Central for life: Wells and his boys celebrate first state title

Sussex Central head coach John Wells goes out on the field to celebrate with his team after winning the Division I state championship Saturday. Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

NEWARK — A choked-up John Wells couldn’t talk.

He attempted to find the words but they were caught in his throat.

The Sussex Central football coach held up four fingers and tried to make an L, then some words started to come out.

“For life,” he said. “We say if you go to Sussex Central, you’re Sussex Central for life.”

An emotional Wells was able to bask in the thrill of victory as the Golden Knights finally celebrated their first football state championship on Saturday afternoon.

Sussex Central downed Salesianum, 33-7, in the DIAA Division I title game at Delaware Stadium. Wells and the Golden Knights had come up short in the finals four prior times.

Many of those players who lost in those championship games were in the stands on Saturday, sporting their old Sussex Central football letterman jackets. The reason Wells was choked up was because he was taking in that scene.

“They’re all my boys,” he said. “They had a lot of heartache.”

D.J. Long and Sean Hopkins were part of Sussex Central teams who lost in the state championship game in 2006, 2007 and 2008 as players. Now 10 years later they are coaches on the state championship team. Photo courtesy of Sean Hopkins

Wells experienced every one of those heartaches with them over his 23 years at Sussex Central.

There was the time the Golden Knights ran into Newark during the height of the Yellowjackets’ dynasty. They fell 29-13 to Newark in the 2000 title game as the Jackets were in the middle of a five-year championship run.

Then there was the three-year stretch from 2006-2008.

The Golden Knight made it to the finals three years in a row. And drove back to Georgetown empty-handed each time.

The 2008 loss was to Henlopen Conference Northern Division rival Caesar Rodney. Sussex Central had beaten the Riders during the regular season for the division title but CR returned the favor in the state championship game.

The “Buffalo Bills of Delaware” jokes wrote themselves, referring to the Buffalo teams that lost four-straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s, and that group of Golden Knights heard them often.

“That definitely stuck with me,” said D.J. Long, the quarterback on those 2006-2008 teams. “We finally got one now and I’m just glad it happened.”

Long is now an assistant coach on the Sussex Central staff 10 years later. He’s joined on Wells’ staff by another former teammate, Sean Hopkins. Together, the two celebrated their 10-year high school reunion earlier this year.

On Saturday, they were finally able to celebrate that state championship they always wanted.

“We told the kids before the game it’s for the city,” Hopkins said. “It feels so good. We love these kids. They watched us growing up and they respect us. It’s my honor to help them out.”

“Just the embraces I got from those guys said it all,” Wells said. “D.J. Long, Sean Hopkins played in finals and lost heartbreakers. They’re just as happy as coaches to win it as they would be if they were still playing.”

Hopkins ended up at Wesley College after he graduated from Sussex Central. He was a two-sport athlete, playing football and basketball for the Wolverines.

Hopkins finished his Wesley career 15 yards short of the all-time Division III punt return yardage record. He led the nation in punt return yardage as a junior in 2012.

He said Sussex Central fans would always attend his home games at Wesley and he knew after he graduated from college he would end up around Golden Knights football.

Hopkins lives across the street from the Barnes brothers, Isaac and Isaiah, who both starred on Saturday. Isaac Barnes threw for 127 yards and two touchdowns in the championship game while Isaiah Barnes had five catches for 112 yards and a score.

“They’re like my sons,” Hopkins said. “They watched me grow up, I watched them grow up. To come back and help them out is so joyous. I wanted to be a positive role model for them. To show them to do the right things and any thing is possible.”

Long’s football career ended after the loss to Caesar Rodney in 2008.

He attended Delaware on a baseball scholarship where he was an All-Colonial Athletic Association second baseman. The baseball field Long played his home games on is located just steps away from where Long stood on Saturday, watching his players lift the trophy.

Long’s birthday is Nov. 29, meaning his last three birthday weekends while he was high school were spent stewing over a state championship defeat.

Not this year.

“I couldn’t take another b-day loss,” Long said. “I needed it.”

Long now teaches sixth grade at Millsboro Middle School, located in the same school district as Sussex Central. He also is the varsity baseball coach at Indian River, but always wanted to be part of the Sussex Central football staff.

“It’s SC for life,” Long said. “That’s been our motto for forever. I’m happy for Coach Wells, man, he deserves this more than anyone.”

And the next generation of “SC for life” is already taking shape.

The Barnes brothers will be gone next season. But they’re already making plans to be one of those fans wearing the old blue and gold letterman jackets in the stands.

“Coach Wells instills a message that if you come through Central, you’re SC for life,” Isaac Barnes said. “You’re blue and gold for life. You don’t graduate and forget. We got something special here.”

“Those guys are there during the regular season,” Barnes added. “You just noticed them now because it’s a big stadium and they’re in the front row. They’re with us all season, texting us, working out with some of them in the offseason. I’m going to do that next season, I’ll be back watching my boys.”

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