By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
On Sunday afternoon, Robert Henson was a mostly unknown reserve linebacker for the Washington Redskins, a first-year player who had never played in an NFL game and was best known for being the son-in-law of television pastor T.D. Jakes.
By Sunday evening, a few hours after Washington's unsightly 9-7 win against the St. Louis Rams, Henson had taken up an online battle against a segment of disgruntled Redskins fans, calling them disloyal "dim-wits" who "work 9 to 5 at McDonalds."
Almost immediately, Henson became one of the anti-heroes of a game he had watched from the sideline, doused with criticism and insults on sports-talk radio shows and Internet message boards. And by Monday afternoon, Henson sheepishly exited the team's Ashburn training facility, accompanied by several team spokesmen, to apologize for a Twitter-enabled diatribe against fans that provided him his first moment of NFL fame.
"This is exciting," one television reporter joked.
"No it's not," Henson said. "It's the negative kind of media you don't want."
It was also a particularly 2009-vintage media storm, fueled by the pent-up frustrations of Redskins fans and the temptations of Twitter. The Redskins haven't hosted a playoff game in this decade, and have yet to score 30 points in 18 games under Coach Jim Zorn. Hosts on the radio station owned by Redskins owner Daniel Snyder openly speculated about Zorn's successor on Monday, and one of the team's official radio analysts, legendary quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, told Zorn during a postgame interview that he would have disobeyed one of his play calls. The team was booed throughout Sunday's win, including during the game's final moments, a time when victorious home fans are more frequently whooping than whistling.
"I thought it was a shame, to be honest with you," tight end Chris Cooley, one of the team's most popular players, said in the locker room. "I think Washington prides themselves on being the best fans, and I think that they should try to be the best fans. We won. I understand they wanted us to beat the Rams by 40, but we still won, and we if we continue to win games, that's great. Booing's unnecessary."
This was a 20th-century response, spoken into microphones and tape recorders, and then shown on the evening news and printed on newsprint. Henson took a different approach.
"All you fake half hearted Skins fan can . . . I won't go there, but I dislike you very strongly, don't come to Fed Ex to boo dim wits!!" he wrote shortly after the game ended, a message that would have been seen by his 1,200 or so Twitter followers. As fans quickly responded with disgust -- including an editor from the sports Web site SB Nation and a radio host from 106.7 The Fan -- Henson kept typing.
"No I didn't play but I still made more than you in a year and you'd [gladly] switch spots with me in a second," Henson wrote during a string of responses. "I was talking to the fans [who] said the crazy stuff, I'm use [to heckling] but I've never been booed in my own stadium. Again that was for the half hearted but if everyone wants to jump in come on. The question is who are you to say you know what's best for the team and you work 9 to 5 at Mcdonalds [sic]. You don't wanna follow me anymore then fine but we play for you and win lose or draw we represent you!! My guy on the Rams said they never got booed even when they didn't win a game."
Henson's words pinballed across the Internet, with Redskins fans and media members re-tweeting them and exponentially increasing their exposure. Radio hosts read them on the air, and writers posted them on blogs. Fans, meantime, pointed out they had been supporting the Redskins for longer than Henson has been alive, and also that there's no shame in working for McDonald's.
Before the night was over, Henson had tweeted 52 times. He elicited dozens of angry responses, and he apologized repeatedly, writing personal messages to several fans. His words were flashed on Comcast SportsNet's postgame show, where he was savaged by ex-Redskins star Brian Mitchell, who asked "Who the hell is Robert Henson?" and told the rookie to "shut up."
And he had caused at least one teammate to prepare for the fallout.
"I kind of shook my head right away, because I knew it was bad, and of course he knows that now," said veteran defensive end Phillip Daniels, who read Henson's comments Sunday night. "He's young, and sometimes you say things you don't mean. You're arguing with a person on [Twitter], and you don't realize that everybody can see what you're saying, and then things get bad. . . . Robert's young. He ain't played yet. He's got to realize that the fans actually pay your salary."
Henson wasn't the only NFL player battling with fans on Twitter Sunday night. Veteran Green Bay Packers linebacker Nick Barnett invited dissatisfied home fans to "kiss his . . ." , then announced to his 18,000 or so followers that he was giving up on the social media site for the rest of the season. The fans had jeered him for celebrating making a tackle during the Packers' loss to Cincinnati.
The Redskins themselves, meantime, didn't seem quite sure how to react to Henson's outburst. One well-respected veteran declined to comment. Several hadn't heard of the incident. A few veterans had already spoken with the rookie about controlling his emotions. And one player said he wasn't even sure whether Henson was on the team's active roster. (He is.)
"I don't think he's done enough in this league to be out here talking [junk] about anything," said cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who has previously cursed out perceived critics on Twitter. "He probably shouldn't have said those exact words, but I'm a firm believer that a person can say what they want to say if it's honest, if it's true. Don't just be talking to be talking."
Henson closed the episode by meeting with reporters to apologize. He declined to discuss his earlier allegations that fans had thrown objects at him, and said he doesn't want to be a target of unhappy Washingtonians.
"I sincerely apologize to all the fans," he said. "I hope to have a long, prosperous career here, and I don't want anybody booing me or being negative towards me. Because if you seen me in training camp, I sat out there for hours signing autographs, because I love to do this, and the fans are really what keep me going."
He also met with Zorn, who said through the team that the rookie had "learned from this experience."
And as for the fans who had booed? Well, there was no consensus on them, either.
"I'd have booed us too," Hall said. "I felt like booing us, with that [nonsense] we put out there. It was a win, but it was [nonsense]."