path. He's going to be missed."
Ochocinco was wearing Henry's No. 15 jersey as practice got underway Thursday. Ochocinco's slippery, rubbery moves and the 6-4 Henry's long down-field strides and even longer reach made them two of the most dynamic receivers in Bengals' history. Although Henry's legal problems derailed his pace of 15 touchdowns on his first 67 NFL catches, his career average of 15.3 yards per catch is seventh on the Bengals' list.
It is believed that Henry is the first active Bengal to die since linebacker Frank Buncom passd away in his San Diego hotel room the night before a 1969 game.
"It's a terrible tragedy that just at the time he was running to daylight his life was snuffed out," said Bengals president Mike Brown in a rare press conference appearance with head coach Marvin Lewis.
It was Brown who brought back the troubled Henry in August 2008 despite four arrests and three NFL suspensions and was rewarded with a changed life.
"It was challenging at times with him," Brown said. "But he was someone we liked and thought could regroup, catch himself, and restart his life. And to his credit, I think he did that."
It was four years and two days ago when Henry's off-field problems began. As the team Christmas party broke up, word leaked that he had been arrested the night before for possession of marijuana. A few years later, Brown saw him at another team Christmas party and there was a different guy there.
"The impression he left me with was the one altogether different than what has been portrayed," Brown said. "He was gentle, he was alert, he was interesting to talk to. He won me over. When I think of him, I'll think of that moment."
If you believe in full circles, you won't be surprised then, that the team Christmas party this year is Thursday night. Lewis told the team that is now a place to heal and come together.
Thursday's hushed silence was broken at times by people softly voicing the sharp images in their minds. Brown remembered the 66-yard catch against Pittsburgh in the playoffs four year ago, which now seems fitting that he got hurt on his only catch of the day because his entire life was a promising flash of what if.
Lewis remembered his first play of rookie camp when Henry caught a long ball, ran into the end zone, and thrust an index finger into the air. And how Lewis said to then receivers coach Hue Jackson, "You better get on him.'"
Wide receiver Andre Caldwell, who came in the third round in 2008 three years after Henry came in the third round in 2005, remembered how they got tickets to the Lakers-Magic series this spring and how they were inseparable while they worked out in California Bengals receiver Jerome Simpson in the winter getting a head start on the spring. And how Henry was the only guy who had a car and drove Caldwell everywhere.
"He was a family guy. He loved his family. He cared about the game, he cared about this team, he cared about people," Caldwell said. "He was just a good person…He was like a big brother.. He was just misunderstood. He was mistakenly taken as a bad guy. That's like a brother to me to have somebody like that go down. We're just going to rally up and get our troops together. Fight for him. This season is for him. Dedicated to him. Just rally up there."
Palmer was Henry's biggest backer on and of the field. He would call him Randy Moss Jr., and then go out and throw him a bomb to prove it. Palmer threw 19 touchdown passes to Henry and eight of them were 25 yards or longer.
He could only make a 52-second statement and take no questions, but he had to smile when he thought of Henry's little baby son also named Chris "who is the spitting image of Chris."
"I believe and our team believes Chris was heavily misunderstood," Palmer said. "There was a lot of speculation about who Chris was but the only people that knew what a big heart he had, how kind he was, how gentle and soft a heart he had were the guys in the locker room. Guys that were close to him."