Henry’s death hits home for lifelong friend

By the age of five, Shane Shelley found himself a frequent guest in the home of his best friend, Chris Henry. They lived a couple of blocks apart, about 20 miles southeast of New Orleans, in a town called Belle Chasse. “Mixed neighborhood,” Shelley told me over the phone, speaking from the deck of his oyster boat on Thursday afternoon.

Shelley remembers that Henry’s mom, whom he still calls “Miss Carolyn,” was usually out working, as she had three sons to feed, and that Chris’ grandmother cooked their breakfasts to order. “Eggs, grits, sausage,” he says. “Anything we wanted.”

She was a wonderful grandma, who once splurged on a pair of $125 Tracy McGrady sneakers for Chris. The boys were in middle school when she passed. “I was the only white person at the funeral,” says Shelley.

Still, most of what Shelley recalls about Chris Henry took place on a field or a court. Their love of games was incessant. By freshman year at Belle Chasse High School, Shelley had been named the starting varsity quarterback, while Henry — who’d grow to 6-foot-5 — was intent on becoming the next Tracy McGrady. Still, seeing his friend on the gridiron incited another ambition.

“Watching Shane Shelley play and knowing that I played with him all my life, I thought that maybe I would want to do it, too,” Henry once told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “Shane knew I had it in me. He just kept begging me and begging me to come out and play.”

Didn’t take long for the best friends to become the best big-play combination in Belle Chasse history. “Me and Chris was always on the same page,” says Shelley. “I always knew where he would be. I guess that’s from growing up together. We were like brothers.”

Senior year, they won 13 straight before getting clobbered in the championship at the Superdome. But that’s not the game that stands out in Shelley’s recollection. Rather, it was a Friday night in the middle of the season. The Fighting Cardinals of Belle Chasse were on the road against Landry.

“I think Chris scored three touchdowns,” says Shelley, whose memory serves him well.

In fact, Henry, who played safety on defense, scored twice off interceptions, and again on a 55-yard screen pass. Belle Chasse won 39-14. Still, none of that resonates with Shelley as much as the unaccustomed presence of Henry’s father.

“All those years he never really talked about him,” says the fisherman, now 26, the father of twin girls with a son on the way. “That was the only time I ever knew the man came around. Chris scored three touchdowns and his dad gave him $300.”

Three hundred.

“That was the first and last I ever heard of him,” says Shelley. “Chris was just kind of aggravated.”

What did he do with the money? I ask.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Probably bought some Jordans.”

After graduating in 2002, Henry went to West Virginia, where he averaged more than 20 yards a catch, while Shelley signed with the Devil Rays. His professional baseball career lasted about a year and a half. Then he returned to Belle Chasse, where his daddy taught him the oyster fishing business.

Henry, with almost boundless talent, went on to the Cincinnati Bengals, where his potential was overwhelmed by a well-earned reputation for felonious behavior. It wasn’t what had been predicted for Henry back in Belle Chasse, where his high school coach, Bob Becnel recalls him as “a good kid, but not perfect by any stretch of the imagination.”

His NFL career was marred by gun charges, marijuana charges, assault charges and drunk driving charges, among others. He was suspended for two games in 2006, and eight games in 2007, and four games 2008, a year that also saw him placed under house arrest.

What happened? I ask Shelley.

The money was part of it, he says, but not all: “I’m not taking nothing away from Miss Carolyn, ‘cause she did a great job, but not having a dad, I think that was a lot of the problem with Chris. He was kind of lost.”

They’d speak about once a month. It’s tough when your best friend goes pro — all those meetings and workouts and the travel. Not much time. But there was one day Chris Henry was sure to call: Father’s Day.

Shane Shelley knows that not having a daddy to teach you the oyster business does not constitute an excuse. He knows, too, that Chris — everybody called him “Slim” — got more chances than a working man could dream of. He kept telling him so, too.

“You’re throwing it away, Slim.”

“Why would you want to mess it up?

“You got to slow down, Chris. Got to.”

And most damning of all: “People in Belle Chasse say you’re doing bad.”

Finally, after the Bengals took him back in 2008, Chris Henry proclaimed his reformation. There wasn’t much reason to believe him — unless you were Shane Shelley. “I didn’t care what anyone said,” he recalls. “I bragged about him all the time. It don’t get any better than telling people your best friend is playing NFL football. I always knew he would do good.”

Now Shelley recalls their conversation last summer, occasioned by Chris’ return to Belle Chasse. He had three kids with his fiancé, Loleini Tonga.

“Cuz, I’m a change.”

“Better.”

“I want to be there for my kids,” said Henry. “I want to do right.”

It sure seemed that way. This season, while nursing an injury that demonstrated how much the Bengals missed him, he remained with his fiancé and kids in Charlotte. Shane spoke to him around Thanksgiving. He was already talking about next year. He wanted to make some money in free agency. And again, he said he wanted his kids to look up to him.

Then, Wednesday afternoon, as Shelley got off the boat, someone asked if he’d heard about Slim.

“Please don’t tell me he got in trouble.”

As it happened, Chris Henry and his fiancé got into a domestic dispute. She fled in the truck, and he jumped onto the flatbed. The fall from the moving vehicle would kill him.

“Tore me up,” says Shelley, who went to work the next morning, understanding all too well his obligations at the dawn of yet another father’s day.