Thanks to a Pro Bowl season in 2012 with the Chicago Bears, a team steeped in a rich history of standout defenders, Henry Melton had established himself as one of the NFL's premier defensive tackles. Rather than lose the young star to free agency, the Bears decided to use the franchise tag on him, which meant a salary in excess of $8 million for the 2013 season, but nothing guaranteed beyond that.
Success on the field and a financial windfall with the potential of an even bigger payday looming – things were working out quite nicely. Despite his preference for warm sunshine, Melton had even learned to love his adopted home of Chicago, enduring the brutal winter weather.
Life was very good for Henry Melton.
Then it wasn't.
Three weeks into last season, in the fourth quarter of a game at Pittsburgh, Melton's 6-3 frame was bent in a way it's not meant to and his leg got caught, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee. With his season now over, suddenly the path that seemed so clear had hit a major speed bump.
Instead of another Pro Bowl campaign influencing the Bears and a host of other defensive tackle-starved NFL teams to offer a long-term lucrative contract, he was instead left with rehab, uncertainty about his ability to regain his previous form and a short-term incentive-based deal.
"It was my first major injury and hopefully my last," said Melton, whose predicament led him to sign a free agent contract with the Cowboys in March. "It's just something that happened. God has a plan for everyone. I just had to go through it."
Fortunately, Melton has not had to endure the long journey back to NFL stardom alone.
Back in his hometown of Grapevine, Texas, a Dallas suburb, Cinithia and Kameisha Melton, Henry's mother and sister, were both taking in their favorite Chicago Bear on television the day the injury occurred. They were each in their own homes, just a short distance apart, but they watched the game "together" by talking on the phone throughout the contest.
When Henry went down, Cinithia instinctively jumped in the car to go to Kameisha's house. She was unaware that Kameisha had the very same instinct – go to her mother. When it was too late, they both realized that they had literally passed each other on the road, leaving them at the other's house.
"I freaked out. You never want to see your brother on the ground," remembered Kameisha, who is two years older. "They went to commercial, so we didn't know what was going on. When they came back and he was on a cart … that's never a good sign."
Mother and daughter finally were able to meet up, but not for long. Cinithia made arrangements to go to Chicago and be with her son early the next day. She stayed with him there, and then later went with him to Florida, where surgery was performed by renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews. She even stayed with him during the early part of his physical therapy.
Also watching the day his nephew's professional football career came to a crashing halt was Henry's uncle and mentor, Ray Crockett, Cinithia's younger brother. If there was anyone who could relate to Henry's fate it was Uncle Ray. Crockett played 14 years in the NFL with Detroit, Denver and Kansas City, and was one of the captains on the Broncos' back-to-back Super Bowl championship teams in the late 1990s. In fact, just weeks earlier he was cautioning Henry to not get too caught up in how well things were going. He knew that life as a professional football player can be precarious.
"I flew to Chicago for the first game of the year, and I told Henry that you can't take things for granted. You have to work just as hard to stay a Pro Bowler as you did to be a Pro Bowler," recalled Crockett. "I let him know how important it was to make sure you're saving money. Be sure to stay humble and understand the blessings and position you've been put in because it could be gone in one snap or one play. I hate it man because I hope we didn't curse ourselves. It's certainly not what I wished for, but the true measure of a person is not how hard or when they fall, but how hard they get up."
Melton's NFL journey might have been interrupted that afternoon in Pittsburgh, but it began nearly 3,000 miles away.
The Meltons were a military family, and Henry was born in California. It was evident early on that he had special athletic ability. He played basketball, football and ran track, but baseball was his first love. In the beginning, football was just a way to stay active when he wasn't on the diamond.
"Right off the bat, he loved sports. About the only one that he didn't show an interest in was soccer. Because we lived in California, he really loved the water, surfing, anything water sports," said Cinithia. "Everything was around baseball, though. He played flag football just to do something when it wasn't baseball season. Even watching him then, you could see that he had a natural talent. There wasn't a position he didn't play."
