I was sitting in a Canton, Ohio hotel room, just a few miles from the Pro Football Hall of Fame after a six-plus hour solo drive when my cell phone rang.
It was my WDEL broadcast partner Jason Bowen, who was just beginning his trip to Northeastern Ohio, asking me if I had heard from Coach Drass about what had happened during the team’s trek the night before.
I don’t remember his specific words, but Ben Knapp, the son of then-Offensive Coordinator Chip Knapp, had gone into cardiac arrest, only to be saved by Steve Azzanesi, an assistant coach, former Wesley quarterback, and former Rehoboth Beach Lifeguard.
That was the night of October 21, 2011, which changed a lot of things for the Wolverines program, but put one thing in crystal-clear focus: Wesley might rarely have things go easily, but they’ll do it as a family.
It is with the spirit of family and togetherness, even in the midst of a pandemic that will keep Mike Drass Field at Scott D. Miller Stadium more empty than it should be, that Wesley plays its final scheduled home game against Route 13 Rival Salisbury.
Wesley, a private school with an enrollment that wouldn’t even rate in the top 5 largest Delaware high schools, found a national standing in football in the most unlikely of ways.
Their field is across the street from a graveyard.
Their locker rooms are quaint, concrete, cold.
If you’re looking for the luxuries of life, the Wesley Football program was not for you.
If you’re looking to win a lot of football games, it sure was.
After losing 27 of their first 28 games, Wesley has had an astounding 271-80-1 Division III record (77.2%) including six appearances in the NCAA Division III Semifinals.
They did a lot of it in barnstorming fashion.
When the Atlantic Central Football Conference, basically a land of Division III Football misfit toys, dissolved in 2011, Wesley embarked on an ambitious national tour that even had University of Delaware coaches amazed what states their neighbors to the south had been to in recent weeks.
There was Tigerville, South Carolina; Bangor, Maine; Palo Alto, California; Lake Wales, Florida; Selma, Alabama; Pineville, Louisiana; LaGrange, Georgia; Marshall and Belton, Texas [Brisket Coma]; Rindge, New Hampshire; Madison, Wisconsin.
There were some plane flights, but also a 16-hour drive to Selma, which was slightly elongated going back because Drass insisted they stop at the Edmund Pettus Bridge to learn the history of Bloody Sunday, as they were following much of that road on the first leg of their trip back home after a victory.
They played a school that never opened [Madison College], they beat a Division 1 program that announced the termination of its program after the game [Iona College].
They won in front of 14,534 fans at UNC Charlotte, they won in front of less than 100 fans many times, even before Department of Public Health Divisions mandated that kind of thing.
They spawned two Gagliardi Trophy Winners as Division III national players of the year, Caesar Rodney’s Rocky Myers, who was the lead analyst my first season at WDEL, and Joe Callahan, who went on to play in the National Football League. Callahan’s teammate Matt Gono just wrapped up his second season with the Atlanta Falcons.
There was Mike Drass, the larger than life figure you didn’t want to line up in the wrong spot in one of his defenses, and there was Chip Knapp, equally determined to win, but with the far better poker face.
Working in Wilmington day-to-day, I only got to fly into the program for Wednesday interviews and then the Saturday games, but just at the season-ending banquets I saw I needed to see.
When Drass would inevitably get to the senior awards, and started listing off the accomplishments. Sure he named a ton of D3football All-Americans, but he saved his greatest smile for an athlete who was making progress in the classroom, sometimes with a rough start, and was going to get his diploma.
They all got a hug and a hand pound.
They all raised their helmets and ‘wooooooooo’ed in the final bars of Holly Dunn’s National Anthems.
They wanted so badly to get to Salem, Virginia, and play in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. They reached the semifinal six times, led at Mount Union in the 4th quarter, until future Washington [Insert Team Name Here] Cecil Shorts III switched from receiver to QB and broke their hearts with an incredible 4th quarter.
Four years later, Callahan would throw for 633 yards and 8 touchdowns IN THREE QUARTERS, coming up 3 points short again in maybe the greatest game I’ve ever watched.
They played four overtimes against Delaware Valley. They went double overtime in a playoff game at Don Shula Stadium.
In a small townhouse in downtown Dover, and eventually a converted early education building, the Wolverines prepared for battle.
They won, a lot.
The losses, they didn’t happen often, but you could see the hurt.
Wesley College is in the process of being acquired by Delaware State University, and that will end the football program.
From Tom Marshall and Darryl McCabe being named NJCAA All-Americans in 1959 to Bryan Robinson, Larry Beavers, Dave Erdman, Mike Pennewell, Jon Lanouette, and Chet Turner all getting D3Football nods in 2008, 71 different major All-American teams were represented by Wolverines.
Mount Union, Wisconsin-Whitewater, Mary Hardin-Baylor, and other Division III powers have luxurious homes.
Wesley’s quaint facilities resembled a fighting spirit that transcended onto the field.
They never complained, they just kept winning.
Saturday, they say goodbye to Mike Drass Field at Scott D. Miller Stadium.
There’s an uncertain future about what happens to that field, maybe Early College High School at DelState uses it and the Hornets can begin making their own memories.
Maybe they’ll learn how to react when that fire whistle goes off behind the south end zone, many opponents and referees sure didn’t.
Two spectators per player just doesn’t feel like enough, but maybe it’s fitting.
Wesley has to face yet another struggle, but they’ll buckle the chin straps and try to get one more win against Salisbury.
Wolverine fans will be watching as a six-decade show ends in Delaware’s capital city.
Ben Knapp will be watching his dad and his beloved program, who loves him right back, from the sidelines, Mike Drass will be watching from somewhere too, and you can almost hear his strong voice ask his final question before every game in the locker room: “How will we win?”
It’s been a 15-year ride of a lifetime Wesley, but in the words of Phish "This has all been wonderful, but now I'm on my way."
WDEL Sports Director Sean Greene served as Wesley's Play-By-Play announcer from 2009-2019, after three years as sideline reporter.