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Coping with the death of a teammate

Bengals must carry on, but the loss never leaves. Matt Bowen

Print This December 17, 2009, 12:31 PM EST

Chris Henry’s death at the age of 26 is tragic, and today we’ll read about how his passing will affect the Bengals as they move forward with their football season.

Can the Bengals find a way to prepare for this Sunday and beyond? What does head coach Marvin Lewis say to his team today, and how do the players get through meetings and practice and keep their focus?

Yes, all of that will be discussed, because at times like these, we tend to look past the death of a player and focus on football players and adversity.

I’m not going to write about that because I know football players. I know they are structured and that they’re almost programmed as individuals to deal with adversity from a team aspect. They will practice and prepare for Sunday because that’s what they are taught to do.

But the death of their teammate is something they will never truly overcome as individuals — because you are forever connected with the men with whom you play. It’s a unique bond, different than any other workplace in America. You become attached by repetition, and you become accountable to one another.

Because that’s what being a teammate is all about. And now that’s gone for many of these Bengals players. And unfortunately, I can relate to anyone who played football with Chris Henry in high school, college or the NFL.

My first year into retirement from the NFL, I received a phone call from one of my former teammates in Washington, who told me that Sean Taylor had been shot.

I was floored, but hopeful, because Sean was strong, both physically and mentally.

However, the phone call I received early the next morning left me standing speechless in my kitchen, looking for something to say to the voice at the other end of the phone line. Sean had passed, and at the time, I couldn’t put into words how that would affect me moving forward.

Sean and I were not best friends, but we were teammates who relied on one another on Sundays, and in this league, that’s almost stronger in terms of the bonds created on the field.

When Sean passed away, it took something from me because of that bond you have with your teammates. I understand from my own experience that playing NFL football is much different than the relationships you have with your high school or college teams because it is, in fact, a job. But it’s a unique job — one that requires you to lean on each other in ways that can’t be found in the 9-to-5 jobs we all end up taking at some point in our lives.

Players in this league often call this a fraternity, from the guys who played the game before us to the guys who will play it after. And when someone leaves that fraternity too early, and too tragically, it has a lasting affect on its members.

I struggled with Sean’s death and still think about him often. Not because of what he could do on the football field, but for what he could do for his teammates on the football field. We all know how great he was as a player, but it was the little things he did, the things that sometimes only his teammates would understand that made him a great man. It’s part of being on a team, and in the pros, that the team becomes part of your own family, and it’s family that you’ll lean on today and for the rest of your lives beyond your playing careers.

To this day, whenever I hear Sean’s name, I flash back to being on the field with him, in the huddle and in the locker room after a win, because the time you spend with one another is comparable to your family at home, and that’s why players from various backgrounds seem to blend with one another so easily and without hesitation.

And I have to believe that the members of this Bengals team are thinking the same thoughts, because losing a teammate stays with you. It makes you think, it makes you wonder and it makes you wish he were still there.

I never knew Chris Henry, but that doesn’t hide the fact that his death won’t sting everyone who has ever worn that NFL shield on their chest.

And for the guys who shared a locker room with him, he will be forever missed and forever remembered as a teammate.

Follow me on Twitter: MattBowen41

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