Nowhere to run
By Mark Dent
CHILLICOTHE, Ohio – The lights go out at 11 p.m., no exceptions, not even for the resident of Unit 7A, cell number 264.
Maybe he could’ve gotten a break on team curfew in 1996, when he left Kansas as the No. 1 rushing leader in school history. Not anymore. June Henley’s turned his lights off at 11 for the last 892 days, the time he’s spent at a county jail and at Ross Correctional Institution, a prison located an hour south of Columbus, Ohio, where he’s two and a half years into a four-year sentence.
They put him here, in the gray slate building behind the 20-foot-tall razor-wire covered fences, for aggravated robbery and burglary. He wears a light blue T-shirt and denim button-up over his softened but still imposing 5-foot-11 240-pound frame, counts a Bible, radio and tiny TV among his few possessions and spends a good portion of his days sitting in his closet-sized cell, staring at the white walls wondering how he got here and what life holds for him when he gets released.
“Being here,” Henley said, “it’s just horrible.”
Teammates, friends and family never knew this June Henley. They knew the record-breaking running back at Kansas, NFL Draft pick and senior class president in high school, someone who wanted and usually succeeded at getting everyone to like him. They didn’t know the drug abuser, failure or felon.
Henley used to wear No. 20 and run from linebackers. He thought football would set him up for life. When the game got taken away from him, he ran away from jobs, friends and responsibilities. Now he’s just inmate No. 527701, another face among the rapists, murderers and robbers at Ross Correctional Institution.
* * * * *
Across from the library and down the hall from the gym, a framed picture of a smiling June Henley rests on a tiled wall of Brookhaven High School next to the school’s other top athletes. Parade All-American, it says. Division II Player of the Year, it says.
Somehow, June knew his picture would be here. He begged his mom to let him go to Brookhaven back when he was in eighth grade. Mary Henley let him go on one condition: He had to make the honor roll. If June didn’t, he’d be back in the private Christian school system.
That was life in the Henley household. You had better work hard. Charles Henley Sr. got to the Columbus Dispatch building downtown by 5 every morning, where he worked as circulation manager. He worked until he finished, went home to be with the family and rested, then left for Columbus Auto Parts to make a few extra dollars at night.
You had better follow God, too. Charles Sr. became a Christian after he married Mary 37 years ago. They took the kids to Southeast Apostolic Mission Church every Sunday. When June, who is named after his father and whose nickname is a shortened version of Junior, wanted to throw a New Year’s Eve party in high school, Mary turned him down. He had to go to church the next morning.
In exchange for the work ethic and devotion, June, his older sister, LeeTonya, and his adopted brother Terry Glenn got love. Mary and Charles Sr. attended every one of June’s Linden Eagles youth football games and many of his practices. His parents shielded him from bad influences. June had to be home at 10 p.m. on weekday nights throughout high school or he’d better find somewhere else to sleep.
And he got football. Mary first wanted him to play baseball, but June stopped after one trip to the park when he got hit in the head with a ball. Charles Sr. took over from there. They’d practice in the backyard at nights, and Mary could tell her son really loved football. It was the way he ran.
“You could just see the desire in it,” she said, “All his life.”
On his way to a record-breaking 2,582 yards and 35 touchdowns his senior year of high school, June turned in several memorable performances. The sixth game of the season at Westerville North still stands out.
The rain came down in sheets that day. Horizontal rain, as Marv Whiting called it.
“The field, the equipment,” he said, “everything was drenched.”
Whiting, an assistant coach and close friend of the Henley’s, told the players to bring an extra pair of socks. June forgot. Caked with mud and wet grass, June ripped his wet socks off before the game. He picked up a piece of white chalk, drew a line at the top of his ankles and colored above his shoes.
“OK,” Whiting remembered June saying. “Everyone happy?”
He ran for 240 yards that night, without socks.
That was June. Always playful.
Friends and teachers remember him as much for that playful personality as they do for his football, basketball and track. His senior year, the student body elected him class president. Georgia Hauser, June’s marketing teacher, and Whiting both said June took the job seriously even though it was a popularity contest. June might have won because he was popular, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to work hard. He gave the school’s morning announcements over the intercom and organized a senior night of games and dancing. He even bought pizza for the event.
