by Jim Litke
There’s a moment early on in the HBO series “Hard Knocks” when reclusive Bengals owner Mike Brown goes a long way toward revealing why he gave film crews unfettered access to his team’s preseason preparations.
Brown, who occasionally refers to himself as “a redeemer,” was defending his decision to give troubled receiver Chris Henry yet another shot at salvaging his career. But he could have been talking about any of the dozen or so similarly bad actors to whom Brown has given second chances—or even his own rocky stewardship of the franchise he inherited nearly two decades ago and ran into the ground.
“He has a chance now. He’s knows it’s his chance and he can blow it,” Brown said. “And if he does, it’s his fault.”
Henry’s efforts to redeem his personal and professional lives ended tragically Thursday, a day after he fell out of the back of a pickup truck and suffered fatal head injuries during what police described as a domestic dispute with his fiancee in Charlotte, N.C.
Though he had been sidelined for the remainder of the season with a broken forearm in early November, by almost every measure, Henry was making progress on both fronts—and his maturation was mirrored by the fortunes of the Bengals.
A week ago, Cincinnati was poised to lock up the AFC North title and a playoff spot, something the club has managed just once since Brown took the helm from his father, the late Paul Brown, in 1991. But the Chargers beat the Bengals 27-24 on a last-second field goal Sunday, marking the second straight week they failed to clinch the division title.
“Chris changed his life around when nobody thought he could,” Cincinnati tackle Andre Whitworth said afterward. “Nobody thought the Cincinnati Bengals could go from 2-14 to where we are now. We embodied that. He embodied us. He changed and we changed. That’s why he’s important to us.”
Signs of how deeply Henry’s death touched his teammates were everywhere. Chad Ochocinco, a fellow receiver and close pal, carried Henry’s jersey onto the field before the game and fought back tears after. In between, early in the second quarter, he caught a 49-yard touchdown pass from Carson Palmer to give the Bengals a 10-7 lead, then dropped to his knees, put his right hand on his heart, looked up and said a few words in tribute to Henry.
“Today I played with an extra set of hands, an extra set of legs and an extra heart,” Ochocinco said.
“The more and more active I am, the easier it is to keep off my mind. On the flight home it’s going to bother me. At the funeral service it’s going to bother me. When it’s quiet and you have time to think,” he added, “it’s going to bother me.”
How Henry’s death affects the Bengals from here on out remains to be seen. They had already dealt with the loss in October of Vikki Zimmer, the wife of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, and now most of the team will make an emotional trip Tuesday to attend Henry’s funeral in New Orleans. Among those expected to deliver eulogies is coach Marvin Lewis.
Little more than a year ago, Lewis loudly voiced his displeasure with Brown’s decision to bring back Henry, who had been released by the team and suspended by the league after being arrested five times on a variety of charges in the preceding months.
“A lot of times, Chris was very quiet and he let everybody speak for him. He turned the corner when he began to speak up himself and distance himself from the people that were dragging him down,” Lewis recalled recently. “Since last August we’ve seen pretty much a continual growth and a degree of responsibility, expanding his role here…quite an expansion of both football on the field and off the field.”
Lewis had been approached in the past about doing “Hard Knocks,” but turned it down because he worried his team wasn’t mature enough to handle the distractions. What changed is that his veterans assumed a larger share of the leadership duties, and in much the same way that Henry demonstrated a willingness to put in the work that came with added responsibility, the rest of the squad began to fall in line.
The change was marked enough that Brown, whose tightfisted and often-secretive front-office dealings were often lampooned in the media, approved the presence of cameras in camp. As much as anyone, he was proud of the changes that the Bengals and Henry, in particular, had made.
“I don’t regret it,” Brown said late last week about giving Henry a second chance.
And yes, it was challenging at times with him, but he was someone who we liked and thought could regroup, catch himself and restart his life. And to his credit, I think he did that.”
Moving on without Henry won’t be easy. But as several of his teammates said about playing Sunday in San Diego, he wouldn’t have been satisfied with anything less.