Saturday, December 19, 2009

Slim


Sometimes, sports take you to a place that is beyond sports, beyond the trivial things such as wins and losses, statistics, and a breakdown of every single game and match-up imaginable. Sometimes, sports become secondary. Such is the case with Chris Henry, the Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver who passed away on Dec. 17, 2009, one day after suffering serious injuries in a car accident. It is a tragic ending to a sad story.

The term “star-crossed” will most likely be used ad nauseam in reference to this situation, but it truly is the best way to describe what has taken place. Henry, who had become known just as much for his off-field problems as he had for his on-field success, sadly died in a manner that was shocking in many ways, and yet somewhat unsurprising at the same time.

During the afternoon of December 16th, Henry was reportedly involved in some type of domestic dispute with his fiancé in Charlotte, North Carolina, leading up to the accident. Henry had been on season-ending Injured Reserve after breaking his arm in a Week 9 victory against the Baltimore Ravens, and was in Charlotte visiting his fiancé’s family at the time of the accident. The two were believed to have been planning their wedding. After some type of domestic dispute began, Henry’s fiancé reportedly started to drive away from her parents’ home in a yellow pick-up truck. As she was trying to leave, Henry allegedly jumped into the bed of truck, and was later thrown from the bed of the vehicle about a half-mile from the home. Witnesses say that he jumped out, stating that Henry could be heard threatening to leap from the truck and kill himself if his fiancé didn’t stop and talk to him. Henry suffered life-threatening injuries in the accident, and was immediately rushed to the hospital and put on life support. He passed away around 6:30 a.m. on the morning of December 17th, only 26 years old.

The events surrounding his death are certainly bizarre, but are also part of a laundry list of controversial off-field things that Henry has been through since playing college ball at West Virginia University. In fact, Henry’s career is the quintessential example of a roller coaster ride. After redshirting at WVU in 2002, Henry earned 2003 Big East Conference Freshman of the Year and All-Big East Second-Team honors. In his two seasons on the active roster at WVU, Henry accrued 22 receiving touchdowns, which stand as second most in the school’s history. That’s the good. He was also ejected from a game against Rutgers University in 2004, and then suspended for a subsequent game against the University of Pittsburgh. Rich Rodriguez, head coach of WVU at the time, referred to Henry as “an embarrassment to himself and the program.”

Once Henry was drafted by the Bengals in the third round of the ’05 Draft, his life and career continued down basically the same current. The final stats for his sporadic five-year career leave Henry with 119 receptions, 1,826 yards, 21 touchdowns, and a very nice average of 15.3 yards per catch, all in only 55 games played. That’s not too shabby, especially considering he was usually the third or fourth receiver on the depth chart and missed 14 career games due to suspension, as well as a few others to injury. The bad part is that all of those suspensions stem from an inconceivable five arrests in only 28 months, as well as a few other skirmishes with the law (giving him another impressive average, albeit for the wrong reasons). He was busted on charges of marijuana possession, concealment and aggravated assault with a firearm, providing alcohol to minors, criminal damage, and driving under the influence, all in a little over two years time. He also allegedly assaulted a valet attendant for refusing to pay the valet fee, and when he was arrested for waiving his gun at a police officer, reports said he was wearing HIS OWN #15 Bengals jersey at the time. Following that fifth arrest in April of 2008 – in which Henry was alleged to have punched a man who owed him money and broken his car window with a beer bottle – the Bengals cut Henry from the team, finally fed up with his antics.

But eventually it came out that Henry’s last arrest was a case of mistaken identity, and that it was a friend of Henry’s who had actually assaulted the man, but didn’t admit it until the investigation was under way. This coincided with the Bengals entering their ’08 Training Camp banged up at the receiver position. Throw in the fact that Bengals owner Mike Brown is notorious for giving players second chances (and more), and Henry was back on the Bengals roster by August, about four months since being cut loose. Everyone in Cincinnati (including head coach Marvin Lewis) and around the NFL thought Brown was crazy for bringing Henry back. But Brown proved to be smarter than we thought.