When graduation rolled around, the senior class president and prom king gave the speech.
“What up,” June shouted.
All the seniors erupted.
“He had to say two words,” Mary said, “and they went off.”
June doesn’t remember exactly what he said that day. Neither do his parents. They were just proud. June graduated with good grades, had a steady girlfriend named Tracy Simmons and was getting ready to play football at Kansas: a sure success story.
“I would have staked my life on June Henley,” Hauser said.
June Henley took one look at the University of Kansas and knew. Really. One look.
June saw the spacious, tree-covered campus and fell in love right away.
“Mom,” June told Mary, “I’m going here. I already know.”
He also liked coach Glenn Mason and his recruiting assistant, Mitch Browning. They promised that June would get the opportunity to play running back. Michigan and Ohio State had been recruiting June as a defensive back.
Mason’s decision to let him run paid off immediately. June ran for 83 yards against Florida State his first game. He continued to impress as the season went on – 143 yards against Nebraska, 237 against Iowa State, a 100-yard kickoff return against Colorado. Charles Sr. and Mary bought two-for-one plane tickets on Southwest so they could see every home game. Life was great. Then trouble arrived.
Georgia Hauser saw June’s mug in the upper corner of her TV on SportsCenter one Thursday evening in November 1993. He’d been caught with a couple of teammates stealing a leather coat and a pair of Reebok basketball shoes from the Half Price Store on Iowa Street a few days earlier. It wasn’t the first time they’d done it, just the first time they’d gotten caught.
“We just thought we could get away with it,” June recalled.
The news broke two days before he was supposed to break the KU freshman rushing record. Mason let June run that Saturday. He scorched Missouri for 118 yards and entered the Kansas history books.
His behavior troubles continued. June helped Kansas to a 10-2 record his junior year and finished his career as the top rusher in KU history, but several incidents marred his tenure. He was arrested in 1995 for pushing his girlfriend. In 1996, he was cited for not paying child support, but the charges were dropped. Later that year, June got pulled over for a DUI, driving with an expired license and driving without insurance. He finished his last year of college 10 credits short of a degree, hoping for a long career in the NFL.
“Part of a college coach’s problems is working through their problems, solving their problems,” Mason said. “You might see a good football player and see he’s a bad guy. That was not June.”
Friends and family of June Henley crowded into the Henley’s three-bedroom house on Renwood Place and watched the 1997 NFL Draft on a big-screen TV. Burgers and hot dogs sizzled on the grill outside. Greens and other Mary Henley specialties baked in the kitchen.
This was June’s big weekend – the coronation of years of hard work, the ticket to a long career of fame, fortune and football.
After waiting all of Saturday, the Kansas City Chiefs finally selected June with the first pick in the fifth round on Sunday. Analysts said June dropped in the draft because of his behavior issues. He wanted to prove them wrong. With Kansas City, he never got the opportunity. The Chiefs cut him, and June spent his rookie season on the St. Louis Rams’ practice squad.
June beat out Greg Hill, Robert Holcombe and Jerald Moore the next year and started three games for the Rams. In his first start, June rushed for 86 yards and two touchdowns in a victory against the New England Patriots, his brother Terry Glenn’s team.
“It showed me that I can do this,” June said. “I can play at this level. It let me know and let the coaches know.”
St. Louis rewarded him with a two-year, $600,000 contract but also signed Marshall Faulk that off-season, making June the default backup.
He wouldn’t mind backing up Faulk. June was living the life. He bought a Lincoln Navigator, partied hard and spent his money.
Sometimes, after practices, quarterback Kurt Warner would ask June if he wanted to come to Bible study with him. The reply was always the same.
“It’s all about June right now,” June recalls telling him. “God can wait.”
“He’ll take it away from you,” Warner would tell June, “if you don’t give back.”
