Knapps’ story is Wesley’s story too

DOVER — Ben Knapp’s favorite part of every Wesley College football home game comes at the end.

That’s when Wolverine head coach Mike Drass talks to his players — usually after another victory.

“I always look forward to going on the field after the game,” said Knapp, “and hearing the team yell ‘Together’ when Coach Drass asks ‘How did we win?’”

That fact that the 22-year-old Knapp is in a wheelchair or that many of his muscles and senses don’t work properly is beside the point.

In that moment, Knapp — the son of Wesley offensive coordinator Chip Knapp — is just part of the team. And the Wolverine players, several who come over to talk to Knapp after every game, make him feel that way, too.

“It’s a nice ritual and he just enjoys the heck out of it,” said Chip. “He can’t do much on his own. But people fill his day up with cool stuff. This is one of the things that makes his day.”

Ben Knapp’s story, well-known around Dover, is a constant reminder that something good can still come out of something bad.

The bad thing, of course, is that on a 2011 team road trip to Ohio, Ben stopped breathing in a hotel room in the middle of the night. His brain was deprived of oxygen for an estimated 45 minutes.

“The doctor said not many people survive what happened to him,” said Chip.

Yet, six years later, here Ben still is, thriving in his own way. He’s thriving not only because of the constant attention of his own family, but because of the tireless support of countless friends and other people in the community.

And somehow, Ben’s story is always intertwined with Wesley’s football program.

On Saturday, the No. 13 Wolverines will play at No. 10 Brockport State in the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs. It’s the 13th straight year that Wesley has reached at least the second round.

Ben, who mainly communicates by spelling out words through hand squeezes, will be as excited as anyone when he listens to the game on the radio. Chip and his wife, Cindy, also have two daughters, Eleanor and Emma.

“One of his favorite things is Saturdays for football,” said Chip. “Whether he goes to the game or listens to it on the radio, it’s a big event in our family.

“When we’re away and he’s listening to it, it’s like a party. It’s a big deal. It’s nice tradition in our family right now with our friends and everything.”

A special job

Of course, Chip Knapp is part of the story, too.

Twenty-five years ago, he and Drass formed a partnership when Drass became Wesley’s head coach. Drass would run the defense and Chip would run the offense.

“When he and I started this together, there was never any doubt that this would be as much an equal partnership as it can be,” Drass said, before adding with a laugh, “When I say that, he has 51 percent to my 49.”

Together, they’ve turned a once-struggling program into a small-college giant. All they’ve done is led the Wolverines to a record of 229-60-1 and 14 NCAA playoff appearances.

But winning was only part of the goal.

Drass said they also wanted to create a program where, year after year, former players would come back and feel they were still part of it.

“He and I talked about this a million times,” said Drass, referencing to Knapp. “We wanted to try to build something that was special — something our team, our alumni could be proud of. Last week, I’m walking on the field and I’m seeing guys who played for me 10, 15 and 20 years ago, with their kids.

“When we first started this, we talked about, ‘What did we want to do?’ And our goal was that — to make this something that would be special in young men’s lives, not just while they’re playing, but when they look back on it.”

Drass will tell you that Knapp is as talented an offensive coordinator as there is anywhere in Division III.

“When you look at the success we’ve had over the course of time, and you look at the development of quarterback play, he’s a guy that should be coaching at a higher level,” said Drass. “From an ‘X’ and ‘O’ standpoint, Dover, Delaware has had the great, great fortune of him staying here.”

Not surprisingly, Knapp has had chances to go other places. He’s looked into job openings at bigger schools but never really found a reason to leave Wesley.

He remembers running into a higher-level coach a few years ago who couldn’t believe Knapp had stayed with a Division III program for 30 years.

“‘You must have no ego,’ he said to me,” said Knapp. “Coaching here, it doesn’t feel like work, it feels like fun all the time. That’s pretty valuable.

“I’m with my family and we have a great community to be around. That’s worth a lot. You can’t put a price on enjoying your job and being around people you care about all the time.”

But then the horrible thing happened with Ben six years ago and, in a way, Knapp staying at Wesley all kind of made sense.

If Knapp was at a big program, there’s no way he’d have the freedom — especially in the off-season — to help give his son the round-the-clock care he needs.

“I started interviewing for some jobs,” said Knapp. “But, once this happened to Ben, I couldn’t leave my circle of family and friends. It just wouldn’t make sense to do that. It’s not worth it.”

Ben power

Of course, there are times when Knapp wonders why any of this had to happen to Ben.

“Sometimes, when you really think about it, it really hits you and it sucks,” said Chip. “But, most of the time, it’s like a new normal for our life.

“The one thing is his attitude has been so great the whole time. He just seems to keep plugging along, doing his best. Everything is the same pretty much inside (as before the injury). He’s the same kid. He just can’t do a lot of things he used to be able to do. But you still see Ben in there.”

With life turning out the way it has, Knapp and his family just carry on. And, when it comes to Wesley football, Ben is right there with his dad, living for the victories and agonizing over the losses.

A part of it all, in his own way.

Each week, Ben wants to know what color the other team is wearing so he can picture it in his head. He’ll ask his dad how certain players are doing in practice.

And he’ll give Chip ‘Ben power’ for that particular game.

“Every Saturday, before the game, I get right next to him and say, ‘Give me some Ben power,’” Chip said with a smile.

Sometimes, when the Wolverines pull out a really close game, Chip will ask Ben if he helped them out.

“He goes, ‘Yeah, I was really giving you Ben power,’” said Chip. “(Other times) we’ll say, ‘Were you giving us Ben power?’ and he’ll say, ‘No, you guys didn’t need it today.’”

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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