Winning One For Ben

Apr 27th, 2012 | By | Category: Sports

By Jason Bowen

The Wolver­ine foot­ball team prays on the field

Ben Knapp is among the most intel­li­gent stu­dents I have had in my 12 years of teach­ing pub­lic school in Delaware. He’s the type of kid who is friends with the start­ing quar­ter­back and the lead in the school play. His friends will tell you about his great sense of humor and how he has an inside joke with each of them. They’ll men­tion that he plays the piano with pas­sion and flair and though he can’t sing very well, he’s always whistling. That Ben is such a well-round­ed young man is no sur­prise if you know his par­ents, Chip and Cindy Knapp – and I do. He has his father’s dry sense of humor and his mother’s warm heart.

For the past cou­ple of years, Ben has been one of the first stu­dents I see in the morn­ing and one of last I see in the after­noon at my job as a sci­ence teacher at Dover High School. Though I haven’t had him as a stu­dent since ninth grade Hon­ors Biol­o­gy, his big blue back­pack full of his base­ball equip­ment always sat in my class­room – until last Octo­ber.

That’s when the 16-year-old Nation­al Hon­or Soci­ety stu­dent, left-hand­ed base­ball pitch­er and friend-to-every­body suf­fered a sud­den and debil­i­tat­ing heart attack while trav­el­ing with the Wes­ley Wolver­ines foot­ball team for an out-of-town game.

Now in the midst of a long, slow recov­ery, Ben is much missed by his many friends at both Dover High and Wes­ley Col­lege, where I am part of the Wolver­ines coach­ing staff along with Ben’s father Chip and head coach Mike Drass. Since 1993, Mike and Chip, his asso­ciate head coach and offen­sive coor­di­na­tor, have turned the Wes­ley pro­gram into one of the most suc­cess­ful in Divi­sion III.

That week­end in Octo­ber, the team left Thurs­day on a long bus trip from Dover to Can­ton, Ohio, stop­ping for the night at a hotel in Breeze­wood, Pa. Ben took a day off from school to trav­el with the team, and he was also look­ing for­ward to see­ing his grand­par­ents, aunts, uncles and cousins in near­by Kent, Ohio, his dad’s home­town. That night, he bunked with his dad and Wes­ley receivers coach Steve Azzane­si.

Some­where between 4 and 4:30 a.m. Fri­day, Chip woke to the sound of his son mak­ing strange nois­es. Think­ing Ben was hav­ing a bad dream, he tried to wake him. He couldn’t. Chip woke Azzane­si, a Dewey Beach life­guard for 15 years, and went for help while Steve per­formed CPR till para­medics arrived. On Fri­day, Ben was trans­ferred to Pitts­burgh Children’s Hos­pi­tal, where he was placed into an induced med­ical coma.

Coach Drass gath­ered the team togeth­er to explain Ben’s sit­u­a­tion before they con­tin­ued on to Can­ton. His voice cracked as he talked about hold­ing Ben, his god­son, in his arms as a new­born. 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.

That morn­ing at break­fast, the qui­et was bro­ken by the sound of clink­ing glass­es and dish­es. To a team fight­ing for its sev­enth straight berth in the play­offs, sud­den­ly win­ning a foot­ball game was not the most impor­tant thing on their minds – but it would do a lot to lift the spir­its of every­one involved.

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.

Ben Knapp

Wolver­ine quar­ter­back Shane McSwee­ny took a knee to run out the final sec­onds as my WDEL radio part­ner Sean Greene shout­ed, “Wes­ley wins one for the Knapps!” Shane threw both arms up more in a sense of relief than in tri­umph and embraced Drass.

“I am proud of the way our team has han­dled this,” Drass told me. “They have shown a lot of matu­ri­ty, focus and com­pas­sion.”

Fol­low­ing the game Sat­ur­day evening, we arrived at Pitts­burgh Children’s Hos­pi­tal ahead of the team bus­es and met Chip in the lob­by. He was upbeat and pos­i­tive about the prospects of Ben’s recov­ery. “I don’t mind telling it,” he 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 10 Stagg Bowls.”

When I went up to vis­it Ben in the PICU with coach­es Bob Healy and Shawn Plews, who also teach at Dover High, Chip encour­aged us to talk to Ben. As we left, Drass and Azzane­si head­ed in to see Ben.

About 20 min­utes lat­er, Knapp met the team in the lob­by. Senior cap­tains McSwee­ny and line­backer Mike Asiedu gave their coach the game ball signed by the entire team. He thanked them for lift­ing his spir­its that after­noon, and told them he had heard 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. I’d want him to be in this great hos­pi­tal,” Chip told the team, adding that he was grate­ful that Ben had come on the trip instead of stay­ing home alone, where he might not have had med­ical help. “There’s lit­tle mir­a­cles hap­pen­ing. Keep pray­ing, and thank you,” he said.

At the end of team hud­dles, at the end of prac­tices and games, the Wolver­ines break with a shout of “Togeth­er!” That day, they crowd­ed around Chip, Cindy and their younger daugh­ters Ellie and Emma. Every­one threw in an arm and shout­ed in uni­son: “Ben Knapp!”

Dur­ing the last few months, the ques­tion I get asked the most by stu­dents, cowork­ers and fam­i­ly is, “How is Ben doing?”

Though he is still hos­pi­tal­ized, Chip says Ben is in good spir­its, watch­ing Net­flix and Com­e­dy Cen­tral, and play­ing “name that com­pos­er” with the clas­si­cal music on his iPod. He’s mak­ing some vocal­iza­tions, turn­ing his head, indi­cat­ing yes and no and spelling out words and phras­es.

“Men­tal­ly, he’s all there and it hasn’t seemed to affect his mem­o­ry. I know that because he laughs at my bad jokes,” Chip says. “Every day is anoth­er lit­tle step. Some­times it is hard for us to notice them due to the amount of time we spend with him. But the doc­tors notice.”

Ben’s motor skills seem to have been affect­ed the most, and he is relearn­ing how to talk and stand on his own. Chip says one doc­tor men­tioned that Ben was mak­ing the best recov­ery thus far from this type of trau­ma that he had ever seen, adding that the first six months are the most crit­i­cal in deter­min­ing his long-term prog­no­sis.

The next steps include bring­ing Ben home to Dover. Nick Drass, Mike’s father, spent years run­ning a con­struc­tion busi­ness before pass­ing it on to his youngest son Rocky. They are plan­ning alter­ations to the Knapp home that will allow Ben to come home and con­tin­ue his recov­ery more com­fort­ably.

“Cindy and I, our whole fam­i­ly, we’ve just been over­whelmed by the kind­ness of peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ty, at Wes­ley, Dover High and so many oth­er places. We can’t begin to express our thanks and appre­ci­a­tion,” Chip says.

And though the Wolver­ines’ quest to win a Nation­al Cham­pi­onship for Ben fell short in Alliance, Ohio with a 28–21 loss to Mount Union in the Divi­sion III semi­fi­nals, the team dis­cov­ered that there are much more impor­tant things in life than win­ning a foot­ball game.

Jason Bowen writes the Around the South col­umn for

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