It’s a sunny afternoon and I am taking a walk on the Naval Academy grounds with Wes Henson. It is a fitting location, as he retired in 1995 after serving 24 years in the United States Navy.
Frequently we are interrupted. First by a gentleman driving toward the Academy exit, who stops, and yells, “Captain Dee!” Next several women who work at the Academy ask for a picture with Henson. These interruptions have nothing to do with his Naval service, but everything to do with his public service. For the last 22 years, Henson has motivated fans both at Ravens games and off the field.
Henson explains how it all started, “In 1996 I’m walking around the stadium in army fatigues and a black Baltimore Ravens T-shirt with a big cardboard sign that had “defense” on it. A little girl about eight years-old stopped and asked me the ultimate question, “Hey Mister, are you like the Captain of the Defense?” At that time I wasn’t looking for a name, and never really thought about it.”
Later, he went to the store and got some letters to spell out “Captain Dee-Fense” and put them on the back of his shirt, and a local legend was born. In 2002 he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fans in Canton, Ohio, followed by ESPN Fan Hall of Fame in 2012. His list of accolades continues, but that is not why he puts on the Captain Dee-Fense uniform.
Henson feels the Captain Dee-Fense persona has provided him the opportunity to make a difference. “My core belief is that it is my responsibility to make our community a better place and that as Edward Everett Hale said, ‘I am only one, but I am one. I can’t do everything, but I can do something.’ ”
On any given weekend, you may find Captain Dee-Fense making a guest appearance at a wedding, a birthday party, a bar mitzvah, a retirement ceremony or even a funeral. He speaks at schools, and private fundraisers. You can find him visiting both children and adults in local hospitals, veterans at the VA hospital, or even at a sing-a-long in a nursing home. He attends functions with hundreds of people, but will also go out of his way to make sure he is there to visit a cancer patient.
Henson does not work for the Baltimore Ravens organization. When he receives public appearances fees, he donates them to a local charity. Recently he formulated an anti-bullying platform to present at schools. “I tell kids ‘you are not perfect, but you are good enough.’ I use the crayon box reference. Each color in the box is different . . . different colors, different names. The best kind of picture is when you use all the colors in the box and they get along.”
Henson encourages kids to not be afraid to stand up for others. “It’s okay to be different. Sometimes, if you see someone bullying and don’t do anything, you are part of the problem and not a solution. You do have to tell someone, a teacher or a parent, let someone know. If you are being bullied, you are not alone. There is help out there for you, just reach out. You should not have to go through this alone.”
For adults, he says to just listen. “The most important thing you can give someone is your undivided attention.” Henson’s eleven-year-old granddaughter, who calls him “Gee-Pa,” lives in Washington state. He reaches out to her almost every day to let her know how important she is to him—and to get her viewpoint on things.
“I text her five days a week before she gets on the school bus and tell her something positive,” shares Henson. “I know middle school can be hard. I try to leave a positive message. I may not be with her, but she is always in my thoughts. Sometimes I talk to her about bullying. It is important to get the insight from a middle schooler and get her perspective.”
Henson also has a four-year-old grandson, who lives in Maryland. He loves watching airplanes with Gee-Pa. But don’t discount that time they spend together as silly. “That is where dreams come from,” Henson says. While football has provided the platform for his outreach, Henson encourages kids not to put the players on a pedestal, “It’s okay to appreciate professional athletes, but if you are looking for role models, you should look closer to home. A role model should be somebody you can talk to, somebody you actually know like a parent, close relative or teacher.”
You can follow Captain Dee-Fense on Facebook. To inquire about having Captain Dee-Fense make an appearance, contact Mona Freedman with Caring Communities.
photos by Matt Heid