The irony, of course, is that on the field it has been a rare season of victory in Cincinnati, with renewed hopes, playoff dreams and so much good news all around for coach Marvin Lewis's young, first-place team.
But off the field, the fates have been much, much crueler. The Bengals family has already known more than its fair share of loss this season. In the span of a little more than two months, Cincinnati has twice now been touched by death.
First, there was Vikki Zimmer, the wife of Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who passed away suddenly in early October, plunging the team into grief just before a pivotal game at division rival Baltimore. And now Chris Henry is gone at 26, the victim of a senseless auto accident that reportedly resulted from a domestic dispute between him and his fiancée.
For a young man who found plenty of trouble early in his NFL career but had seemingly turned his life around in the past two years, seizing his final chance to make good, it's the most bizarre and tragic of endings. Henry lost his life because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, falling out of the bed of a moving pickup truck while in a fight with the mother of his three children. How does any of that begin to add up?
As for the Bengals, they are, unfortunately, back in all-too-familiar territory this season. Here they are, three days shy of a critical game in San Diego that may well determine how far their playoff drive goes in January, and they're again facing the challenge of playing through their pain. Again trying to focus on the task at hand while absorbing the shocking loss of a teammate and member of the club's inner circle.
"You try to be the true sense of the word, professional,'' Lewis said at a Thursday morning news conference at the team complex. "With everything going on around you, as a professional you have a job to do. You rely on the strength of each other, and the professionalism of the team.''
Football is always trivial in comparison to the loss of a life, but the game is a player's and coach's job, and it gives them structure and something to invest themselves in while they digest their sadness. The Bengals will do what so many other football teams have done when death interrupts a season. They'll grieve, they're find their ways to pay tribute to their fallen teammate, and they'll pour some of their raw emotions into their efforts on the field.
In October, when the Bengals lost Vikki Zimmer, who was beloved by the team's defensive players, they took the field in Baltimore three days later and registered one of their most impressive performances of a season that was just then starting to turn special. With Cincinnati's inspired defense leading the way, the Bengals beat the Ravens 17-14 to improve to 4-1, limiting a Baltimore offense that had been averaging 413 yards to just 257. It was the signature win of Cincinnati's season, and put them in first place to stay in the AFC North.
Afterwards, in an emotional Bengals locker room, Lewis presented Mike Zimmer with the game ball, and we saw a football team close ranks around their wounded defensive coordinator, sharing his pain and making his personal loss part of the memorable tapestry of their season.
Just yesterday, before the details of Henry's accident were known, I spoke on the phone with both Mike Zimmer and Bengals middle linebacker Dhani Jones, discussing Jones' pivotal role in Cincinnati's fine season, and what it was like for the Bengals to cope with and move past the loss of Vikki Zimmer. Jones was a pallbearer at her funeral, and he described that duty as one of the most meaningful experiences of his life.
"I don't even know how to explain the feeling that came over me when [Mike Zimmer] asked me to do that,'' Jones said. "But for him to allow me the privilege to have her in my hands for her last moments, in front of everybody, that meant a lot. I felt blessed to have had that honor. I felt blessed to have gotten to know her.''
Sadly, Cincinnati must find ways to cope with another death in the family. And this time it's a player whose role had grown into an important one within the team, and whose surprising career turnaround had somewhat mirrored the Bengals' return to relevance.
"I'll tell them to hang onto the fun things, the positive things they remember about Chris,'' said Lewis, when asked what he would tell his team in the difficult days just ahead. "That's what they should hang onto.''
For the Bengals, the wins have come steadily this season. But so have the losses, and not the kind that quickly fade away amidst the constant preparation for the next game. These are blows to the heart. In Cincinnati this year, the hardest of knocks just keep coming.