R.I.P. Chris Henry (1983-2009)

On Wednesday, December 19, 2009 Bengal wide receiver Chris Henry was involved in a ‘domestic dispute’ with fiancée Loleini Tonga. The dispute centered on their wedding plans.

A domestic dispute seems to constitute the same thing as domestic violence, but domestic violence isn’t necessarily physical – it can be verbal abuse or threats.

Henry suffered severe injuries when he fell off the back of Tonga’s truck while chasing her following the dispute. He was taken to the emergency room and subsequently placed on life support. On Thursday, December 20, 2009, Chris Henry passed away.

How many people have, in a moment of stress, said something that they later regretted? How many have, during wedding planning, said something to their fiancée or to another family member that they shouldn’t have said? I would venture that nearly every person answered one if not both of the previous questions with a ‘yes.’ Most people didn’t follow up an ill-chosen remark by chasing down a pickup truck. But most people aren’t Chris Henry.

In the wake of Henry’s death it has become increasingly clear that no one seems entirely certain of how to categorize his legacy. He was a great athlete, but he wasn’t a superstar. He had made poor decisions, decisions that had cost him severely. But he seemed to be turning his life around. Still, there wasn’t a ton of evidence other than an absence of arrests to demonstrate a transformation. And then on December 19, phrases start floating around the news: domestic dispute…argument…falling off a pickup truck. Words that, on their own suggest a certain sense of humanity and immaturity. Words that suggest a recklessness, a way of living that many would perceive as unfamiliar or would desire to be unfamiliar. These words, combined with the previous record of the individual seem to indicate a lack of transformation. An absence of goodness. We hate to forgive people in our society unless we’re doing it on our terms. A professional athlete sets a bad example for young people and Smack! the gavel is struck – he’s leading young people astray, destroying their lives, destroying the fabric of our society. His team gives him a second chance: they’re enabling him. Heck, they’re encouraging him. They aren’t doing anything to stop him. Chris Henry was never allowed to be a human being by the media or society. Even in his death.
Chris Henry was born and raised in the New Orleans area. He attended Belle Chasse High School, southeast of New Orleans. Belle Chasse is 80% white, 16% African American. Henry starred on the school’s football, basketball, and track teams. He led his football team to the brink of a state championship in 2001, losing in the final at the Superdome. He was among the top athletes in the country and was heavily recruited, choosing to play football for Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia. Once there, his stardom continued to grow but behavioral problems began to surface. During his sophomore year he was ejected from the Rutgers game due to multiple unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and was subsequently suspended for the season’s final game.
Henry was drafted with the 83rd pick of the 2005 NFL Draft and excelled with the Cincinnati Bengals during his first two seasons. However, legal problems drastically limited his playing time until the Bengals finally released him.
Henry’s police record reads like the laundry list of a young irresponsible man living in the moment, not taking care of the opportunity he has to positively influence the world and create financial stability for himself. Guns, alcohol, drugs, women, drunk driving, assault, rinse, repeat. The words themselves stink but it is the pattern that is really damning. The words don’t give an indication of a transformation and the pattern, well…you really can’t get around the pattern.
21 months. It had been nearly 21 months since any arrests when December 16th began. Henry had found his way back on to the Bengals. He had served a suspension, earned playing time, and become a key cog in the team’s passing attack. Since his early November injury, the Bengals have not had a deep threat in their passing game.

So, who was Chris Henry? Was he a stupid kid who couldn’t escape his past? Was a star athlete who succumbed to the fame and thought he was invincible? Was a transformed ex-convict who was incredibly unlucky?
In many ways, Chris Henry was all of these things. He was an incredibly talented athlete: taller, faster, and more athletic than almost anybody else he competed against. He was an irresponsible young man: made his share of mistakes, paid the price. But in the midst of all of this, he was a human being with terrific potential: in the wake of his death his teammates and fiancée have discussed his desire to change, his desire to be a positive influence on society. Even so, he was still a young man prone to foolish mistakes. And that was his undoing.
He’s not Len Bias, overdosing on cocaine the night after the NBA draft. He’s not Sean Taylor or Darrent Williams, killed in a robbery or a drive-by shooting. He doesn’t have the romance of Reggie Lewis or Korey Stringer, dying on the court or on the field. We try to compartmentalize everything, as though life is a jigsaw puzzle that we can solve. We tend to use too many analogies – only able to understand something or someone in the context of something or someone else. We lose the individual for the collective, lose the trees for the forest. We lose sight of the way that one person can be both a positive and a negative influence. That one man can do both evil and good.

‘To an Athlete Dying Young’ by A. E. Housman

THE time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

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