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Robert Henson Interacts With The Public In A Much Better Way

Posted by Matt Terl on September 22, 2009 – 4:44 pm

Rookie linebacker Robert Henson made the front page of the newpaper today, and it wasn’t a good thing. As most people have probably heard, Henson was shaken by the negative reaction of the crowd at Sunday’s game and expressed his disapproval very publicly via Twitter, which then got more public when the mainstream media picked it up. I’m not going to go over the whole story here; the front page story on the Washington Post describes all the lurid details, and you can read it there if that’s what you’re looking for.

That whole incident took me completely by surprise, and not just for the obvious reason that you don’t expect a football player to berate the fans. Here’s the thing: when the rookies came in this year, Henson came across as a level-headed guy who was extremely grateful for the opportunity he had received, and the more I found out about him, the more I felt like that initial impression was confirmed.

Lest you think this is just me backing up someone who’s part of the organization, the guys over at Hogs Haven — as talented and independent of bloggers as you could hope to find — managed to somehow arrange a dinner with Henson and his family, and came away with pretty much the same impression.

What didn’t surprise me was that Henson apologized for the incident; anyone would’ve, of course, but talking to him, I thought he seemed legitimately contrite.

And, through a mostly fortunate quirk of timing, Henson got a chance today to reach out to the public in a different, MUCH more constructive way, leading more than 40 burn survivors on a tour of FedExField.

Let me jump the obvious, cynical response first: this is not, repeat NOT, an opportunistic headline grab. “I don’t want people to think I threw this together last minute,” Henson told me. “We set it up probably about a month ago; it’s a foundation that I feel is very close to my personal experiences as a child.”

The timing of the event was built around two separate things: first, Henson actually making the team, and second, the schedule of this year’s International Burn Camp. The purpose of a burn camp, according to Tony Burke of the International Association of Fire Fighters Burn Foundation, is to give “them a chance to meet other survivors and gain strength and know they’re not alone. It gives them a place of being safe and comfortable.”

The injuries from burns, Burke explains, go beyond the physical. “Our society is cruel for the most part; they ridicule and it’s all about looks, and if you have a facial disfigurement or scars on your body from your injury, it’s really challenging to live through that,” he explained. “A burn injury is something that lasts a lifetime, and it’s important for us to give them opportunities to build some skills, some courage, and some self-esteem.”

Which brings it back to Henson’s role here, and the childhood experiences he referenced a few paragraphs ago. “I consider myself a burn survivor,” Henson said. “My house burned down when I was about 12. I lost my brother, who was about 10 at the time. I was able to get my mother and my sister out through the back window, and I ran back to the front door where my brother was and tried to get him, but the smoke and the flames were too much, and I lost my brother that day.

“It’s an experience that I was battling with for, like, the next five years or so, just trying to figure out who I was growing up, as well as remembering my brother and trying to live for him every day.”

And Henson took that experience and used it to connect with the group. “I know people look at you differently; people looked at me differently. I had scars too,” Henson said. “But look at it as a positive, as something that can catapult you to something greater.”

Yes, some of the advice Henson gave was ironic, given the events of Sunday. “I know it can be difficult dealing with other people,” he told the group, “and people look at you differently and walk around you like you’re nobody, but I would encourage you not to treat people like they treat you at all. Don’t treat people like they treat you.”

But Henson wasn’t interested in drawing a comparison between the two situations. “I just don’t want anything about this event to be put in a negative light,” he told me. “I just want to let them know not to let one event define your whole life. You know, you can make it through anything. You can rise above the situation at hand.”

Which is exactly where Henson finds himself now, trying to rise above a mistake that he has owned up to and apologized for. Watching him interact with this group today, and hearing him talk about some of what he’s experienced, it’s hard to imagine him not succeeding.

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