The family moved around until Henry was in the fifth grade. From California to Japan, a short stay in Texas and back to California, before finally settling in Grapevine, the same area where Cinithia had grown up. Just a few weeks after returning to North Texas, a middle school coach stopped her in a Walmart and asked if Henry played football. Within only a few weeks, he found himself in pads.
At Grapevine High School, Henry continued to be a multi-sport star, but by his sophomore year, it became apparent that football would be his path to future success. Although primarily a running back, his athleticism allowed him to line up just about anywhere.
"One game Henry played six different positions," said Cinithia. "On offense, he played running back, tackle and tight end. On defense, he played linebacker, nose guard and defensive end."
Having an uncle who was an NFL player had its advantages as well. When Crockett was with the Broncos, Henry would go stay with him in his dorm room during training camp while also working as a ball boy. His uncle saw unlimited potential in young Henry and wanted to expose him to professional athletes who were already at the top of their games.
"I would bring Henry out to Denver so he could be around special people," said Crockett. "It's one thing to have something that's special, and it's another to be special. You have to work hard. I figured that I never got the opportunity to be around professional athletes when I was younger and sometimes you have to see it for yourself.
"I wanted to give him an idea of why I trained him as hard as I did. For him to be in Denver with me, he got to see the Shannon Sharpes, Rod Smiths, John Elways of the world. I told him, 'You could be right here, too. You have just as much talent.' I knew if he could see that, he would start believing it."
Sports were also Henry's escape during tough times with his family. While he was in high school, his father decided to leave, and he has not been a part of Henry's life since. Always close to his Uncle Ray, their relationship grew even stronger.
"I knew his dad very well. It hurt me inside to see what happened. I'm not sure why his dad did what he did, but I didn't care," said Crockett. "I just wanted to be that person who helped Henry realize that he was special. Whether it was as a friend, uncle, dad or mentor, I was going to be there for Henry and his sister."
With the support of his family, Melton excelled on the gridiron to the point that he was highly recruited coming out of high school. Some colleges planned to move him to defense while others thought he should remain on offense. Wanting to still carry the ball and preferring to stay close to home, he chose a program that offered both, the University of Texas in Austin.
Primarily a running back as a freshman, Melton rushed for 432 yards on 87 carries and became the Longhorns' top short-yardage option with 10 touchdowns. However, aside from those limited situations, the bulk of the work went to a fellow top recruit, a player by the name of Jamaal Charles. The next year, at his request, Melton began taking snaps at defensive end, a position switch that he sought out when it became apparent that the future NFL star for the Kansas City Chiefs would be the featured ball carrier.
"Jamaal was pretty much the primary running back," said Melton. "We had a few seniors leaving on defense, so the coaches said I had a chance to start and be a pretty good player at defensive end. I took a chance and made the switch.
"It took some time. I've always been a physical competitor. [Former Texas defensive coordinator and current University of Florida head coach Will] Muschamp came my senior year. He saw how physical and athletic I was and he helped me make the transition. The rest is history."
Melton did not attend the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis after his senior season, although he did participate in the Longhorns' Pro Day for NFL coaches and scouts. Former Bears and current Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith was impressed, and Chicago ended up selecting Melton in the fourth round of the 2009 draft, 105th overall.
Smith, however, wasn't the only one impressed with Melton's workout that day.
"Henry really stood out at the Pro Day, his numbers were over the roof," said Cinithia. "He would have stood out if he had gone to the combine. Lovie Smith saw something in him, and they drafted him. Just hearing his name called was something special."
The former California kid who went to high school in Texas was heading to the Windy City and brutally cold winters.
"God has a sense of humor sometimes," said Cinithia with a chuckle. "He learned to love Chicago, not the weather, but the city and the people. I traveled to every home game and some of the away games and we talked on the phone every morning."
