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Intercepted: how temptation and hubris brought an NFL player to ruin

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Intercepted: The Rise and Fall of Cornerback Darryl Henley, by Michael McKnight, University of Nebraska Press.

Editor’s note: the following is an excerpt from Intercepted: The Rise and Fall of Cornerback Darryl Henley, published this week by the University of Nebraska Press. McKnight spent eight years investigating how an NFL player ended up in one of the country’s most high-security prisons, a downfall precipitated by Henley’s involvement with drug dealing, murder, and a young St. Louis Ram’s cheerleader named Tracy Donaho.

McKnight, a Hermosa Beach resident, is a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated and was formerly a personal trainer locally at The Yard. He has quickly made a name for himself as one of the finest emerging sports journalists in the United States. As his Sports Illustrated colleague Austin Murphy writes of Intercepted, “The twisted, tragic, stranger-than-fiction journey of Darryl Henley is sensational in the hand of Michael McKnight, a gifted storyteller who also happens to be one of America’s best investigative journalists.”  

Read an interview with McKnight.

The black box was designed by a prisoner. Darryl Henley would not find this out until later, but it was true. The unwieldy block of steel that bound his shackles to his belly chain was the invention of a nameless inmate who had devised a better way to restrain himself. This irony would not have mattered to Henley had he known just then, as he stood staring at a hot tarmac stretching beyond an airplane emblazoned “Federal Bureau of Prisons.” It was the same runway where he’d boarded over thirty flights destined for NFL road games, “dressed to impress and smelling like new money,” as he liked to say. But on this day he was wearing a plain white T-shirt, pocketless khaki pants, prison-issue plastic slippers, handcuffs, a belly chain, leg irons, and the black box. Always the black box. He had recently been sentenced to forty-one years at the U.S. penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, the worst federal prison in the country, with no possibility of parole. Darryl Henley did not smell like new money anymore. He smelled like fear.

At his sentencing a month earlier, he’d been ordered to serve a little more than twenty-one years for cocaine trafficking, plus nineteen years for the heroin deal and double murder plot he’d tried to pull off from behind bars. This second set of crimes happened when Henley paid a prison guard at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles to bring a mobile phone to his cell each night. He then used that phone to arrange a million-dollar shipment of heroin from LA to Detroit. His newfound supplier, a Mafia soldier named Joey Gambino whom Henley had never met, had presented Henley with the heroin deal over the phone and followed it up by offering to do away with the young woman who had been the star witness at Henley’s trial, Rams cheerleader Tracy Donaho, and the presiding judge, too. Two hits in exchange for a portion of Henley’s imminent heroin profits.

Henley accepted Gambino’s offer. Only Joey Gambino wasn’t a Mafiosi. He was an undercover DEA agent named Mike Bansmer who recorded all of his conversations with Henley.

Once a jovial, popular, articulate NFL player with a clean criminal record, Henley found himself in court a few days later pleading guilty to soliciting two murders, including the assassination of a federal judge.

And now Henley was waiting to board the plane that would take him to Marion, the end of the line for American criminals. No one could explain how or why a man who made $600,000 a year playing pro football had sunk to such depths, especially this exceptionally bright young man who had been raised by a close-knit Christian family in the LA suburbs, excelled in parochial schools throughout his youth, and graduated from UCLA as a B- average history student. As perplexed as they all were, though, no one stood more confused by the events of the previous four years than Henley himself.

Standing there on that hot runway at lax, he saw a mirage in the shimmering heat distorting the asphalt. It was an image of himself, wearing a tailored Armani suit bearing just the right sheen, a $400 tie, $300 sunglasses, and Italian loafers that cost more than the tie and shades combined. His friends, fellow Rams defensive backs Todd Lyght and Keith Lyle, were standing with him, diamond studs in their earlobes, all three men eager to board the jet droning next to them so they could slide on their headphones and catch a nap on the way to Atlanta. Or New York. Or Miami. Only this time it would be to Marion, a secluded collection of cages built in 1983 to replace Alcatraz. This was the prison that Henley’s sentencing judge had referred to as “the highest level of security known to the federal prison system.”

“This defendant should be locked down in the Marion facility,” the judge had said, “because it is obvious that he is even more dangerous in custody than out of custody.”

One of USP Marion’s greatest security advantages is its location in a vast, desolate swamp in southern Illinois – much closer to Arkansas than Chicago. An escaped inmate would be easy to find because the only thing around for miles would be him. The hills around the prison were grayish-green the day Henley arrived, the grass just starting to breathe again after a long winter. Tall guard towers jutted from the meadow like gray flowers; atop the nearest one Darryl saw a darkened window slide open and a guard lean out and aim his rifle down at the van like a hunter tracking a deer. The brakes groaned, the door slid open, and Darryl saw the man he would later refer to as the Thin Man.

He was a caricature of himself, a prison boss straight out of Cool Hand Luke. Wearing black boots, black sunglasses, a black jacket, and a black bop baseball cap, he stood atop the stairway that led inside the penitentiary. As Darryl was led up the stairs, he noticed that the Thin Man was chewing tobacco and that his teeth were the color of candy caramels. The Thin Man’s slight build accentuated the immensity of the prison behind him – the silence of its exterior hiding the ugliness that Henley knew breathed inside. For only the second time in his life – the first being the announcement of his trial verdict – Henley’s legs nearly failed him. As he reached the top of the stairs, the Thin Man, his ring of keys glinting in the sun, knowing full well that the inmate before him was the pro ballplayer everybody in the compound had been talking about, gestured like a game show host revealing what’s behind door number three and said to Henley and his fellow inmates, “Welcome to Marion, ladies.”

Author Michael McKnight will sign books at Barnes & Noble in Manhattan Beach on Sunday Oct. 7 from 1 to 4 p.m. (1800 Rosecrans Blvd., MB).