Commentary

Bengals helped Henry behind the scenes

Updated: January 11, 2010, 12:14 PM ET
By John Barr | ESPN

CINCINNATI -- On the surface, Rusty Guy and Chris Henry had little in common. Guy, 54, is the Cincinnati Bengals' director of security, a 20-year veteran of local law enforcement and private security. When he joined the Bengals full time during the team's 2007 training camp, he joked at the time that he fit the NFL's profile for team security chiefs: "Old, gray and white."

At that time, Henry, the lanky 6-foot-4 wide receiver with prominent tattoos and dreadlocks, had emerged as one of the leading examples of the NFL's new personal conduct policy. Henry was preparing to serve an eight-game, regular-season suspension for numerous off-the-field transgressions. At 24, he'd been arrested four times since the start of his rookie season in 2005. The patience of many within the Bengals organization, including coach Marvin Lewis, was wearing thin.

But there was one important front-office exception: Bengals president Mike Brown. The son of Paul Brown, the legendary coach and co-founder of the Bengals, Mike Brown had developed a soft spot for his troubled young receiver. At the Bengals' news conference after Henry's death, Brown recalled a one-on-one conversation he had with Henry at a team Christmas party a few years ago. "The impression he left me with was altogether different than how he's been portrayed," Brown said of Henry. "He was gentle, alert, well-spoken, interesting to talk to, and he won me over."

[+] EnlargeRusty Guy
ESPNRusty Guy, the Bengals' director of security, grew so close with Chris Henry that Guy delivered the eulogy at Henry's funeral.

"Mike Brown clearly loved Chris," Guy said in a recent interview with "Outside the Lines." "I had anything at my avail to help the young man."

In the weeks since Henry's death on Dec. 17, after a traffic incident the day before in Charlotte, N.C., "Outside the Lines" has learned that the Bengals were going to great lengths behind the scenes to help Henry salvage his NFL career -- putting him on a budget, helping him pay his bills on time and at times sending a bodyguard with him.

"The Bengals did anything and everything they could for Chris," said David Lee, a Cleveland-based sports agent who represented Henry at the time of his death. "I think a lot of people cared for Chris. Mike Brown and Rusty were at the forefront."

Among those included in the Bengals' efforts to help Henry off the field were Eric Ball, the team's director of player relations; Ray Oliver, the Bengals' associate strength and conditioning coach; and Bill Scanlon, chief financial officer.

But it was Guy, a former street cop from North Carolina, who developed a unique bond with Henry. The two grew so close that Guy sought and gained permission to deliver the eulogy at Henry's funeral. "He, in many ways, was probably the son that I never had," Guy said.

When Guy first met Henry in July 2007, Guy was well aware of the public's perception.

"He was a monster, a criminal, always getting into trouble, irresponsible," Guy said, reeling off the things he had heard about Henry up to that point. "As soon as I met him, something was amiss."

Guy recalled finding a "quiet, soft-spoken and thoughtful" Henry, an image that didn't mesh at all with his preconceived notions. "Immediately I knew that I was wrong," Guy said, "and sensed right away that so was everyone else."

Guy and others within the Bengals organization worked to change the way Henry handled his personal life -- from his friends and free time to his mental health and money.

"Our charge was to do everything that we could to put the past behind him and get him on the right path," Guy said.

Chris Henry
Courtesy of Leatrice Hollis Chris Henry's boyhood home was in Belle Chasse, La.

In an August 2009 preseason game in New Orleans, a short drive from Henry's boyhood home of Belle Chasse, La., Guy assigned Henry a bodyguard who had once worked with singer James Brown, although Guy neglected to inform Henry of his plans until the team's chartered jet was taxiing to the gate in New Orleans. (Guy said the team also provided security for Odell Thurman, a linebacker who was waived by the team in May 2008, after a string of off-the-field problems.)

Henry, eager to renew old acquaintances on a rare trip home, did not take the news well.

"That was one of the few times that he got angry," Guy said. He confronted Henry about that decision later that day at the team's hotel.

"We did a little social engineering all the time as to who his roommate was, and on this trip [tight end] Daniel Coats was his roommate," Guy said, recalling the encounter.

"Dan came to the door and said, 'Chris is really mad.' And I said, 'Well, why don't you leave the room and I'll spend some time with Chris?'" The two men proceeded to have what was, at times, a heated, clear-the-air session. In the end, according to Guy, Henry grudgingly acquiesced.

