The Baltimore Sun
6:21 PM EDT, September 18, 2012
It's a sunny weekday afternoon when Captain Dee-Fense strolls into Beefalo Bob's, the pit beef joint in Curtis Bay, turning heads the way he often does.
He's a big man, for one thing: 6 feet 4 and 235 pounds, with a build that suggests he's tossed around a few weights in his day.
He's also decked out in full Ravens game-day regalia: Navy captain's hat, aviator shades, military tags dangling from his neck, purple and white spikes and chains wrapped around his shoulders, purple and white camouflage pants, signature "Dirty Towel" tied around his waist, wrists wrapped in sweatbands and torn koozies, black combat boots with purple laces.
"He'd say: 'What are you gonna do with those spikes and chains when you take your outfit off?'" Captain D recalls with a laugh.
Captain D never had a good answer for the late Ravens owner. What could he say? Gonna use 'em to storm a castle, Mr. Modell? Or get in a brawl with a biker gang? Which would never happen, because Captain D is a pussycat and a humble man at heart. But the two men laughed about the spikes and chains anyway.
When Captain D attended the silent tribute to Modell at M&T Bank Stadium with several thousand other fans, filing past the flag-draped casket and trading Ravens memories with Art's kids, David and John Modell, the event was akin to a spiritual gathering.
"I had to be there," he says. "Where else was I gonna be? Maybe I was representing the fans who couldn't be there."
But Captain D showed up at the Modell memorial for himself, too, to thank the old man for bringing NFL football back to a bruised and battered city and giving a man whose given name is Larry "Wes" Henson a new "calling," a way to help people through his fandom.
"If it wasn't for Mr. Modell, there wouldn't be no Captain D," he says. "If the Ravens weren't here, there wouldn't be no Captain D."
After saying his hellos around the restaurant, Captain D parks himself at a table near a purple Ravens Roost 65 banner and tucks into a bowl of cream-of-crab soup.
Wednesday, up in Bristol, Conn., he'll be inducted into the three-member inaugural class of the ESPN Hall of Fans, which he regards as a tremendous honor, even bigger than his 2002 induction into the fans' section of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Hall of Fans is drawn from all sports, he says, so "it's [a] bigger net."
But right now a visitor is asking him to go back in time, back to before he became a Ravens super-fan, before folks clamored for his autograph on fall afternoons at the Bank and begged to have their picture taken with him, before his smiling face appeared on billboards all over the city and he found himself a genuine celebrity in this town.
Captain D furrows his brow and looks up at the ceiling.
It feels like so long ago, sometimes it's hard to remember.
Up from the ranks
In 1996, 45-year-old Wes Henson was just another rabid football fan showing up on Sundays at old Memorial Stadium, starved for whatever sustenance a new team called the Baltimore Ravens could bring to his soul.
He says he played football at Northwestern High and spent 24 years as a cryptography technician in the Navy, stationed in such far-flung outposts as Japan, Iceland, Panama and Guam before working as an information technology specialist for the federal government for 15 years.
But the Ravens became his passion later in life. His friend, Jon Grossman of Columbia, worked for the same Northern Virginia defense contractor as Henson years ago and recalls Henson's office as a purple shrine.
"It was wall-to-wall Ravens stuff," Grossman says. "Stickers, posters, newspaper articles on the wall." An intense fan himself, Grossman sensed he was in the presence of potential greatness on the super-fan scale.
At Ravens games in the early days, Henson wore Army fatigues and a small sign on his back that said "Defense," a far cry from his current, less-understated look.
One day, a little girl of about 8 stopped him and asked: " 'Hey, mister, are you, like, the captain of the defense?'"
A light bulb went off in his head, just like in the cartoons.
"Captain Defense," he thought. "I kinda like that."
He went to Wal-Mart and bought letters he ironed onto the back of the fatigues. And he got cute with the spelling and the hyphen. "Captain Dee-Fense" was officially born.
But this was only the prototype. This was Captain D: Version 1. And with the way the Ravens' defense was getting shredded that first 4-12 season, he took tons of abuse from the local fans.
"People were yelling, 'Hey, Captain D, I'd be ashamed to walk around with that D stuff! Our D can't stop nobody!' " he recalls with another laugh. "It's funny now. But it wasn't funny at the time."
Here's what else was funny or ironic, depending on your point of view: It was right around that time that Captain D first met a young middle linebacker named Ray Lewis, who would go on to become the greatest Ravens defensive player of all time.
The team's second pick in the first round of the 1996 NFL draft, Lewis was one of the players the Ravens trotted out at an event during which potential season-ticket buyers could select their seats at the stadium.
Captain D struck up a conversation with the quiet, serious-looking rookie out of Miami.
"I didn't know much about him," he recalls. "I asked him: 'Are you any good?' And I'll never forget this quote. He said: 'I can hold my own.'"
Captain D laughs again. "The understatement of the year! And like I tell Ray now: 'We go way-y-y back.'"
Over the years, Captain D polished his game-day persona as a super-fan.
He had heard about the exploits of the legendary "Wild Bill" Hagy, who drank half the contents of a Budweiser factory and led cheers from atop the home-team dugout at Memorial Stadium when "Oriole Magic" was in its heyday in the late 1970s and early '80s.
