Chris Henry's life and death should serve as a lesson to everybody.
He was either a misunderstood kid who was never able to escape the trappings of a rough childhood combined with the sudden influx of a lot of money, or he was a knucklehead who repeatedly fell into a pattern of ill-advised behavior. His criminal record makes it easy to look down on him as another thug who didn't "get it". However, like most things, the world of Chris Henry wasn't one of blacks and whites, but one that was perpetually gray.
Like many, Henry used athletics as an escape for a family life that wasn't easy. A natural athlete, he excelled at many sports, but football was his love. At 6'5" and just under 200 lbs, "Slim" was a natural receiver, and he was an immediate star at West Virginia, recording 22 touchdowns in two seasons of play. He moved on to the NFL in 2005, joining the Cincinnati Bengals as a third round draft pick. As a professional, he used his speed and size to become a game-changing deep threat. He scored 15 touchdowns in his first two years, though injuries and suspensions limited his numbers after that. Despite never becoming an elite player, Henry was loved by fans in Cincinnati who saw him as a guy oozing with potential, and just waiting to break out. Unfortunately, it never happened.
His career was marred by several off-field incidents which led to more than one suspension by the league. It was easy to dismiss Henry as just another stereotypical athlete who thought he was above the rules. This is why he stayed in trouble, why he never fulfilled the promise he had as an athlete, ultimately why he did at the age of 26 in a bizzare accident with his girlfriend when he fell out of the back of a moving truck. His death, while tragic, was used as further evidence that he was a man bent on a path of self-destruction. His untimely passing, though, may have helped shine some light into the darkness of his life.
In June of 2010, it was discovered that Henry suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, most likely from the accumulation of hits to his head in the course of his playing career. It is believed that this may have contributed to his off the field behavior, including the incident that resulted in his death. Henry was never diagnosed with a concussion while playing. This may not excuse some of the things he did, but it does mean that writing him off as a guy who didn't figure things out might be unfair. It means that maybe he just couldn't figure things out.
It has been exactly four years since his death, and the story of Chris Henry still serves as a cautionary tale, for fans who just looked at the man on the surface, the NFL and the way it handles the way the game as played, and players who will face some of the same issues. Sometimes things aren't as black and white as they seem, rather as gray as the haze that clouded Henry's decision-making process. It should be noted that posthumously, Henry's tale did bring something good. His mother donated his organs, and the lives of four people were saved as a result. In life, he suffered his share of hardships, given little. In death, it was he himself who have the greatest of gifts. Bengals fans will never forget the enigmatic Henry, who, like a roman candle, burned brightly, but for too short a period.
Chris Henry 1983-2009 is survived by three children.