Wes Henson aka Captain Dee-Fense, is one of the three in the inaugural… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
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.
The spikes and chains were Art Modell's favorite.
"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.