By Jason Bowen
DOVER, Del. – For the past couple years, Ben Knapp is one of the first students I see in the morning and one of last I see in the afternoon at my job as a teacher at Dover High School.
I haven’t had Ben as a student in a couple of years. He was in my Honors Biology class as only a ninth grader, but he still uses my room as his locker of sorts. His big blue backpack full of baseball equipment sits below a table that holds my phone and a few student notebooks not retrieved from last year.
As a student, Ben, 16, is among the most intelligent students I have had in my 12 years of teaching public school in Delaware. He’s a member of the National Honor Society, a left-handed pitcher vying for a spot on the varsity baseball team and a talented pianist, who won an award last year at a chorus competition as best accompanist.
If you ask his friends, they’ll tell you about his great sense of humor and how he has a way of getting you to tell him anything. That he has an inside joke with each of his friends that he uses as a way to relate to each of them. That he plays the piano with a passion and flair that comes from hours of practice. That he can’t sing very well, but he’s always whistling.
Ben is the type of kid that is friends with the starting quarterback and the lead in the school play. That he is a well-rounded person is no surprise if you know his parents Chip and Cindy. He has his father’s dry sense of humor and his mother’s warm heart.
Though I first met Chip back in 1989, I didn’t get to know him and Cindy well until I joined the coaching staff at Wesley in 1993. Mike Drass, who was first my high school coach and then an assistant coach at Mansfield when I played, had taken the head coaching job.
Since that time, Mike and Chip, his associate head coach and offensive coordinator, have turned the Wesley program into one of the most successful in Division III. I have been lucky to be a part of it, coaching until 2002 and broadcasting Wolverine games on Internet and then radio since 2004.
Last weekend started out like pretty much any other for the Wolverines, a little early. The team left Thursday night to break up a long bus trip from Dover to Canton, Ohio. They stopped at a hotel in Breezewood, Pa., on Thursday night.
For the Knapp family, the trip was to be a reunion of sorts. Chip is originally from Kent, Ohio which is not too far from Canton. Ben took a day off from school to travel with his dad and the team, but also to get the chance to see grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. That Thursday night Ben bunked with his dad and Wesley receivers coach Steve Azzanesi.
Somewhere between 4:00 and 4:30 am Friday, Chip awoke to the sound of his son making noises. Thinking Ben was having a bad dream, he tried to wake him. He couldn’t. Seeing that his son was in trouble, he awoke Azzanesi, who fortunately has spent many of his summers over the past 15 years as a lifeguard at Dewey Beach in Delaware. Chip went for help, while Steve performed CPR until the paramedics arrived.
Ben was eventually transferred to Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital on Friday, where he has stable vital signs and was placed into an induced medical coma to help him get better. Instead of gathering in Canton, the Knapp family gathered there.
After Drass gathered the team together to explain what had happened and for a team prayer, a shocked and saddened group of coaches and players continued on to Canton. To a team fighting for its seventh straight berth in the playoffs, suddenly winning a football game was not the most important. As I entered the room for the team breakfast the next morning, there was not much talking and just the sound of clanking glasses and dishware. Team chaplain and Fellowship of Christian Athletes mentor Randy Chambers inspired the team with his message and we joined hands in a prayer for Ben. Randy has been a wonderful source of strength for the Knapp family and the team.
After a special teams review, Drass spoke last. I’ve known this man for 30 years but I’ve never seen him look as anguished as he had on this morning. He was drained. He continued with Chambers’ theme of seizing the day. His voice cracked as he talked about holding Ben, his godson, in his arms as a newborn. It was all a lot of us in the room could do to keep from breaking down. Winning this game wasn’t the most important thing in the world, but it would do a lot to lift the spirits of everyone involved.
Wesley takes a knee after the game, with Ben Knapp and his family in their thoughts througout.
The Wolverines got off to a slow start Saturday afternoon at Fawcett Stadium trailing 3-0 but rallied for a 28-3 victory over Walsh, a former NAIA member moving to NCAA Division II. Azzanesi, not only a hero in this story, called a great game in place of Chip with a nice balance of run and pass plays. Drass’ defense dominated allowing just 176 yards and forcing four turnovers. The special teams play was great with a couple of long returns and great coverage.
At times on Saturday, the big stadium that hosts the NFL Hall of Fame game each year in early August, seemed as empty as I felt. I’ll never remember this game as one where I got to call a game from the same spot as great broadcasters like Al Michaels and Pat Summerall or where some many NFL greats shed tears during an induction ceremony. I’ll remember it as the place where a group of guys came together to lift the spirits of a family.
Wolverine quarterback Shane McSweeny took a knee to run out the final seconds as my radio partner on WDEL, Sean Greene shouted out “Wesley wins one for the Knapps!” Shane threw both arms up more in a sense of relief than in triumph and walked up to and embraced Drass.
“I am proud of the way our team has handled this,” Drass told me. “They have showed a lot of maturity, focus and compassion.”
Following the game Saturday evening, we arrived at Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital ahead of the team buses. We met with Chip in the lobby. I was amazed by his strength as he retold the events of the past 30 some hours. He was upbeat and positive about the prospects of Ben’s recovery.
“I don’t mind telling it,” Knapp told us. “It keeps my mind occupied. If I think about it too much it becomes too painful. To hear my son, speak again, that will be like winning ten Stagg Bowls. I might get arrested for running through the streets of Pittsburgh naked.”
I went up with coaches Bob Healy and Shawn Plews, who both also teach at Dover High, to visit Ben in the PICU. Chip and Cindy have an adjoining room to be close to Ben. Though still in the coma, Chip encouraged us to talk to Ben. They also play his favorite classical music to stimulate him. As we leave, Drass and Azzanesi are headed in to see Ben. The team buses have arrived.
About 20 minutes later, Knapp meets with the team in the lobby. Senior captains McSweeny and linebacker Mike Asiedu give the family the game ball signed by everyone on the team. Knapp thanked the team for uplifting his spirits that afternoon, if just for a little bit. He was able to listen to bits and pieces of the game while waiting in the hospital.
“If I knew my son was going to have a heart attack, I’d have wanted to be right next to him and have a great person like Coach Azz right next to me who knows CPR,” Knapp said to the team. “I’d want him to be in this great hospital. Steps are happening that look like he may be able to recover. We don’t know for sure.
“If this would have happened at home, if he didn’t come with us, he may not be here right now. He would have been at home in bed by himself. There’s little miracles happening, keep praying and thank you.”
At the end of team huddles, at the end of practices and games, Wesley breaks with a shout of “Together!” But after the weekend’s events, there is no doubt that this group is united behind the coach and his family. They crowded around Chip, Cindy and their younger daughters Ellie and Emma, everyone throwing in an arm and shouting in unison:
As of Wednesday, Ben’s status is still uncertain. Frankly, it is still too soon for a long-term prognosis. His family remains optimistic and hopeful. They are thankful for the outpouring of support they have received in the past six days. It has given them strength.
If you would like send a message of support to Ben, you can do so at the following website: http://www.chp.edu/CHP/ecards
Jason Bowen writes the Around the South column for D3football.com.