The dream got taken away sooner than June ever imagined. In a late July scrimmage against the Indianapolis Colts, June felt his toe pop up after a carry. Turf toe. He’d had it before and expected it to last two or three weeks. But this pain was severe. June didn’t play the rest of the preseason and had to make a decision: play for the practice squad for less money or take an injury settlement.
Most of his money from the previous season had already been consumed because of his extravagant lifestyle. With Simmons pregnant again, June chose the settlement.
June tried out later that season for the Miami Dolphins, and Glenn got him a workout with the Patriots the next season, but June didn’t make either team.
After 17 years of being a star, football was gone from June Henley’s life.
“I didn’t really ever accept it fully like, oh this is it,” June said. “It was hard to take. That was all I knew growing up — football, football, football.”
A U-Haul pulled up to Mary Henley’s house on a sticky, hot Columbus summer day. June and Mary unloaded clothes and furniture into the basement. Day one of life two.
“If you’re coming back home, it must be time for you to get the Lord, to get right with Christ if football’s not going to work and forget about it,” Mary said she told June.
If only it were that easy.
June got a job at a steel processing plant. He wore boots with steel toes. He stood in front of a conveyor belt. He earned about $80 on his first paycheck.
“For real, this is not me,” June thought back then. “I know this can’t be.”
June soon quit and started working for Charles Sr. in the Dispatch’s circulation department.
Family and friends urged him to go back to school and finish his final 10 credit hours. June even once contacted Kansas to get his transcripts, but he never re-enrolled.
Life in the real world started taking its toll. He missed football, hated work and had just ended his 11-year relationship with Tracy.
“Once June knew he wasn’t going to play pro,” Whiting said, “he just gave up.”
The free ride others gave June the football star also stopped. He used to get out of tests and homework assignments in high school and got suspended for only one game in college for all of his legal troubles.
“We put athletes on a pedestal,” Whiting said. “In Columbus, he could get away with anything because everybody knew him.”
Drugs provided an escape to June’s depression.
About three or four weeks after his last tryout for the Patriots, June started “indulging.” He smoked crack or snorted cocaine and even tried selling it.
His new girlfriend, Makeda Martin, was the first to find out. One night June called her to pick him up from a bar then came clean. He told her he started smoking crack and had cheated on her a couple times.
“It’s not going to be an easy road,” Martin said she told her boyfriend that night.
For the next two years, June kept using drugs and was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia in December of 2000. Then, as his mother said, he hit rock bottom.
June quit working and started going on drug binges. He’d go to the crack houses scattered throughout the North Columbus neighborhoods and smoke until he didn’t have to think about why he didn’t play football anymore.
“When you doing that,” June said, “you ain’t really worried about anything else. Everything else can be put on hold.”
The binges could last for two or three days, Martin said. June would return to Martin’s house to eat, sleep, ask for money and then return to the street. Martin, who worked at a bank and didn’t use drugs, sometimes gave him money, knowing that if she didn’t, June would steal to fund his drug use.
She knew that because he did steal. He was charged twice with misdemeanor theft in 2003 and sentenced to three months in a Columbus jail.
“You get clean,” June said about being in jail, “then come out and do the same thing.”
Martin stood by him through the trouble, but they fought often. June rarely visited his parents even though he lived with Martin close by. Mary said she prayed for him, hoping that the Lord could help her son.
“Those were scary times,” Mary said. “I could tell something was wrong because he wasn’t coming around me.”
Martin hadn’t seen June for several days. Another crack binge. Martin always got scared, but she said she always thought he’d come back home every time. On Nov. 17, 2005, he didn’t.
That morning, just before 10, June sat in the driver’s seat of a rusty Chevrolet van outside a modest one-story house at 2875 Hamilton Ave. A red rag covered the license plate. Past the giant oak tree in the front yard and inside the red door, two of June’s friends snatched up whatever they could find. A TV. A Playstation. A Sega. They hoped to sell the loot for drug money. He said he was high at the time.
A sober June Henley likely wouldn’t have stolen from a house. Two weeks earlier, he told his mother that. Burglars had been terrorizing a wealthy neighborhood in Columbus. June couldn’t understand. How could someone steal from inside someone’s house, he wondered.