The truth is, Chris Henry wasn’t actually a bad guy. He was well liked in the locker room. He was kind and soft-spoken. He had simply fallen prey to the fact that young kids, who become rich and famous at a young age, often have trouble with the transition. Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty put it best when he wrote, “Chris Henry could run 40 yards in 4.3 seconds. Problem was, trouble ran a 4.2.” But after receiving that second chance from Mike Brown and the Bengals, Henry put his life back on the right track. He figured out who his “true friends” were. He settled down with his girlfriend and future fiancé, who he also had three young children with. He became smarter, wiser even. He became a better teammate, a better father, and a better friend. He simply became a better man. His fellow teammate Bobbie Williams said that “(Chris) had made the changes he needed to make.” It felt like Henry’s troubles were behind him.

The problem was, “Slim” (Henry’s nickname) described not only his tall and slender physique, but also his chances of staying on the field. Whether it was suspensions or injuries, Henry always seemed to miss as many games as he played in. This time, it was the arm injury that put Henry on IR and cut his 2009 season in half. That’s why Henry was in Charlotte on a Wednesday in the middle of Week 15, instead of in Cincinnati practicing with the team. And that’s why, instead of catching passes and watching film, he was instead arguing with his fiancé – an argument that eventually led to his death. When you think of it that way, it leaves you wondering.

But even with everything that occurred, you can’t play the “what if” game with Henry and his tragic passing. Sure, it’s easy to say, “What if Chris hadn’t broken his arm? What if he was in Cincinnati, practicing with the team and getting ready for that week’s game?”. But once you start the “what if” game, you could simply ask things like, “What if the Bengals never re-signed him? Would he already be dead? In jail? Living a steady and successful life away from the NFL?”. You could even ask things like, “What if the Bengals had never drafted him to begin with?”. The “what if” game is just too broad in this scenario. It’s irrelevant. Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco mentioned this week how his grandma always says, “You never really question the man upstairs on a decision he makes because he never makes mistakes.” Well, Chad’s grandma is right. God has a plan. God doesn’t play the “what if” game, so we shouldn’t either. The real question, instead, should be “What now?”.

As I mentioned before, Chris Henry’s death is one of those situations in which sports takes us to a place that is actually beyond sports. This was no longer about a game. This was about life and death. You have to feel for a young man that had tried so desperately to turn his life around. You have to feel for a young man that had all the potential in the world; a young man, that, until a few days ago, had a future which was incredibly bright. You have to pray for the family that he left behind. His immediate family lived with Henry in Cincinnati ever since their home was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. He had a young fiancé that had stood by him in all of his troubles, and who he was planning to marry in March. He had three young kids, all of which now are forced to grow up without their father. Football seems so secondary after an event like this. And yet, in many ways, it isn’t.

Because Henry was an NFL player, his death was big news around the country, especially in Cincinnati. And while football may appear to be so trivial after a tragedy like this, it has to be brought into the situation. You see, football, to the men and coaches of the Cincinnati Bengals (and every other team around the league) is more than just a game; it is their profession. The Bengals organization lost a teammate, a co-worker, a friend, and a brother when Henry died. As I mentioned before, Henry was well liked in the Bengals locker room. Many of the players and coaches were close to him and his family. Now they are forced to continue their lives without him. Just as anyone else in the world is forced to continue living their lives when they lose a loved one, the Bengals must do the same. People still have to go back to their jobs and responsibilities, whether they lose a co-worker, a friend, or a family member. Unfortunately, the rules don’t change when something like this happens. And while football might just seem like a stupid game at the moment, it truly is much more than that. For the members of the Cincinnati Bengals, it is their career, something they work hard at and have worked for years to be a part of. In this situation, they are not unlike any of the rest of us that have lost someone we knew and loved. And just like the rest of us, they have to find a way to move forward.

