CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry has died, one day after falling out of the back of a pickup truck in what authorities described as a domestic dispute with his fiancee.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said Henry died at 6:36 a.m. Thursday. Henry was 26.
Henry was rushed to the hospital Wednesday after being found on a residential road. Police said the dispute began at a home about a half-mile away, and Henry jumped into the bed of the pickup truck as his fiancee was driving away from the residence.
Police said at some point when she was driving, Henry “came out of the back of the vehicle.” They wouldn’t identify the woman, and no charges were immediately filed.
Police spokeswoman Rosalyn Harrington said homicide detectives have been assigned to the case but had no further information. Police have not released the 911 tapes, and Harrington wouldn’t say if the woman was present at the scene when police arrived.
Henry is engaged to Loleini Tonga, and the couple has been raising three children. Tonga’s MySpace page identifies herself as “Mrs. C. Henry” and has a picture of her next to a person who appears to be Henry. She also has a post from Tuesday talking about buying wedding rings. A neighbor said Wednesday that the Tonga family owns the home where police say the incident began. Charlotte is home to his fiancee’s parents.
Henry was away from the team after breaking his left forearm during a win over Baltimore on Nov. 8. He had surgery and was placed on season-ending injured reserve following the game.
Throughout his career, his temper and poor decisions got him in trouble.
He was ejected from a game and suspended for another at West Virginia, where former coach Rich Rodriguez told Henry that he was an embarrassment to himself and the program. His reputation was already costing him — the Bengals were the only NFL team to bring him in for a pre-draft visit in 2005.
They found that his demeanor didn’t match his reputation. Henry was shy and spoke in a quiet voice. They warned him that he had to stay in control if he was going to stay in the NFL. Then, they picked him in the third round.
In a sense, it was already a second chance.
“I’m worth the chance,” Henry said, when he showed up the following weekend for a rookie minicamp. “I’m just happy they took me.”
Henry become a vital part of the offense as a rookie, helping the Bengals reach the playoffs in 2005 with his ability to run past defenders to grab long passes. In the final month of the season, he also showed his other side, getting arrested for marijuana possession. After a playoff loss to Pittsburgh, he was arrested on a gun charge in Florida.
Henry and former Tennessee cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones became the league’s two most trouble-bound players. Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended both in 2007 — Jones for a full season, Henry for half of it — as part of a toughening of the league’s conduct policy.
When Henry was arrested for a fifth time following that season on an assault charge, the Bengals decided they’d had enough. At his arraignment on April 3, 2008, Municipal Court Judge Bernie Bouchard called Henry “a one-man crime wave.” He was released by the Bengals the same day.
It was a jolt to Henry, who had dreamed of an NFL career since high school, when he got the NFL logo tattooed on the back of his right hand. No team showed an interest in bringing him back. His career seemed finished.
Then, Bengals owner Mike Brown — who refers to himself as “a redeemer” — changed his mind and gave him another chance.
“If you only knew him by hearsay, you’d think he’s some kind of ogre,” Brown said, during the Bengals’ appearance on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series this summer. “It’s not true. He’s a good person. When you see him up close, you’ll find that you’ll like him. He’ll be a soft-spoken, pleasant person.”
This time, Henry seemed determined to stay out of trouble. After only 19 catches and two touchdowns in 12 games in the 2008 season, he set about making himself a topflight receiver again. He got into top shape and worked out with teammates in the offseason, showing more resolve than at any point in his career.
Henry also changed his personal life, spending more time with his fiancee and the three children they are raising. Teammates noticed a pronounced change in his demeanor.
“He’s a great kid with a great heart,” quarterback Carson Palmer said as training camp started. “He’s changed his life around. He ran into some trouble, made some bad decisions, and realized that. He’s sorry for them, apologized for them, and has done everything he can to make himself a better person. I’m just proud of him.”
Before the 2009 season, Henry got a new tattoo that matched his new outlook. Below his left ear, in flowing one-inch script, was the world “Blessed.”
“I kind of felt like I dug myself out of the hole and started doing the right things,” Henry said in an interview with The Associated Press as training camp opened. “People say, ‘How you feeling now Chris? You doing all right?’ I just tell them I’m blessed. That’s why I got it.”
He caught a touchdown pass in each of Cincinnati’s four preseason games. A thigh injury slowed him early in the season, and he had 12 catches for 236 yards — his 19.7-yard average per catch leads the team — when he broke his left arm during a win over Baltimore on Nov. 22, ending his season.
When he showed up in the locker room for the first time since surgery to fix the fracture, Henry sounded confident he could get through the latest setback.
“It just comes with time, you know?” he said. “I learned to handle all situations, so I’ll be all right.”