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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