Photo: Cincinnati Bengal Chris Henry with fiancée Loleini Tonga, and kids: DeMarcus, 10 months, Seini, 3, and Chris Jr., 2, Sept 15, 2009.
Teary players held a somber practice Thursday and dedicated the rest of their season to receiver Chris Henry after learning that he'd died a day after falling from the back of a pickup truck during what police described as a domestic dispute.
Teammates say Cincinnati Bengals receiver Henry was determined to leave behind his troubled past and move ahead toward a bright future.
Photo: Chris Henry and Loleini Tonga.
The shocked players huddled by themselves in the locker room once they got word that Henry had died at a hospital in Charlotte, N.C. They said a group prayer, then went out on the Paul Brown Stadium field to walk through some of their plays for an upcoming game in San Diego.
Photo: Chris Henry with his then-girlfriend Loleini Tonga and one of their three children at Bengals training camp.
No one said much.
"It was tough," receiver Andre Caldwell said. "We were crying."
Not the first time, either.
The team was grief-stricken in October when Vikki Zimmer, the wife of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, died unexpectedly at the couple's home. Three days later, Zimmer coached the defense in a 17-14 win in Baltimore that put them in control of the AFC North. Afterward, players teared up when Zimmer received the game ball.
Losing a teammate hit the Bengals (9-4) even harder on Thursday, leaving them in no mood to get ready for a game on Sunday. They can clinch the division title and only their second playoff spot in the last 19 years with a victory.
Players will put a commemorative No. 15 sticker on their helmets, and coaches will wear commemorative pins during the game.
Henry's death was particularly stunning to his teammates because he had put so much effort into changing his life in the last two years. Receiver Chad Ochocinco couldn't finish his plate of lunch, he dumped broccoli into a trash bin, and shuffled around the locker room slowly.
Ochocinco sniffled and blinked back tears welling in his eyes when he remembered how he'd talked to Henry on Tuesday night, catching up on things. Henry had been in Charlotte, where his fiancée's parents live, recovering from a broken arm that ended his season.
"He was doing everything right," Ochocinco said. "My grandma always says you never question the man upstairs on decisions he makes. Everyone makes mistakes, but I don't see how Chris was supposed to go already, especially when he was on the right path."
Players walked silently past Henry's locker in the corner of the room — his nameplate and No. 15 were still affixed to the top of the cubicle; a wooden stool rested upside-down on the shelf; Henry's shoes were lined up at the bottom; his tiger-striped helmet hung from the side.
Ochocinco wore Henry's white No. 15 practice jersey for an afternoon workout that started in a somber mood, no joking, no laughing, hardly any talking as players stretched.
When they learned of Henry's death, quarterback Carson Palmer called the players together and suggested they dedicate the rest of the season to the receiver and Vikki Zimmer.
"Carson spoke about one thing ... that Chris was a great competitor," said defensive tackle Domata Peko, who often had Henry and his family over to his house. "What he would want us to do is go out and win, not be sad. You're going to go through these times and be sad, but to pull together and dedicate the rest of the season to Chris and coach Zimmer's wife."
Following the afternoon practice, Zimmer said it was difficult to deal with another tragedy.
"I don't think anyone knows how to deal with it," Zimmer said. "Like I told somebody, the world's not going to stop. That's how it was with me. That's the one thing I learned from this whole deal — the world ain't stopping. People still get up and go to work. Everyone's got to deal with different issues, and unfortunately we're dealing with this one."
Bengals players got calls and text messages from around the league. Receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who left Cincinnati for Seattle after last season, got through to Ochocinco and traded texts with other players and coaches.
"I can imagine what everyone is feeling because everyone liked him," Houshmandzadeh said. "Carson really took a liking to him. The owner, who matters the most, really liked him, talked to him and realized that he was a real good person and gave him multiple chances, and he was starting to make him look good. He was going to stay out of trouble. And for your life to end like this is unbelievable."
A talented player, Henry, 26, had struggled through a number of mistakes away from the field, he was suspended five times, and the Bengals at one point released him after the 2007 season as he dealt with an assault charge. But owner Mike Brown decided to give Henry another chance and brought him back on a two-year deal before the 2008 season.
Brown liked Henry's personality and was glad that he gave him another chance.
"I don't regret it," Brown said. "He had troubles and some of them were made more of than I think they actually were. But we knew him here as the person he was in fact."
"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. And it's a terrible tragedy that just at the time he was running to daylight, if you will, his life was snuffed out."
Henry was popular in his hometown of Belle Chasse, La., a suburb of New Orleans, and had numerous fans in the Superdome when the Bengals visited the Saints this past preseason.
"Belle Chasse is a small community and he had a great reputation here," said Larry Maples, Henry's basketball coach at Belle Chasse High School. "He was a good person in the community and in school."
Earlier in the summer, Henry visited with his prep football coach to talk about his NFL career.
"He came by just before training camp and we had a long talk. It really seemed he was headed in a new direction," Bob Becnel said. "I told him he had to do better. We talked about making sure he was hanging around the right people and was aware of the situation around him. It seemed like he was making a diligent effort to do well."
MORE ON CRIMESIDER
December 18, 2009 - Chris Henry 911 Call: Woman Reported Shirtless Man Beating on Back of Moving Truck (Pictures)
December 17, 2009 - Loleini Tonga, Chris Henry's Fiancee, at Center of Storm; Homicide Detectives Look into NFL Death
December 17, 2009 - Chris Henry Dead: NFL Star Thrown From Truck During Dispute with Fiancee Loleini Tonga, Say Cops