SAN DIEGO -- Wide receiver ChadOchocinco did not dress in his locker stall after the Bengals' heartbreaking 27-24 loss to the Chargers late Sunday afternoon in Qualcomm Stadium. Instead, he slipped into his loose-fitting blue jeans and oversized white T-shirt in the stall next to his, the one with "No. 15" handwritten on a white nameplate above it.
That was the jersey number teammate ChrisHenry wore before dying of head injuries early Thursday morning, one day after falling out of the back of a pickup in Charlotte, N.C. Ochocinco was extremely close to Henry, going so far as to refer to him as a little brother at times. When news of the passing broke, Ochocinco took it so hard that he even went against his grandmother's wisdom and questioned whether God had made a mistake.
As the Bengals bus pulled into Qualcomm Stadium amid blue skies and an overflowing parking lot, a sign of condolence hung near the players' entrance. In the locker next to his, Henry's jersey was draped over a hanger. Ochocinco wanted to do everything he could to make sure Henry's presence was with him before he took the field, where he caught three passes for 79 yards and a touchdown. But first, he had to get over a bad case of the jitters.
"I felt really, really, really nervous today," he would say afterward. "I usually have butterflies before a game, but today felt different. ... It was sort of like a little empty feeling."
This was the toughest game Ochocinco has ever had to play in. Not because the Bengals were matched against a Chargers team that has won nine in a row and needs only one more victory or a Patriots loss to clinch the No. 2 seed for the AFC playoffs. It was because he was playing with a heavy heart and, to some degree, could not honor his friend in the way that he wanted.
The plan was to wear Henry's jersey in the game, but the reaction from some in the media, public and league office -- which threatened to fine him -- caused him to change his mind.
"As I talked about wearing the jersey and things of that nature, the outside doesn't understand it was bigger than football with me and him," Ochocinco said. "I can't even explain it. It was hard. You have somebody like that that you take under your wing for five years, and you see him hit that turn and turn the right way. I mean, y'all already know the story. It's just hard. He was like a brother.
"[But] you had certain media type that had the nerve to say I was making the situation about me. When I hear something like that, then to hear the NFL say they would still fine me. For a situation like this? Are you serious? So, now it's not me doing everything I can for people to remember him. Everybody grieves and mourns a different way. My way would have been out there wearing that jersey, because I know if I was gone, Slim would have had on that 85 today, regardless. Trust me. But when it turned to a negative, which it could have been a negative -- I'm sure that if I would have worn it, it would have been spun into a negative -- that's when I had to backtrack and think, 'Slim [which is what he called Henry] wouldn't want that. He would want me to go out there and play for him.' So today I went out there and played with an extra set of hands, an extra set of legs and an extra heart."
When Ochocinco beat man coverage and got behind cornerback AntonioCromartie for a 39-yard touchdown just two minutes into the second quarter, he raised his right index finger to his facemask as if asking the crowd in the East end zone for silence. Then he dropped to one knee and thought about Slim.
"85 and 15 will always be 100 ways to be great -- I just kept saying it (to himself) over and over," he said. "85 and 15 is a hundred ways for us to be great. It was a little thing we used to have (between us) and say all the time."
Not every Bengals was hit as hard as Ochocinco. Running back Cedric Benson, who is in his second season with Cincinnati, said afterward the news hit him hard during the week, but that he had refocused by Sunday. He added: "I wasn't really worried about all that stuff. That happened early in the week. It was addressed during the week. Yeah, it's unfortunate. But it is what it is. It happened."
Quarterback Carson Palmer acknowledged thinking of Henry at different points in the game, but not to the extent that Ochocinco did. The veteran wideout sat on the bench with his face in a towel after scoring and he slipped on a pair of dark sunglasses before doing his postgame interview,.
The pain of the loss won't leave him soon. Ochocinco said he expected the plane ride home to be particularly difficult -- as many quiet moments will be -- and Henry's funeral service Tuesday in New Orleans.
"Stay busy as much as I can, that's all I can do," Ochocinco said. "The more active I am, the easier it is to keep it off my mind. ... Everybody is saying, 'Stay strong and focus.' It's easy to say when you have no bond with the individual."
Ochocinco had more than a bond. There was a brotherhood.