Why the new book on former UCLA star Darryl Henley is called “Intercepted” instead of “The Best and the Brightest”

The recently-released 511-page book “Intercepted: The Rise and Fall of NFL cornerback Darryl Henley (University of Nebraska Press),” the product of years of research by contributing Sports Illustrated writer Michael McKnight, is far from light reading if you’re looking for some more context to the  USC-UCLA rivalry game.

Yet it’s a powerful “fall from grace” page-turner for anyone still trying to put the pieces together on how the former Bruins All-American defensive back continues to serve a 41-year sentence at the low security federal prison in Seagoville, Texas, with no possibility of parole, after a conviction for cocaine trafficking, heroin dealing and a double murder plot that included the assassination of a federal judge and a witness in his case.

Henley, considered with Deion Sanders to be the best cornerbacks in the nation in 1988, was picked by the John Robinson-coached L.A. Rams in the second round of the 1989 draft.

With a four-year, $1.2 million deal, he was the team’s defensive rookie of the year, a starter for four years . . .

Then, craziness.

Long Beach Press Telegram columnist and former L.A. Herald Examiner UCLA beat writer Bob Keisser is quoted in the book: “When I think of Darryl Henley, I don’t think of everything they said about him in the mid-nineties. I think of an 18 year old kid with braces who always had a lollipop in his mouth, running around laughing.”

McKnight’s interviews include former UCLA teammates Karl Dorrell and James Washington, as well as Chris Hale, the former USC cornerback and Henley’s childhood friend from Duarte (Henley graduated from the private Catholic school Damien High).

There’s a brief mention of the 1988 USC-UCLA game, with the Rose Bowl on the line for both the No. 2 Trojans and No. 6 Bruins and best remembered as the contest where USC’s Rodney Peete lead his team to victory after recovering from the measles.

McKnight writes that Henley played “one of his more forgettable games” as Hale “played the game of his life” – including a hit on Henley on a punt return that forced a critical fumble. Fans of that game may remember Henley trying to hand the ball off to teammate Marcus Turner after he caught the punt in the fourth quarter, a turning point in the Trojans’ 31-22 victory. Henley was also deked out of a tackle on a second-quarter touchdown route by USC receiver Erik Affholter.

Most of the this book, of course, is devoted to the converging storylines that led up to Henley’s 1995 legal spiral, where he was once represented by Roger Cossack, the current ESPN legal expert analysis.

McKnight said he began working on the book in January, 2003 and “peeling open a 10-year-old drug trafficking conspiracy, with multiple characters involved, was an uphill climb.”

He knows of so many people who remember Henley as the friendly kid at UCLA rather than the one who got in way over his head.

“That’s why this story is so compelling,” said McKnight. “Darryl isn’t from South Central. He didn’t grow up around this stuff – which is what most folks assume about him.

“I hope the early chapters provide you with a portrait of his family. His parents did everything right. They are the true victims in this story. They are the reason Darryl still kicks himself daily. All the Henleys are very close – his parents visit him regularly – but Darryl has brought them so much pain, shame and financial ruin.”

McKnight, living in Hermosa Beach, said he had kept track of Henley’s story in the 1990s and once he moved from Florida to Southern California, he received the John Feinstein book, “The Punch,” about the ramifications that happened after the Lakers’ Kermit Washington punched Houston’s Rudy Tomjanovich, as a Christmas gift from his wife in 2002, “and that reminded me of Darryl.”

McKnight said he wrote him a letter in January of 2003 and got a response five days later, flew out to visit him in prison in rural Virginia and “we hit it off. He agreed wholeheartedly with my vision for the book. Nine years later, with several twists and turns along the way, here we are.

“(Henley) is frighteningly intelligent, very self aware, knows he made a dreadful, dreadful errors. He just wanted his story told – warts and all – because everything written about him previously failed to scratch beneath the eye-catching headlines: Cocaine, NFL, Cheerleader, Murdering a Judge. My mandate was – what the hell happened here?

“I’d like readers to see that if it can happen to Darryl Henley it can happen to anyone. I’d like us to step away from our knee-jerk judgments about athletes who get in trouble and instead ask, ‘How did this happen? What points along the curve led to this steep drop downward? Usually it’s not very sudden. It’s an almost invisible accumulation of circumstances, of people, of conversations. The point is: Darryl had it all – not just materially, but in terms of his intellect, his family support and stability and the unconditional love he was given from the day he was born.

“His future was impossibly bright. His UCLA and Rams teammates are still stunned by his fall; 15, 20 years later they still can’t fathom it. If the son of T.H. Henley can wind up doing what Darryl did, then we all need to at least be on guard, because according to dozens of folks who knew him, Darryl Henley was the best and the brightest.”

= More: An excerpt and Q-and-A from the Easy Reader

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  • Rick O’Brien

    If the dummie would have just taken his lumps for the cocaine, (noting how professional athletes were treated back then) he probably would have got probation and a suspended sentence, just like Tracie Donahoe did. Being the knucklehead that he was, he went full bore wacko & will be an old man when he’s released. How can one say that Darryl Henley was a highly intelligent man when he plotted to have a judge murdered, thinking that THAT would change the outcome of his dope trial ? i’d read the book if it were FREE, but I’d never put a dime in DH’s pocket by PAYING for one.

    • Robbie B.

      Obviously you know DH because only his friends and family call him DH. Maybe your just a little jealous of what he had and lost. I have been a friend to this man, and he helped me see who I really am. He is a very intelligent man who has a big heart who will help anyone. I am proud to say I know him.