WESTWEGO, La. – Chris Henry’s fiancee wept as she spoke about the late Cincinnati Bengals receiver Tuesday, saying that while she often got credit for steering him clear of trouble, he changed her life as well.
Henry, 26, was killed after he fell out of the bed of pickup truck driven by his fiancee, Loleini Tonga, during what police called a domestic dispute. Police are investigating, but no charges have been filed.
Tonga, wearing large sunglasses, paused to gather herself repeatedly as she spoke to hundreds of mourners at his funeral – including Henry’s teammates – who filled the grandstands at a suburban New Orleans events centre. Tonga professed eternal love for Henry and promised to raise their children the way he would want.
“Can’t nobody know the way I’m feeling right now. No one can explain the relationship that me and Chris had. In six years of knowing each other – through hard times, good times – we loved each other very much,” she said. “People say I helped change his life. No. He changed mine.”
Mourners clapped briefly as Tonga slowly made her way back to her front row seat.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Bengals players, coaches and members of the front office, as well as other NFL players including New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush, were among those who attendance. The Bengals wore black, round buttons on their lapels with Henry’s No. 15. Many from Henry’s hometown of Belle Chasse wore red ribbons with a small photo of Henry that read: “In loving memory” and “Chris (Slim) Henry.”
Speaking before the service, Goodell said Henry’s legacy would be a good person who made mistakes, then sought to better himself. That his life was cut short just as he was turning it around made Henry’s story so tragic, Goodell said.
“His future as a husband and a father were important to him,” Goodell said. “He was a young man that struggled, made some decisions that he regretted, but he put himself on the right path.
“And I’m proud of that. I’m proud of him.”
Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer and head coach Marvin Lewis delivered eulogies. Lewis said before the service that Henry touched a lot of people in his very short life.
“It’s a bright story and one that didn’t get to get all the way to the end of it, which is the most unfortunate part,” the coach said. “We’ll miss Chris’s sparkling smile.”
Palmer made some chuckle as he remembered Henry’s friendly demeanour.
“He walked past my locker every day to shake my hand as I said, ‘Good morning,’ and every day he said, ‘What’s up, cuz,’ ” Palmer said. “We’ve all seen and experienced different sides of Chris, and with every side he showed us, we saw just how kind and gentle his heart was.”
Henry grew up in the small, suburban community Belle Chasse, not far from the funeral site. Shane Shelley, 26, was Henry’s high school quarterback when they made it to the state title game in 2001, their senior year.
“We really lost a good friend, a brother, one of my best friends,” said a watery-eyed Shelley. “It’s hard. We lost one of us. We’re going to miss him. We love him.”
Henry died Thursday, a day after he fell out of the truck in North Carolina, where he had been recovering from a broken forearm that ended his season. Police said Henry and his fiancee got into an argument at the Tonga family home and she drove away on a curvy residential street near downtown Charlotte. Henry jumped into the truck’s bed.
A witness has said he heard Henry say, “If you take off, I’m going to jump off the truck and kill myself.” A 911 caller told a dispatcher she saw a shirtless man wearing a cast “beating on the back of this truck window.”
Police said Tonga stopped to assist Henry when he fell about 800 metres from the home.
Tonga and Henry had two children together, Chris Jr. and Demarcus, and they also cared for Tonga’s two other children, Seini and Denalya.
Henry’s football career was marred by off-the-field problems, beginning when he played college ball at West Virginia. His troubles continued during a five-year NFL career. He was suspended five times for arrests ranging from weapons charges to drugs.
The Bengals said Henry had turned his life around this season and showed a renewed focus on his football career. A thigh injury slowed him early in the season, but he had 12 catches for 236 yards. His 19.7-yard average per catch led the team before he broke his left forearm during a win last month over Baltimore.
Henry dreamed of playing in the NFL, but after he was ejected from a game and suspended for another at West Virginia, the Bengals were the only team to bring him in for a pre-draft visit in 2005.
Selected in the third round, Henry played a vital role as a speedy, deep threat as Cincinnati reached the playoffs in his rookie season. But in the final month of the season he was arrested for marijuana possession.
“The Chris Henry I knew was a good quiet young man, wasn’t a troublemaker,” said Shelley, his high school friend. “That’s what everybody needs to know. He was a good man, a good father.”