Death doesn’t turn Chris Henry into a saint.
It’s always tragic, of course, when a young life ends well before its rightful time — and with such stunning suddenness. Mourn his passing. Pray for his survivors.
But we cannot — and should not — forget that the legacy of Henry’s pro career is that of one of the poster children for the NFL’s zero-tolerance policy to inappropriate conduct.
Many grieving his loss insist that the troubled Cincinnati Bengals receiver finally “got it.” A light clicked on upstairs that he was down to his absolute last chance at redemption. He became a positive presence in the locker room, crediting his fiancee for providing the structural and emotional anchor he had long lacked.
But then word filtered in from Charlotte, N.C., that police had discovered a gravely injured Henry sprawled on a residential street. He reportedly was thrown from the back of his pickup with his fiancee driving. How did this happen? Was there a domestic dispute? Was a criminal act committed? Was it simply a bad decision resulting in a tragic accident?
We go back to the three words that define the relationship between athlete and fans.
We ... don’t ... know.
We don’t know who these guys really are. We don’t know if some are as morally oblivious as police blotters or tabloid headlines make them appear. We don’t know if some are as repentant and socially enlightened as friends and handlers make them look once their transgressions meet the light of public scrutiny.
We don’t know why those blessed with special physical gifts can’t grasp how their unique athletic skill doesn’t guarantee them endless forgiveness for stupid behavior. We don’t know why unnecessary risk-taking becomes a natural adrenalin rush to so many.
They think they’re bulletproof, but then Chris Henry comes along with another reminder of how fleeting and precious time is. We don’t know if anybody will pay attention to another NFL player meeting a tragic fate and perhaps learn a valuable lesson.
Henry, with Pacman Jones and Michael Vick, transformed commissioner Roger Goodell into his new role of NFL sheriff with their reckless and relentless disregard for staying out of trouble. Goodell suspended Henry for eight games in 2007 due to his habitual pattern of finding his way into police custody.
Henry was a troublesome player for Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia. Rodriguez suspended him for conduct detrimental to the team and called him an embarrassment to himself and the program. The Michigan coach chose to recall the happier times warmly.
“I enjoyed our time together at West Virginia, and we shared a lot of great moments,” Rodriguez said in a statement Thursday. “I have many fond memories of our three years together and will remember those forever.”
Bengals owner Mike Brown placed his reputation on the line re-signing Henry last year, just months after Cincinnati cut him after his arraignment on an assault charge — his fifth arrest. “If you only knew him from hearsay,” Brown told HBO’s “Hard Knocks” last summer, “you’d think that he’s some kind of ogre. It’s not true. He’s a good person. When you see him up close, you’ll find that you’ll like him.”
Maybe Henry wasn’t as thuggish as his rap sheet suggested. But it only speaks to how we never really know anything until it’s too late.