Darryl Henley was an All-American at UCLA  and went on to play cornerback in the NFL. He is now serving a 41-year prison sentence. Michael McKnight’s book, Intercepted: The Rise and Fall of NFL Cornerback Darryl Henley, tells of the player’s football career, his role in a drug trafficking operation, and the events that eventually sent him to prison. Bill Littlefield spoke with the author.

Bill’s thoughts on Intercepted: The Rise and Fall of NFL Cornerback Darryl Henley

Intercepted, Michael McKnight’s exhaustive (511 pages) account of Darryl Henley’s descent from the NFL into federal prison, is filled with perceptions about athletes, race, and drugs. One of them comes from Chuck Miller, who played football with Henley at UCLA. Asked how he thought Henley came to be involved in a scheme to transport cocaine across the country, Miller said, “Any black athlete can tell you that he knows a drug dealer. When you hit it big, the first thing they come at you with is, ‘Loan me some money. I’ll pay you back.’”

According to William Kopeny, one of the attorneys working on Henley’s defense when he went to trial almost two decades ago, Henley was motivated by “vanity and cool.” Having been brought up in a suburb and educated in parochial schools, Henley craved the sort of excitement he associated with drug dealers and rap stars.

Though McKnight says he doesn’t regard Darryl Henley as a victim of the justice system, his account often seems sympathetic to Henley. McKnight points out that Henley’s trial was going on in Orange County at the same time O.J. Simpson was being defended by a so-called dream team of attorneys in Los Angeles. Simpson, on trial for murder, walked. Henley, peripherally involved in a botched drug run, went to prison. The Simpson jury was predominantly black. The Henley jury was almost entirely white, as was the venue in which he was tried.

So to a point, the argument that Darryl Henley was a victim of various circumstances seems to make sense. Perhaps it would have continued to make sense if Henley had managed to sit quietly in prison while his lawyers appealed the conviction. Maybe he’d have gotten a new trial. Instead, he entered into a conspiracy to finance the murder of the judge who’d sentenced him and the young woman who’d testified against him, a former Rams cheerleader named Tracy Donaho who claimed that she’d only boarded a plane with a suitcase full of cocaine because Darryl Henley had asked her to do so.

When I spoke with Michael McKnight, he maintained that Darryl Henley, who was eventually sentenced to 41 years in prison, is a very intelligent man. It’s an assertion that can’t be dismissed easily, given how much time McKnight must have spent corresponding with Henley during the eight years the author devoted to researching Intercepted. But isn’t it irresistible to wonder how much less trouble Darryl Henley might have brought down upon himself and his family if he weren’t so smart?