Bears defensive tackle matured emotionally and developed considerably as player in aftermath of college DWI arrest
By Vaughn McClure, Chicago Tribune reporter
5:39 p.m. CDT, September 29, 2012
The painting on the bedroom wall inside Henry Melton's Near North condo has significance. It is a reminder of how regrettable experiences can help mold a better person.
Melton, who played at Texas, received the painting from artist Joyce Adejumo. She was the woman he was required to spend community-service hours with after his June 2007 DWI arrest near campus.
Adejumo's son, Mitchie Mitchell, was paralyzed below the waist in 1989 — at age 3 — after the child's biological father crashed while driving drunk. Mitchell underwent more than 100 operations, was diagnosed with a rare brain disorder that left him immobilized at 16, then died in January of '07.
In the short time Melton spent alongside the grieving mother, the Bears defensive tackle got the picture.
"It was definitely eye-opening,'' Melton said. "It's something I won't forget. To me, it was just invaluable.''
Melton has matured since that college misstep. Some family members and friends will get to see up close how much he has grown on the field when he returns to the Dallas area Monday night. Melton is from suburban Grapevine, which seems only appropriate for a player who has gotten better with age.
"He's just disruptive,'' teammate Brian Urlacher said. "He's always in the backfield. … He just wreaks havoc back there. He's just great.''
Sure, it's early, but Melton leads the Bears and is tied for fifth in the NFL with three sacks. Of more importance, he has been consistent. And now Melton gets a chance to upstage his hometown Cowboys.
"I never had a reason to go to a Cowboys game growing up,'' Melton said. "I had no affiliation to that team.''
Besides, his football allegiance belonged elsewhere.
It's easy to understand why Melton cheered for the Broncos rather than the Cowboys. His uncle, Ray Crockett, won two Super Bowl rings in seven seasons as the Broncos starting cornerback after beginning his career with the Lions.
Melton spent three summers as a ballboy at Broncos training camp. Because running back was his primary position, he envisioned being the next Terrell Davis, not Tommie Harris' replacement.
"I just always knew I wanted to be in NFL, being around it as much as I was,'' Melton said. "Everybody was just so cool.''
When Melton turned 12, his dad left his mother. Crockett was more like a father figure. The two spent the summers working out at a local middle school.
"He always wanted me to play defense, but I was pretty adamant about playing running back,'' Melton said. "When I eventually made the switch to defensive end from running back in college, I talked to my uncle about it first.
"Running backs, they don't last very long. For me, it was about having a longer career and having a better chance of making an impact in the NFL.''
The 6-foot-3 Melton came to Texas as a 270-pound tailback competing with classmate Jamaal Charles — currently the NFL's leader rusher with the Chiefs — and others for playing time. By his junior season, Melton had shed 10 pounds to play defensive end exclusively. The DWI arrest, however, caused him to be suspended for the first three games in 2007 and pushed him down the depth chart.
"I was buried underneath guys I shouldn't have been behind,'' Melton said. "I was playing off and on my junior year. But my senior year, Coach Muschamp came in and pretty much saved my damn career.''
Will Muschamp, now the head coach at Florida, was Texas' defensive coordinator in 2008-10. Under Muschamp, Melton started 10 games as a senior and recorded four sacks for a national championship team. He finally started to steal some of the attention away from fellow Longhorns defensive end Brian Orakpo, who's now with the Redskins.
"Henry just needed someone to light a fire under him,'' Muschamp said. "I went after him. I about wanted to fight him every day, just to get it out of him.
"Henry has great ability. He is highly intelligent. He just needs a coach who is going to go after his throat every single day. And he has that now in Rod Marinelli.''
Marinelli got the point across.
After Melton's lackluster effort in this year's exhibition against his once-beloved Broncos, the Bears defensive coordinator put the film on the big screen and blasted Melton's performance in front of the entire defense.
"You owe it to these men to tell them when something isn't good enough,'' Marinelli said. "When you explain that they know you are serious, they get the message and pick it up.''
Coach Lovie Smith delivered a similar message to Melton last season. Although Melton isn't pleased about being called out, he understands why both Marinelli and Smith used such tactics.
"The three-technique is really a prime position in the defense, so you kind of expect it,'' Melton said. "You actually want everyone to really watch you and critique you because the position demands that. That's why I really try to perform. I like being in the spotlight.''
The Bears envisioned Melton as a dominant defensive end when they picked him in the fourth round of the 2009 draft. But Marinelli quickly realized Melton slowed down when playing at end and figured the under-tackle position would be the best way to utilize Melton's talent.
Now, teams are game-planning to stop Melton, as the added attention from the Rams last week indicated. Melton said offensive linemen from both the Packers and Rams yelled at him and said, "You're not getting a sack on us.''
"Henry is just athletic … obviously if you played tailback at Texas, you have exceptional speed, balance and talent,'' Marinelli said. "But what I like about him is when the pads go on, he is really competitive. It means the world to him to be special.''
Melton, 25, who seems destined to be rewarded with a new contract soon, is far from the immature college kid he was five years ago. Now, he's a work of art.