And he'd heard about Leonard "Big Wheel" Burrier, who got just as plastered and bellowed C-O-L-T-S! cheers to 45,000 true believers on Sunday afternoons in the mid-'70s, back when Bert Jones went deep to Roger Carr and football in Baltimore was still a civic religion.
But getting beered up wasn't Captain D's style. He didn't drink before or after games, and still doesn't.
"I'm not putting down what [those] guys did," he says of Hagy and Burrier. "It's kind of different now. I'm more conscious of my image. Because when people see me, they think I work for the Ravens ... even though I don't."
With each passing season, Captain D added bits and pieces to his game-day outfit. Eventually, with the spikes and chains and camo pants and boots, he became a stark, surreal vision in purple and white. It was what a Ravens fan might look like if he came straight out of one of those dystopian "Mad Max" movies.
The look was not for everyone — and certainly not for every occasion. Once, he recalls, a woman at a Ravens game invited him to her daughter's bat mitzvah.
"But you can't come dressed like that!" she told him.
In some ways, this was like telling Superman to show up at an affair and ditch the cape and tights for a nice three-piece suit.
But Captain D went with the flow and showed up for the ceremony in a shirt and tie before changing into his alter-ego costume for the party afterward.
It was the Ravens' Super Bowl season of 2000 that dramatically ratcheted up Captain D's profile as a super-fan. Now the Ravens, behind fearsome NFL Defensive Most Valuable Player Ray Lewis, were no longer the league's weak sisters when it came to stopping the other team's attack.
"DEE-FENSE! was the rallying cry on every Ravens fan's lips. That season, the defense set a 16-game record for fewest points (165) and rushing yards (970) allowed. And the Ravens went on destroy the New York Giants, 34-7, in Super Bowl XXXV.
No, no one in the stands was telling Captain D to shut up about the defense anymore.
In fact, just the opposite occurred.
"All of a sudden, I was some kind of defensive [football] genius," he chuckles. "Down at the Inner Harbor, I was getting interviewed on Channel 11 and Channel 5. They were asking: 'Captain D, what do you think about this defense and that one?' So that was kind of funny."
Twelve years later, Captain D is bigger than ever with Ravens fans. He has almost 7,000 Facebook fans, and his smiling face appeared all over the city on billboards for M&T Bank a few years back.
He sits in section 513, row 17 at home games. But unlike Wild Bill Hagy and Big Wheel Burrier, Captain D doesn't feel the need to windmill his arms and scream himself hoarse and breathe life into the fans.
"I never really saw him as a 'crazed super-fan,' " says Patricia Hurst of Abingdon, who has worked a number of charity events with Captain D and has seen him at the stadium. "I've never witnessed him doing anything [outrageous])."
Instead, Captain D sees himself as more of a laid-back, goodwill ambassador for Ravens Nation.
Early in the game, he'll rise from his seat and begin a slow pilgrimage throughout the stadium, stopping to sign autographs and pose for pictures and chat with fans. Rarely does he have a moment to himself.
"Sometimes it's tough to talk to him," says Grossman, who also sits in section 513. "He's constantly having people come up to him. I can't take it. I get about two minutes of conversation. And then it's like: 'I gotta go, Captain D.'"
But these wanderings are no mere ego stroll for Captain D. Making fans smile seems to bring him more joy than anything else. So does reinforcing their sense of community on crisp autumn afternoons.
"That's the best thing about being Captain D," he says.
It's a way of giving back, he says. But he gives back in lots of other ways, too.
Captain Dee-Fense lives in Waldorf with his wife, whom he declines to name, saying she's a "very private person." They have two grown daughters and a granddaughter.
He says he's missed only one Ravens home game since 1996, when he was deathly ill, and one away game, when he took one daughter to college years ago and couldn't find the game on TV in Cleveland, of all places.
But he says being Captain D has never been a source of friction within his family. Semiretired now, he says he makes plenty of time for those closest to him. And he says his family recognizes that he's turned his passion for the Ravens into a "calling" to help others.
The fact is, Captain's D's social conscience appears boundless.
Since the middle of March alone, he's made over 70 appearances for charitable, civic and school organizations ranging from the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and Children's Miracle Network to the Purple Dames' Food Drive, Pets on Wheels and the Relay for Life in Perry Hall.
"He's a genuinely caring person because he really believes in helping others," Hurst says. "It's not for the hype or the glory."
"I'm kind of biased," Grossman says. "But he's probably the best person I know."
Heather Harness, the Ravens' marketing and advertising manager, says Captain D is always willing to appear at team functions and never receives free tickets, merchandise or anything else.
Shannon Patch, the store manager at Beefalo Bob's, says Captain D is also an excellent motivational speaker who has talked to her son's Boy Scout troop several times.
"He talks to the boys about staying in school, about bullying, about how Scouts is important," Patch says. "The boys just flock to him. He's like a super-hero role model who's real."
Captain D says he devours inspirational and self-help books: Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins, Steve Siebold and Barbara Pease are among his favorite authors.
All of it, he says, is about making himself a better person so he can help others.
"At the end of the day, that's what life is about," he says.
Then he adjusts the spikes and chains on his shoulder and tucks back into his cream-of-crab soup, a super-fan at rest, at least for the moment.
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