Guy insisted that his frequent decisions to assign Henry a security staffer had less to do with Henry than with the people around him -- a view shared by Henry's aunt, Leatrice Hollis, who often hosted Henry and his family in the offseason.

Hollis said it took a while for Henry to come to terms with the notion that the Bengals were trying to help him, but Henry eventually came to see Guy as a sort of "godfather."

After being drafted in 2005, Henry moved to the Cincinnati area, where he lived with his mother and two younger brothers. In August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, Henry took in 11 family members who were displaced by the storm, according to Hollis.

"Eventually the friends started to come," Hollis said, recalling how Hurricane Katrina affected Henry's life off the field. "That was the problem. … They all wanted to be a part of that lifestyle, you know, the way that they saw it on TV … someone gets a draft and then instantly they're a millionaire."

Guy began to identify people close to Henry who, he said, contributed to Henry's off-the-field missteps. Guy declined to identify anyone by name, but "Outside the Lines" learned from two sources familiar with Henry's acquaintances that one of the men Guy was most concerned about was Kyle Landry, a friend Henry had known since his middle school days in Louisiana.

In April 2008, Landry and Henry's younger brother, Marcus, were indicted for robbery in Jefferson County, Ky., according to court documents. The charges against Marcus Henry ultimately were dismissed, but Landry pleaded guilty in November 2008 and was sentenced to five years of probation.

"Kyle's behavior was a clear demonstration that he did not have Chris' best interests at heart," Hollis said.

"Once that was removed, once that person was out of the picture, then that seemed to help," Guy said.

[+] EnlargeChris Henry
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesChris Henry during the Bengals' game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 27 in Cincinnati.

In early 2008, Henry agreed to allow the Bengals and the team's chief financial officer, Scanlon, to assume wide-ranging control of his financial affairs. Using Henry's money, the team began paying Henry's bills, according to Guy, and even placed him on a weekly allowance, one that eventually grew to $700 per week.

"[Henry] burned through an enormous amount of money his first couple of years and essentially was broke last year," Guy said. "I mean broke, flat broke."

"He was placed on a budget, a very modest budget, which meant that he wasn't going to be able to do the 'bling, bling,'" Hollis said.

Lee, who began representing Henry in February 2009, assigned an accountant to clean up a myriad of tax issues and outstanding debt. Lee declined to say how much Henry owed the government and various creditors.

"By the time of his death," Lee said, "we had paid off almost all of it."

Lee said the Bengals also urged Henry to work on his mental health, and he confirmed that Henry had several sessions with a sports psychologist in Cincinnati.

When Guy considers the Bengals' efforts to try to help Henry turn around his life, he's proud --and conflicted.

"My daughter will probably shoot me for saying this, but … we were at her 15th birthday dinner sitting in a restaurant and … she said to me, 'You know, Dad, you caused all of Chris Henry's problems.' I said, 'Pray tell, you know. What do you mean by that?' And she said, 'He would get into trouble and you get him out of trouble and you just empower him to do it again.'"

When asked whether there was truth in his daughter's statement, Guy said: "I think you could make that argument … it's an interesting perspective. It made me think twice."

Still, Guy and others close to Henry maintain they witnessed genuine personal growth in the months leading up to Henry's death.

In early December, Henry was in Charlotte with his fiancée, Loleini [Leini] Tonga, planning a March wedding for more than 500 guests. Henry had managed to stay out of trouble for more than a year and a half.

Then came the Dec. 16 incident in Charlotte, when, according to Tonga, Henry jumped from the back of a truck Tonga was driving. Guy received a call while skiing in Colorado. He had worked for more than 2½ years to help Henry turn his life around and, in an instant, Henry was gone. (Charlotte police said last week that Tonga would not be charged in connection with Henry's death.)

"I cried … just got it over with and cried for five or 10 minutes, and then got to work," Guy said, recalling that day.

He immediately flew to Charlotte as the team's lone representative, to help Henry's family deal with the death and prepare for a funeral.

"The tragedy in this is that you see a guy that had turned a corner, whose life was improving," Guy said, recalling "the friendship, the relationship, the phone calls [and] the smile."

"It is almost unbelievable that I won't see him on Sundays."

John Barr is a reporter in ESPN's enterprise unit. He can be reached at jbarr-espn@hotmail.com. Enterprise unit producer Nicole Noren contributed to this report.

John Barr | email

Reporter ESPN Enterprise Unit