It would be nice if this Sunday’s game against the San Diego Chargers were postponed. It would be nice if the NFL could honor Henry and sympathize with the Bengals by giving them some time off to grieve this loss. Despite Henry not being on the active roster at the time of his death, it doesn’t take away from the shock and the pain that his friends and teammates are having to deal with. It would be nice if they had an opportunity to get away from the game of football and get through this rough time. Nevertheless, they can’t. The NFL is a business. We are just weeks away from the NFL Playoffs, something which both the Chargers and the Bengals will play a prominent role in. In the same way that any other business can’t stop for tragedy, the NFL can’t stop either. If a waiter dies, the restaurant doesn’t shut down. If the President of the United States dies, the country doesn’t stop functioning. If a teacher dies, the students don’t stop going to class. And if an NFL player dies, the league can’t just stop everything. It is sad and cold, but it is simply the truth. The world isn’t a perfect place.

Through all of this, the Bengals still have a job to do. They still have to go out and perform to the best of their abilities. They still have to win games. This Sunday’s match-up against the Chargers has huge implications for how both teams will be seeded in the playoffs, and that is something the Bengals will have to deal with. And while I am as guilty as anyone for taking sports a little too seriously, at the end day, it still is a job to those people. Playing professional football is not an easy accomplishment. The players in the league have dedicated their lives and talents to make it to that level. Maybe they are glorified too much and paid too much, but that is not the issue here. The issue is that they strive to play well, to win games, to make the playoffs, and to win Super Bowls. It is how they measure success. It is how they exceed at their jobs, just like everyone else wants to exceed at their own job. The fact that they are rich, professional athletes doesn’t make Chris Henry’s death any easier on them. The pain isn’t any easier to bear. The situation isn’t any easier to get through. They are still human. And, whether they want to or not, they still have to continue moving forward.

It is hard to predict how this Bengals team will react to the tragedy. They have already dealt with tragedy this year, after defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s wife died earlier in the season. They responded well then, but can they do it again? Can they rebound from losing a teammate? Any Bengals fan could tell you that this team is better suited to deal with adversary than any other Bengals team of the past 20 years. But adversary in the NFL usually means penalty yards, injuries, and tough opponents – not death. To be honest, no team…or organization…or person is suited to deal with death. It is one of life’s few guaranteed passages, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach. The team could respond with inspired play for their fallen brother. They could take care of business and go into the playoffs with a heavy heart and a head of steam. They could find a way to channel their grief and sadness into desire and success. They could rebound from the heartbreak as quickly as it occurred. Or, they could completely collapse, deflated from the pain and sorrow that Henry’s death has brought them. Could you blame them if they did? Of course not. But either way, life – and football – will have to go on.

As you can most likely infer, I am a big fan of the Cincinnati Bengals. I have an obvious interest in how the team will respond to this situation. Seeing as how the team has played in only one playoff game in my lifetime, I have been very excited by the season so far, anxious to see my team secure a spot in the post-season and possibly make a run at the championship. And a couple days ago, my biggest concern was how the team would fare against San Diego, if the passing game would get its act together, and who we would be facing in the playoffs. But because I am a fan, I also have an obvious sorrow over Chris Henry’s passing. And something like that really makes you stop and think. The Chargers, the passing game, and the playoffs seem a lot less important when someone’s life is so tragically cut short. The game almost seems minimal. You are forced to ask yourself, “Are sports really that important?” Well, no, they aren’t. BUT, they still are important.

Chris Henry dedicated his whole life to the game of football. Chris Henry loved the game of football. Chris Henry wanted so badly to see the Bengals succeed (whether he was on the field or not) because that’s what he had committed his livelihood and profession to. His death was a terrible, terrible tragedy. I cannot imagine the heartache that his loved ones are now forced to go through. But Chris Henry would not want the world to stop on account of him. He wouldn’t want the Bengals to stop on account of him. Trust me. He would want them to keep pushing forward, to keep striving for success, to honor him by playing the game he loved. Henry died much too soon, in a far too tragic way. His death is so much bigger than the game of football. And yet, that doesn’t mean the game is immune to it. Quite the contrary. In all honesty, his teammates and organization are caught right in the middle of it, right in the eye of the storm. They are forced to pick themselves up and go on without him.

Some things are beyond sports. Sadly, this is not one of them.




RIP, Slim. Thanks for reading