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Saturday, May 13, 2000
Backed into a corner

By Shelley Smith
Special to ESPN.com

They came at him slowly and carefully, he remembers now, creeping out of the cracks in the walls when the lights were lowest in the wild hours of the night. He was there, too, of course, living the lifestyle of a man who seemingly had everything -- looks, brains and money, lots of money thrown at him to play football in the NFL. That, of course, was his attraction, the sugar spill on the countertop that draws the roaches.

Darryl Henley really did have it all. He was a starting cornerback for the Los Angeles Rams after becoming an All-American at UCLA, where he graduated with a 3.3 grade-point average in finance. He came from a family of success -- both his mother and father had college degrees, one brother was graduated from Stanford, another from Rice. They were a close group, on the phone night after night, swapping stories and telling jokes. They were, if not the Cosbys, damn near close.

"You can't look at me and say, 'Oh, a product of the environment,' " Henley says now. "I have some pretty awesome parents and I was living a dream I worked my ass off for."

That dream was shattered in 1995 when Henley was convicted on drug trafficking charges and sentenced to 20 years in prison. It vanished for good two years later when another 21 years were added to his sentence, when he pleaded guilty to trying to hire a hitman to murder his sentencing judge and a witness in the case.

Henley is now an inmate at the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Ill. Where once he was on the phone constantly with his brothers, he is now allowed just five 15-minute phone calls per month. Where once he was surrounded by scores of "his boys" and plenty of girlfriends, he now sees outsiders only through glass and talks via a receiver. He is locked in his small cell for 22 hours each day, spending his time watching a tiny television or listening to the radio. He is 33 years old and not even eligible for parole until he is 65.

"I lost focus," he says, sitting in the visitors center at Marion, one of the country's two maximum security federal prisons. "It was as simple as that. I lost focus as to knowing what got me to where I was."

He forgot about all the extra workouts he forced himself to push through while at UCLA, all the times he ran sprints in the rain when nobody was around, the hours he spent in the weight room after his teammates left for dinner, all the times he heard he wasn't big enough or strong enough or fast enough to make it at UCLA, let alone the NFL, and vowed to work even harder than before.

He started believing, now that had met all those goals and more -- heck, he was starting for the Rams -- that he didn't need to work at it anymore, that he didn't need to do all those things. And he started hanging out. First it was until midnight, then midnight became 1 a.m., 2 a.m. Pretty soon it was 4 a.m., catch a few hours of sleep, go through two hours of practice and then go home to nap before starting all over again.

Henley's web site
Darryl Henley addresses his "drastic fall" from the NFL in his own words at www.darrylhenley.com, the former Rams cornerback's official web site. Henley intends to use the site to "extend my personal experiences to others who may be headed for the same tragedy."

"Every time I read in the newspaper, listen to the radio or hear on television how another professional athlete (namely an NFL athlete) has had an encounter with the law/law enforcement, I cringe and become angry because there are plenty of examples," Henley writes.

The site, which includes Henley's e-mail address, has a link to In Distress Foundation, Inc., a non-profit organization that has created a defense fund for Henley and accepts contributions to pay for his court appeals.

"And when you go out and you're hanging out at two, three, four in the morning -- every single morning, you're going to attract people of all types," he says. "I don't care who you are, I don't care how straightlaced you are. If you choose to, to hang out in this type of atmosphere, then people are going to come. They're going to flock to you. And for the most part, you do a good job of staying clear of situations. But then there are those that just sneak up on you."

Sneak up and start working the angle. Henley says it took a few weeks, but it wasn't long before he was hanging out with people he says now he thought were his friends.

"For all intents and purposes, yeah," he says, "They were my friends. I mean, they made me laugh. They came over and we kicked it. They came and watched me work out. If they didn't want to work out, didn't want to job, they would drive alongside of me in my Mercedes while I ran. You know? Whatever it was that I wanted them to do."

For a while, he says, it was cool. He liked the camaraderie he says was lacking with the Rams during those years as management either traded or waived many of the players Henley had been close to. He liked having people around who, he thought, shared the same interests.

And then, he says, they started introducing him to their friends and friends of their friends. And before he knew it, he was thick into something he couldn't identify, but something he was into too deep to get out of. Henley can't talk about the details of his case because of appeals he has made, but he will say that had he wouldn't be in the situation he is now if he had made better decisions about his friends.

"Ultimately I'm the one that's responsible for what's happened in my life, but I do think that 90 percent of it is due to the choices I made as far associations that I picked, chose. Associations with people who, at some point, I knew didn't have the same interests as I did. And when you compromise that, and you allow yourself to lose focus -- things can spiral downward. And you find yourself in a situation where, as hard as you try, you can't pull yourself up."

It wasn't long after they all met, he says, that they got caught, something nobody had thought of, and convicted. Suddenly, the spiral downward was out of control. He says he was angry, confused and, most of all, desperate -- so desperate that his thinking became irrational and warped to the extent that he'd do anything to make this all go away. And that's when the idea of killing the judge and the witness -- a former Rams cheerleader -- began sounding like a lifeline. But he got caught then, too, and his life was changed forever.

He watched his old team win the Super Bowl this year from his cell -- the second worst day in his life, he says. Not because he wished them ill-will, but because he could see what he once was and remembered what might have been. His worst day was when the first morning he woke up at Marion.

"I looked at myself in the mirror and saw me," he says.

He was also watching TV in his cell when he heard about Ray Lewis being arrested for murder the night after the Super Bowl and all he could feel then was rage because nobody seems to have learned anything from what had happened to him.

Not one thing we did was worth it. Not one place we went. Not one stripper we saw. Nothing, not one thing was worth that. Not one thing was worth them saying -- guilty as charged. These are the demons that I have to battle every night.
Darryl Henley

"I just saw myself all over again," he says. "I got the same painful feelings."

Athletes, Henley says, don't realize how vulnerable they really are and, if he could, he'd tell them "that you're not that far away from wearing a different uniform than you wear on Sundays."

"You're not that far away," he added. "I mean, the decisions that you make -- I mean, I am fighting for my life. We're talking about decisions you make. Be conscious of every single decision because you don't know which decision it will be that will keep you in that uniform or put you in this one. You don't know."

Henley hasn't seen a night outside since 1995. He has a wife who continues to stand by him and visits regularly. He has a 4-year-old daughter in California who asks God every night to bring her daddy home. Knowing that it won't happen -- not until she's close to 40 years old -- has nearly destroyed him.

"I am going to continue to be the best father I can be to her under these circumstances," he said. "Some people (say), 'Well, you don't have much of a life.' But I have a life. I have a life where I can still be progressive and still be positive no matter how hard it gets."

And that means speaking out, trying to get a message to young athletes who feel invincible, pleading with them to think about him locked in a cell for at least 32 more years.

"Not one thing we did was worth it," he said. "Not one place we went. Not one stripper we saw. Nothing, not one thing was worth that. Not one thing was worth them saying -- guilty as charged. These are the demons that I have to battle every night."