A tragic end to Henry's troubled life

BY Alex Marvez • December 17, 2009

He was Cincinnati's best downfield wide receiver but Chris Henry couldn't completely run away from the off-field trouble that had long followed him.

He was by all accounts a changed man, yet Henry died Thursday from injuries suffered in a truck accident following an alleged domestic dispute.

Henry was a menacing figure on the field. But at the same time, he was described as "gentle" and "a good person" by some of his mourning teammates.

These kinds of contradictions followed Henry throughout his five-year NFL career. Was he the "one-man crime wave" one of the many judges he appeared before labeled him? Or was he the man who, according to many, was slowly but surely putting his life back together?

Henry had the chance to stage the greatest personal turnaround of any player who has run afoul of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and his personal conduct policy. Henry had stopped the sociopathic behavior that earned him 14 games worth of suspensions. Drunk driving, drug possession, alleged assault, illegal use of a firearm – it's all there in the arrest records. Henry was so out of control that he was once released by Bengals owner Mike Brown, who is known for having a soft spot in his heart for talented miscreants.

To his credit, Henry took advantage of a second chance when re-signed in the 2008 preseason. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Henry had reemerged as a key cog in Cincinnati's offense. Henry was beginning to fulfill the athletic potential that could have made him a star.

According to one Bengals source, the introverted Henry had quit the public drinking that triggered so much aggressiveness and recklessness in previous incidents. He became more involved with his girlfriend and three young children. He recently became engaged. He stayed out of trouble.

At age 26, Henry was finally becoming an adult.

Or so it seemed. But as the Tiger Woods circus has reminded us, not even close friends or the media know everything that goes on with athletes behind closed doors.

After landing on injured reserve in early November with a wrist injury, Henry and his fiancé Loleini Tonga returned to her hometown of Charlotte, N.C. for wedding planning. On Wednesday morning, local police say the two had a spat that led to Tonga driving away in a pickup truck and Henry jumping inside the bed to follow. The two continued arguing, police said, before Henry was ejected from the vehicle.

Those circumstances may prompt skeptics to wonder how much Henry had truly changed at all. The Bengals, though, insist he had.

"People were surprised we stood by Chris during his problems," Brown said in a team-released statement. "We knew Chris to be different than his public persona. To the best of his ability, Chris reached out to the team, his friends and family. Everyone tried to help -- and sometimes it went awry -- but Chris' heart was always in the right place. He was a good person and he was on the road to doing well in his football career."

Added Lewis: "We had seen Chris expand this year as both a person and on the field. He had grown and matured."

The Bengals (9-4) were already struggling to replace Henry as a deep threat in their passing game while gearing for a surprising playoff run. Cincinnati now also has to overcome the shock of losing someone who had once again become a trusted teammate.

"Everyone makes mistakes," teary-eyed wide receiver Chad Ochocinco said Thursday inside the Cincinnati locker room. "But I don't see how Chris was supposed to go already, especially when he was on the right path."

Whether it was truly the right path may never be known for sure.

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