Drugs changed his mind. June stole to support his habit.
Now, here he was, playing lookout for a house burglary less than a mile away from where his mom and dad lived. His accomplices kept bringing out the loot. A mixer. A camera. A DVD player.
A neighbor stepped outside into his front yard three doors down after seeing a man carrying a TV set. He called the police. June saw him. He shouted at his accomplices. They sped east down Melrose Avenue with $1,345 worth of loot.
An officer spotted the van about an hour later when June and his friends returned near the site of the crime to sell the stolen goods. June also got charged with aggravated robbery for a crime the day before. According to police reports, he’d gone inside a Sunoco Station, and when the clerk didn’t accept his credit card, June menaced a woman customer and took a $20 bill from her.
June spent the night of Nov. 17 in jail on $100,000 bond. He hasn’t left since. A judge sentenced him to four years after he pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary.
In prison, a single football card proves that June Henley used to be more than the felon with a paunchy stomach who’d rather play basketball during rec time.
He keeps the card in his cell to show other inmates and remind him of the life he lived as a St. Louis Rams running back. Here, most people don’t even know he played football, and if they did, it wouldn’t matter.
No one gets special treatment in prison. Fights break out, the food tastes like rubber and the prisoners in June’s unit get counted like cattle twice a day to make sure no one’s escaped.
When he first arrived as an inmate at RCI, June’s job was to wake up at 3:45 every other morning to help prepare breakfast. After a couple hours off, he’d prepare lunch at 10 and then do the same for dinner in the afternoon. Now June does janitorial work. He gets about four hours of recreation time a day, when he plays basketball and lifts weights, and has his tiny TV in the cell he shares with one roommate. June watched KU’s Orange Bowl victory in January. Phone conversations with Martin, his parents and Glenn provide some of his only enjoyment.
The Bible’s kept June away from the boredom, the fights, the clashing personalities and the strict prison guards. During his first few months at the Reception Center in Orient, Ohio, before he got transferred to RCI, June slowly started developing the faith his mother told him about. He would wake up and read a scripture. Go to the bathroom and read one there. Then, in a crowded cell full of about 30 inmates on July 9, 2006, it all came together.
June said he started speaking in tongues. A Somali inmate thought June was talking to him. He wasn’t. It was a religious experience.
“I just felt the spirit going through me,” June said. “My whole life changed, man.”
June regularly reads the bible and “Daily Bread,” a prayer book in his cell. He doesn’t fight or even cuss and is clean of his drug habit, he said. The days are long, but he’s finally getting a clear head to reflect on his past.
Mary Henley is planning to host another party when June gets out on Nov. 15, 2009, just like the one they had on draft day so many years ago.
Friends and family will celebrate and help. Georgia Hauser will write recommendation letters. Mary is already trying to secure him a job at their church.
June said he wanted to spend more time with his kids, Charletta, 14, Tanya, 11, and Charlea, 8. He said he might write an autobiography and is thinking about going back to school to become a trainer.
Those close to June know it won’t be easy. He’s a convicted felon. Employers won’t jump to hire someone who has no degree and has committed a violent crime.
Then there’s the drug problem. Martin knows about crack users all too well. One of her close family members has been addicted for 23 years, as have other friends. She’s hopeful but not confident that her boyfriend can kick the habit.
“I have never seen any success stories from someone who used crack,” Martin said. “In jail, you’re away from it. The time to tell is when you’re going to get out and have freedom.”
Whiting, his one-time coach, thinks June could make it, but admits he thought June’s dynamic personality would help him succeed after football the first time. He has a theory that 90 percent of people don’t get their dream job but instead settle on Plan B. June didn’t settle, he said.
“That was June’s problem,” Whiting said. “He saw himself as a pro player, and when that ended, what was there to do?”
Football is still not coming back. June failed once at life without the game and nearly destroyed himself. He’ll be 35 when he gets out of prison, when he gets another opportunity, a Plan C.
His mother prays that Plan C means Christ, his girlfriend worries it could stand for Crack Cocaine and another Cell, but it really stands for Choice.
June Henley acknowledged that belongs to him alone.