The assistant head coach/defensive line coach when Melton arrived in Chicago was current Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. Right from the start, Marinelli thought Melton could be a standout tackle.
"Henry had a real suddenness about him, a quick touch, good instincts for the position," said Marinelli. "His quickness inside helps get penetration and that really helps the pass rush. It took a while for him to realize his potential, but he's really talented. He eventually became a starter and a Pro Bowler."
Melton was on his way … until that fateful afternoon in Pittsburgh.
"We knew that someone needed to get out there and keep him in good spirits and make sure he stayed positive," said Kameisha, who has a 2-and-a-half year old son, Tyce, who idolizes his Uncle Henry. "I went to Chicago for a week. After the surgery, we went back up there and helped him out with anything that he needed. For the most part, he was pretty positive about the whole experience."
The day after the injury, Melton posted on his Twitter feed: "Hey! Thanks for all the love and support … today starts a new day for a different journey God has planned for me."
Ultimately, the plan did not include a future with the Bears.
"I really didn't think it was the last time he would be in a Bears uniform. I truly became a Bears fan. Now I watch them, but it's to watch the players and support them," said Cinithia. "I told Henry, I knew all the people at the stadium and even the people at restaurants and at the airport. I didn't get to say bye."
Because of the injury, free agency did not exactly proceed how Melton had envisioned. There was the injury and uncertainty. Then an altercation at a local restaurant in December gained attention, which led the Bears front office to seemingly question his desire.
In an article that appeared on ESPN Chicago, Bears general manager Phil Emery was quoted as saying that the beginning of Melton's 2013 season was promising, but also hinted that, as far as his future with the team, there might be some concerns.
"When (Melton) was in the game, even though from a statistical standpoint he wasn't off to a fast start, it was evident on tape that he was a very important part of the defense," stated Emery. "So he knows, and that has been related to him, that we signed you for a reason. Now let's focus in on getting healthy, and obviously he has some off-the-field issues that he needs to make sure he's focused in on football and having a passion for football."
"That is part of the excuse teams use when they feel there's a chance that they might lose the guy," said Crockett, who was very familiar with NFL general managers questioning a player's commitment when dealing with free agents.. "Detroit used to say that about me, but I've always been named captain on every team I've been on. With Henry, how can you question a guy's commitment who you just gave the franchise tag to?"
Several teams brought Melton in for visits, with reports noting that St. Louis and Seattle, the Super Bowl Champs, were very interested. Once Dallas called, though, it became the odds-on favorite. And not just because his family lives nearby.
Marinelli, his coach in Chicago, had just been promoted to his coordinator position with the Cowboys, and had no reservations about signing his former player – despite the Bears questioning his commitment.
"I had no hesitation signing Henry. I coached him for three years. I stay on him pretty hard and set a certain standard for him. He knows how good I want him to be and how much he can help this team. If I don't like something he's doing or the way he's doing it, I let him know," said Marinelli. "This defensive system is exactly the same [as with the Bears] with the under-tackle position. This is the right system for him."
As far as the Bears' comments about Melton's commitment?
"I never saw (a lack of passion) in him before," Marinelli responded. "If he was a problem, we wouldn't have touched him. We can't have guys here that don't want to work. We need to get back and lay the foundation over again. I think he's ready to do that. We go at it each and every day. He's passionate about what he does. We'll keep pounding away as the season goes on, so he can really regain the form that got him to the Pro Bowl."
Melton has now appeared in every game for the Cowboys, and through Week 9, has proven that he's indeed back, leading the team with five sacks. His presence in the defensive line rotation is definitely making a difference.
"Getting healthy has been a battle. You're used to having your old leg, then you're battling with surgery," said Melton. "I never had to go through that before. Even though it's been a battle, I thank God I'm here and I'm ready to go. So far, I love it here. I'd love to get a championship here and see the city buzzing."
Life is getting good again.