By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Death is supposed to be the final chapter.
Write the biographies, make the final judgments.
But it isn’t always that way, certainly not with the former West Virginia University wide receiver Chris Henry, who died four years ago Tuesday.
Indeed, if you wrote the biography on that Dec. 17 in 2009, you would have written him off as a troubled young man who had so much to live for and died for so little.
He was 26, seemingly trying to straighten out a life that had been lived in a strange, dark alley.
Today’s Mountaineer fans say that Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey were the best receivers ever to play at the school, but it is difficult to place them on a pedestal any higher than that occupied by the kid who came out of Louisiana that they called “Slim.”
He was tall and lean, with hands as sticky as a frog’s tongue. He was Kentucky Derby fast.
Chris Henry was the kind of kid you could see developing into the best the NFL had to offer, but something was wrong.
It showed at WVU over and over to the point that his early departure for the NFL was seen as nothing beyond a blow to the football program.
He went to the Cincinnati Bengals, played five seasons, caught 119 passes for 1,826 yards and 21 touchdowns but, as I wrote at one point, “he had the world at his feet but kept tripping over it.”
He missed 14 games to suspensions for violating various league policies. He was arrested five times, including once on a concealed weapons charge, marijuana charges and for supplying alcohol to three underage females.
It reached the point that Cincinnati Municipal Court Judge Bernie Bouchard called Henry “a one-man crime wave.”
The shame of it all was you knew somewhere there was a good kid there, that he for whatever reason could not control the direction his life was taking him.
He tried. He had a fiancee and was raising three children, when in a fit of anger during a disagreement he got on the back of a pickup truck as she drove away, fell out the back and hit his head on the ground, causing fatal injuries.
That was where the end normally would go, a sad story, indeed.
But there would be more.
In death, Chris Henry gave life to others and helped his football brethren earn protection from serious brain injuries.
It was his mother, Carolyn Henry Glaspy, who made the decision to donate his organs for transplant, saving four lives by so doing.
She recalled being called to the hospital, arriving and thinking she would find her son suffering from injuries.
“When I put my hand on his chest and felt his heart beat and there was no response, I knew it was no more …”
Shortly later she decided to give the gift of life to others through his lungs, his liver, his pancreas and his kidneys.
On Thanksgiving a couple of years back, the NFL did a touching report on the life-giving decision.
“I couldn’t make plans for the future because I was too busy fighting for today,” said one of the recipients.
“To get a transplant, it was just like God gave me a second chance at life,” said another.
“I think about Chris Henry every day,” said a third.
And they live on, writing their own chapters to this life story.
It extends to the football field, too, where Chris Henry’s mother’s decision to allow his brain to be studied had to have helped bring about changes to the way football is being played while offering a potential explanation for some of Henry’s bizarre behavior.
The doctors did not expect what they found. With no history of head injury in college or the professional league, although his mother would say he had two mild head traumas in high school, neither resulting in missed time or treatment, they didn’t think they would find the brain deterioration they found.
Magnified 200 and 600 times, slices of a normal brain come out a clear blue like the sky with a few brain cells like stars, but Henry’s brain was filled with brown spots that signified Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
Today, in part due to the sacrifice of Chris Henry’s life, football is becoming a safer game, one that surely is being watched by four other families who feel a unique and loving connection to someone they never knew but who is very much a part of them.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.