The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Erin Henderson became a National Geographic donor

Minnesota Vikings Linebacker Erin Henderson ‘Causes an Uproar’ for National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative.” (By Rebecca Hale/National Geographic)
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This is the story of how a lifelong love of lions, a curious toddler and Betty White brought former Maryland star and current Vikings linebacker Erin Henderson to D.C. last week to present an oversized check to the National Geographic Society in support of its Big Cats Initiative, raising awareness about the decline of lions, tigers, cheetahs and other big cat species in the wild.

Might as well start at the beginning, though.

Henderson — who was raised in Aberdeen  — was always drawn to lions, getting his first of five lion tattoos square across his heart when he was still a teenager. He remembers being fascinated by their size and majesty, by how they interacted with their cubs and how they ruled the jungle.

His wife has even joked (I think) about being jealous of those animals — “she says I gave my heart to the lions before I got a chance to give it to her,” Henderson told me while sitting in a National Geographic conference room last week.

“They seem so violent, but they have the same natural instincts that we have as humans, and that’s to figure out how to survive,” Henderson said. “And they have to do it in one of the toughest environments out there, in the jungle. They’re considered the king of the jungle, and I want to be considered the king of this jungle that I live in.”

So spin the nature reel forward to last year, when Henderson’s not-quite-one year old son Lennox sat next to Henderson as he watched his favorite Nat Geo Wild programming. Lennox had never showed much interest in cartoons, but he was captivated by these nature shows, and couldn’t turn away from Big Cat Week.

“It kind of made me feel that he might have a similar interest or a similar love for them that I had growing up,” Henderson said. “And as we were watching one of those Nat Geo shows, Betty White came on for a PSA.”

This was the final piece of the puzzle. White had recorded the spot — complete with a laugh line about being a cougar — to help spotlight the aforementioned decline of big cats around the world. Henderson had never been much of a crusader, but he decided this was his cause.

“Here she is taking her time and trying to do something different, and it kind of reached me,” Henderson said. “So if it touched me, then it might have touched other people, which in turn made me feel like maybe I could do something to reach other people. Maybe I could reach an audience or a group of people that might not have paid attention to it before, or might not have been interested in it before, but may see my love and my  passion for it and view it in a different light.”

So without knowing whether the Society was in the market for public support from random NFL linebackers, Henderson promised to give $1,000 to the Big Cats Initiative for every sack he recorded in 2012, upping the contribution to $5,000 when he wasn’t satisfied with his three sacks. He made plans for an offseason visit to the National Geographic headquarters, which he hadn’t known existed despite going to school a short train ride away. And he began wearing bands with the campaign’s slogan — “Cause an Uproar” — on both wrists; he hasn’t taken them off since midway through the 2012 season.

“They’ve kept me safe, they’ve kept all the bad stuff away from me,” Henderson said with a smile. “Being an athlete, it’s very possible that I’m just superstitious. But I have my ways about it. Hey, it got me to six years in the NFL, I’m still here and I’m still standing, so I’m gonna continue to be superstitious.”

(He also has tattoos, it’s worth noting, of a giraffe and a crow based on animal symbolism — “my arm turned into its own personal jungle,” he joked.”)

Henderson also wasn’t sure he would connect with the National Geographic staffers, but as they sat around a conference table discussing big cats, that worry seemed put to bed.

“It was just a shot in the dark, just to see what would happen and see how it would turn out,” Henderson said. ” And now that we’re here, and now that we have this platform and we have this opportunity, I want to try to maximize it to the best of my ability, put as much information out there for people to soak up and take in as possible.”