The subject is Chris Henry, the former West Virginia star who passed away from injuries suffered as a result of what appears to be a domestic dispute with his fiancée. The problem for me is that I saw a Chris Henry that was much different that the public perception held by many, and I know there’s no way that what I write is going to change many, if any, minds on the matter. Even some West Virginia die-hard fans were quick to throw labels at Henry, calling him a”thug”, or worse. That the vast majority of those people had never met him, or knew anything of him other than his athletic achievements and run-ins with the law, means nothing to them. Everything has to be summed up with a snarky comment or a label in today’s drive-by society, and unfortunately, that’s the tag that Henry earned.
The Chris Henry that I had an acquaintance with was not a bad person at heart. I never saw malicious intent. I saw a shy, introverted person from the back woods of Louisiana who never had the guidance that many of us were so lucky to have growing up. As a result, Henry simply didn’t know how to deal with many situations. As I’ve said many times, ask Chris to go get some ice cream, and he’d probably say yes and follow along. Ask him to do something else, and he might do that too. He never looked to hurt anyone. He simply didn’t have the background, experience or mentoring to deal with the challenges that he faced.
Before I go any further, I’m not trying to excuse his actions. His behavior in some of the legal issues he had was clearly wrong. He was also not the most mature person while at West Virginia, and didn’t handle coaching very well. The fact that he didn’t have good guidance growing up doesn’t excuse that, because there have been others in similar circumstances that haven’t made the same mistakes or committed crimes. But is does, or at least it should, help explain some of Henry’s behavior at West Virginia and through much of his Cincinnati Bengals’ career.
With that said, the Chris Henry I knew was shy, and didn’t know how to deal with the media, or with many of the new situations that confronted him at WVU and in the NFL. That’s why he usually did not come out for interviews, and was viewed as cocky and condescending by some. While he knew he was talented, I never saw that exhibited by him toward his teammates, or to the media on the few instances when he did make himself available. When I spoke to him, he would always return the greeting, even though it might be just a wave or a single word in reply. His body language didn’t express unfriendliness or hostility. Rather, it was a wariness, a shyness, a lack of understanding as to how to act in those situations. He simply didn’t have the life experience at that time to know how to deal with most social situations. He didn’t understand that his actions impacted his teammates. Those are things that everyone has to learn, and he learned them later in his all-too-short life than most.
In reading over what I’ve written so far, I realize that this sounds like any of a million other articles about those in similar situations. “You didn’t know the real Chris Henry.” “At heart, he was not a bad guy.” We’ve read them all so many times that cynicism runs rampant. I know that what I’m saying probably won’t register with many, or any, of you
reading this. But I have to make the attempt, because I saw a Chris Henry that many of you didn’t get the chance to. I also saw and heard things that can explain some of those actions.
Take, for example, Henry’s blowup at Rutgers in 2004. In that game, Henry was subjected to some of the most vile abuse from Rutgers fans that I have ever heard. F-bombs and the ugliest of racial threats and taunts rained down on Henry, and he didn’t take it well, leading to a final unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and his removal from the game. On his way out, he responded to the fans, some of who ran down the aisles in order to deliver more verbal assaults. In his place, would any of us be able to keep our cool? Even now, five years removed from that incident, I still get upset and angry about the whole thing. A guy that wasn’t equipped to deal with some of the most basic situations is supposed to keep his cool while his heritage and skin color are being verbally assaulted? Again, this isn’t to excuse his ultimate behavior. Others in similar situations have managed it. But I understand why he reacted the way he did. If it had been me, I’m not sure if I would have handled it any better – and it might have been worse. How much did that play into Henry’s mistrust of authority figures, of his apparent rebellion, in future months? I never got the chance to ask him. But I bet it was a factor.
Chris Henry at the WVU-
Cincinnati game on Nov. 13
Our last meeting, on the field at the West Virginia – Cincinnati football game on Nov. 13, was like many others. A smile, a hello, a quick wave, and a photo or two. Chris was with his fiancée, and other than the black sling supporting his left arm, he looked the picture of an elite, if extremely slender, professional athlete. It’s hard to believe he’s gone now. I wish I had taken the time to talk with him for a few more minutes, to tell him that he was doing the right things. Would it have made any difference? Probably not. But I still wish I had done so.
As coverage of Henry’s death unfolded on Thursday, it didn’t really hit me until I looked at the photos of his distinctive features and watched video of his play. And yet, those touchdown grabs and big plays weren’t the defining moments of his life. Those came when he recognized his self-destructive behavior, and took steps to turn it around. Was that change permanent? Again, there’s no way to know. But we should all recognize that changing one’s own behavior is one of the most difficult things to accomplish – and he had made a great start in doing just that. In making himself into someone that his family, friends and fans could be proud of, he achieved more that he ever did on the football field. I just wish I had taken that opportunity to tell him so.
I know I’ve been all over the map with these thoughts. I’ve tried to put them together into a coherent narrative, with a theme that holds them all together. But for whatever reason – my acquaintance with him, the unfair labeling, whatever – it’s caused a jumble of thoughts and emotions that have defied organizing them in the way I would have liked. I hope, though, that the central thoughts came through. Chris Henry was more than a clutch of arrests and disciplinary incidents. He was a person whose struggles to mature came in the public eye, and despite many setbacks, seemed to be finally coming to fruition. I can only hope that the lessons he learned so painfully might serve as examples to others in the future. If so, his short life certainly won’t be one that was lived in vain.
Rest in peace, Chris.