BRISTOL — Captain Dee-Fense, the purple-clad, iron-willed fan of the Baltimore Ravens football team, was swapping stories with a hard-core fan of another team. He was surprised to hear that the other fan was proud of being in a picture with a hall-of-famer on the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Captain, aka Wes Henson of Waldorf, Md., named a memento of a very different sort as his favorite: a photo with a 9-year-old girl in a hospital, after he'd spent a couple of hours with her before she had a leg amputated.
"The fans give you the relevance, not the other way around," said the Captain. "We don't play the game, we are the game."
That true human spirit — combined with a button-clad, militaristic outfit and the powerful bearing of the man who wears it — landed Henson in the first group of the ESPN-StubHub Hall of Fans, presented Wednesday at the ESPN campus.
The Green Men of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team, Force and Sully, popularized the full-body, head-covering tight suits that, ironically, bring personality without a face — the better to taunt the opposition. They even ran a triathlon in the suits.
Emily Pitek discovered the University of Alabama's softball team when she was a scholarship soccer player with a knee injury. Now she's the catalyst that helps the current national champions attract over 4,000 fans a game — from her perch on the dugout, in a pink sombrero and a crimson-striped suit.
They are the costumed characters that define the show off the field and seal the memories long after the stars fade. Among the countless rabid fans nationwide — including a couple of thousand who nominated themselves for the Hall of Fans — these are the champions, voted by fans after ESPN and StubHub narrowed the list to 10 finalists earlier this year.
They have their names on plaques on the ESPN quad for their influence, and for what they bring to the events they love. "They are the fans that inspire other fans, said Michael Lattig, head of brand and creative at San Francisco-based StubHub, which has its operations center with more than 200 employees in East Granby.
Captain Dee-Fense has a ready answer when asked why he won the honor. "My work is done Monday through Friday, not just Sundays," he said. "I've done 300 charity events and I'm doing 70 this year."
The Captain looks tough with faux-iron chains and spikes, sunglasses, purple camouflage fatigues and arms about as thick as you'd see on most NFL players. But Henson, a retired career Navy man who specialized in cryptology, is more about interaction than intimidation.
The Green Men don't have so long a history. Force and Sully — the only names they give out — started on Dec. 23, 2009, with the idea of buying the full-body suits for a Seattle Seahawks football game. The plan didn't work out, and they went to the Canucks game against the Nashville Predators.
"It was going to be a one-time idea," said Force, who said he's "in media" in his day job. "But it just blew up."
The Green Men don't have an official relationship with the team, and they've only been to about 50 games in the suits — many other games they attend in different seats, unsuited, unknown to the fans. But at an arena that sells out every game, their persona, or non-persona, has taken off in an arena that sells out every game.
"For Vancouver fans, they were looking for something to get behind," said Sully, who said he's a burger-flipper.
"The lower-bowl seats are so expensive, and it's so quiet because it's a bunch of suits on their BlackBerrys," Force said, "so when we went down there, two idiots in green suits and got them into it and got it loud, fans appreciated that."
Quiet fans in suits? The Whalers could have used these guys in the '90s, for sure. In fact, The Green Men wear Whalers colors and love the Whalers, and we captured their excellent Brass Bonanza rendition on video.
Emily Pitek is a Crimson Tide fan who talks like a Yankee, because that's what she is, having gone to Alabama from Buffalo, N.Y., in 2003 for soccer — with no interest in softball. After tearing a knee ligament, she recalled Wednesday, "I needed a pick-me-up, so I went over to the softball stadium. It was fast-paced and it was quick ... it was just an electric environment."
And they love Emily. Even though she doesn't seem rowdy in person, Emily, as everyone knows her, is the catalyst, leading roller-coaster cheers and generally creating energy. "I know basically everyone in the stadium," she said. "They look to me to get everyone going."
Now she's a soccer coach at Birmingham Southern College, where, even miles from Tuscaloosa, they know her as "that girl" at the softball games. "It's just very interactive," she said.
That's the common thread here — each of these winners is not just a symbol, like a mascot, but an active player in the bigger game, connecting fans to each other and to the team.
And that's what ESPN and StubHub want from the Hall of Fans, which started when StubHub came to ESPN looking for a project that would further tie the companies to their fans.
"That's the screen for everything we do," said Sean Hanrahan, ESPN's senior vice president for marketing solutions. "If it's not serving the fans, we don't do it."