Ochocinco drops act to honor friend, teammate

BY foxsports • December 20, 2009

In those several dozen steps between the field and the locker room, Chad Ochocinco seemed to undergo a transformation, from persona to person. By the time he reached the visitors’ quarters at Qualcomm Stadium, the NFL’s master of calculated exuberance was solemn, mournful and alone. His eyes were red-rimmed and moist.

No, it wasn’t part of the act. The Cincinnati Bengals had just lost to the Chargers on a field goal with three seconds left — a heartbreaking defeat with playoff position on the line. But Ochocinco realized all too well the difficult part had just begun.

There would be a break in the game-planning and the meetings. The distractions would be fewer. Three days after the death of his friend, fellow Bengals receiver Chris “Slim” Henry, he’d finally be alone with his thoughts. On Tuesday, the team travels to New Orleans for the funeral.

“Stay busy,” he said. “Stay busy as much as I can. That’s all I can do. The more active I am, the easier it is to keep it off my mind. The flight going home is going to bother me. The funeral service is going to bother me. Any time it’s quiet and you have time to think, it’s going to bother me.”

Earlier in the week, Ochocinco had vowed to wear his friend’s No. 15 jersey. The league would fine him, of course, but the Players Association announced that it would reimburse him the amount of the levy. Still, in uncharacteristically wise fashion, the Bengals receiver backed off — not just for his own sake, but for that of decorum. Chad Ochocinco has made a vocation of calling attention to himself, but even he had to acknowledge this wasn’t the time for it.

“Everybody agrees to mourn in a different way,” he said. “My way would’ve been out there wearing that jersey.”

It wasn’t that he objects to being called a self-promoter. It’s that he didn’t want the accusations to diminish the memory of his friend.

“That’s when I had to backtrack and think,” he said. “Slim wouldn’t want that. He’d want me to go out there and play for him. So today, I went out there and played with an extra set of hands, an extra set of legs and an extra heart.”

As it happened, he honored his fallen friend with a very good game, even if it was in defeat. Early in the second quarter, he dusted Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromatrie for a 49-yard-touchdown. His end-zone celebration, if that’s what you can call it, was remarkably subdued — briefly pointing upward before taking a knee.

“I just kept saying it over and over: 85 and 15,” said Ochocinco. “There’s a hundred ways for us to be great. It was a little thing we used to say all the time.”

Later, early in the fourth quarter, he took a Carson Palmer screen pass, faked safety Kevin Ellison all but out of his cleats, and cut across the field for 26 yards.

“You want to know why I reversed field?” he asked. “... I was reading the defense and I was hoping it would be (Quentin) Jammer. Jammer would’ve been a little easier person to make a move on. But freaking Shawne Merriman was following me ... Shawne’s presence made me reverse the entire field. That’s all there was.”

Whatever the case, it was a fine run that went to the San Diego 7-yard line. Two plays later, Palmer found Laveranues Coles in the end zone.

The Chargers were still up, 24-21. But you thought it was only a matter of time before Cincinnati took the lead — and the game.

The Bengals last possession did nothing to dissuade that impression. It was a methodical drive, with Palmer passing short to his tight end and running back Cedric Benson. Despite penalties and a costly fumble that cost them 20 yards, they still came away with a game-tying field goal.

“We had some good momentum,” said the tight end, J.P. Foschi. “I thought we were going to win."

He wasn’t alone. You could anticipate the conclusion: The Bengals shaking off their grief to win a big game on the road. If it wasn’t a storybook ending, that’s only because Chris Henry — who died falling out of the bed of a truck after a domestic incident with his fiancée — didn’t live a storybook life.

In the end, it was enough for the principals to acquit themselves well. The Chargers and the Bengals put on a very good game. As far as Chris Henry is concerned, that’s sufficient tribute.

After the field goal, given 54 seconds to work with, Philip Rivers brought San Diego to the Cincinnati 34. Nate Kaeding hit a 52-yard field goal. It hurt a little, said Ochocinco, who quickly reconsidered and said it hurt a lot. Reading more into a football game is fraught with peril. Ochocinco, now making his way to the team bus, had come to learn this the hard way.