The brothers of Middletown
Apr 04, 2017 12:12PM
By Steven Hoffman
The setting sun over the Rose Bowl this past New Year's Day played with the early evening sky in Pasadena like an artist caught in an extended Sepia Period, and while the world outside the old stadium was lathered in gold, the players, illuminated by archlights, glowed like comets.
As the game progressed deep into the fourth quarter and the sun disappeared over the ridge of the Angeles National Forest in the distance, there was no more important college football game being played in the world than this one. The Grandaddy of Them All was setting itself up to be One for the Ages. To the thousands who saw it live and millions more who watched from home, there was no more important football player on the field than Penn State wide receiver Chris Godwin of Middletown, Delaware.
Sick. Ridiculous. Choose whatever hip variation of the word "Excellent" you wish; Godwin was all of it. He sliced through defenders, pulling in passes with the grace of a ballerina and the ferocity of a cougar intent on its prey. During his tam's crushing 52-49 loss to USC, Godwin made nine catches for 187 yards, including a 30-yard TD catch that required him to tightrope on the sideline; and a 72-yard touchdown -- an optical illusion of a grab that required him to pull in a bobbled ball, spin around once his feet touched the ground, and head for the end zone.
On the cusp of his Rose Bowl performance -- and his stellar career at Penn State that ranked him in the top five in career receiving yards (2,404) and career receiving touchdowns (18) – Godwin declared his eligibility for the NFL draft following his junior year. He attended the NFL Combine in February and March, where he impressed pro scouts with his uncanny ability to make contested catches -- a must-have skill in the over-the-middle warfare that is the NFL. On NFL Draft Day, scheduled for late April in Philadelphia, he is projected to be selected as high as the second round.
"As a kid from Delaware, I could only dream about being in this position," Godwin wrote in a statement. “I believe this is the best decision for myself and my family. I can’t thank my brothers, coaches, support staff and Nittany Nation enough for their constant support throughout my three years here. This year was something special and I’ll be forever grateful to have been a part of it.”
The upward trajectory of Godwin's rise, which will likely have him playing on Sundays – had its beginnings in Middletown, and for long-time head coach Mark DelPercio, it may have begun at a pre-season camp Godwin attended before his freshman year, when he was 14 years old.
“He made a couple of catches that made our heads turn, so we knew this kid had something,” DelPercio said. “We were not going to wait. We decided he was going to play for us as a freshman.”
At Middletown High School, Godwin was a game-changer, playing all four years and scoring 77 rushing, receiving and return touchdowns in his career. Along the way, the Cavaliers won two state championships, and Godwin earned the Delaware Gatorade High School Player of the Year in 2013.
To DelPercio, coaching is more than compiling trophies. The walls of his classroom at the high school, where he has taught for several years, are a photographic memory book of players he has come to know just as much for who they are off the field than what they have achieved on it. If the source of who Chris Godwin has become as a person can be linked to his mother Lisa and father Rod, then football has merely been a conduit of that growth as a person.
“In Chris's senior year, he had more than 20 scholarship offers, and he was returning Gatorade Player of the Year and first-team all-state player,” DelPercio said. “And yet, his work ethic and desire to learn never stopped. He never had a sense of entitlement.”
It was only fitting that the last game of Godwin's Middletown career would be at the 2014 state football championship at Delaware Stadium. Deep in the fourth quarter, Middletown was trailing Salesianum, when DelPercio turned around and saw that Godwin had gathered his teammates before him. After the game, the coach asked his son Vincent, a member of the team, what Godwin was telling them.
“Vincent told me, 'Dad, Chris just wanted to thank us for the most memorable four years of his life,'” DelPercio said. “Chris told his teammates that he wouldn't be where he was without them. He told them that he will never forget his roots, and that he would be a Cavalier forever.”
Before he left for State College, there would one more stop for Godwin to make in Delaware, and it would be a stop that would change his life.
* * * *
Hayden Schlenner is an eight-year-old third grader at Old State Elementary School in the Appoquinimink School District. Like many young boys his age, he is a huge football fan, and his bedroom is decorated with posters and trinkets honoring his two favorite football teams: the Philadelphia Eagles and the Penn State Nittany Lions. He is often seen around the Schlenner house wearing a Penn State football jersey bearing the number 12, a replica of the uniform once worn by his friend, Chris Godwin.
Hayden was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and cerebellar hypoplasia, a condition in which the brain does not develop completely. As a result, his muscle tone is not fully developed, which forces him to get around with the use of a walker.
Every year, the top high school football players in Delaware are selected to play in the annual Blue-Gold Game at Delaware Stadium. While the game has come to stand as a showcase of talent, it has also made a substantial altruistic imprint on the State. It benefits the Delaware Foundation for Reaching Citizens, and pairs each player with a child who has a physical or mental disability in the Hand-in-Hand Program.
To avoid any potential injury before starting at Penn State, Godwin bowed out of the 2014 Blue-Gold Game, but chose to participate as part of the game's Ambassador Program. He was paired with Hayden.
In a role reversal, it was Godwin who looked up to the young boy, not the other way around. He was impressed with Hayden's ability to look past the limitations of his body and make it into a non-event. The game served as a mere introduction to what soon blossomed into something greater. Before long, Godwin – and his girlfriend Mariah DelPercio, the daughter of Coach DelPercio – would make regular visits to the Schlenner home to play video games, toss the football and enjoy birthday parties. Throughout Godwin's time at Penn State, he and Mariah – who also attends Penn State – would continue to pay visits when they came home to Middletown. During Godwin's three-year career at Penn State, the Schlenner family frequently made the six-hour round trip to State College to see him play.
"It's easy when you're playing football to have a bad day of practice and get down on yourself," Godwin said in a Penn State alumni magazine article. "But there are people out there who can't do what you do. Me spending time with Hayden, I get to see that. For me, it opened my eyes more to being thankful for what I'm able to do."
“Chris is like one of our kids,” said Hayden's mother Renee. “He comes over and hangs out, and he and Hayden and Chris have become big X-Box and Wie buddies. In a sports world where you see so many athletes bragging about their abilities, you never get from Chris.
“Football is never the first thing in a conversation Chris has with anyone,” she added. ”If you think about the social life of a typical high school teenager, there are plenty of things to do, but Chris chose to come to our house and hang out with Hayden for hours. That shows us his compassion and his care. Not many people at that age are able to grasp the importance of establishing a friendship with a young person who has disabilities.
“Chris got that immediately.”
While at Middletown High School, Godwin volunteered for the school's Life Centered Career Education program, targeted to students who have intellectual disabilities.
“The DelPercio children were already involved in our program as peer tutors, and at first, Chris stood in the doorway and waited for direction,” said Sarah Hill, who coordinates the program with Erin Trzcinski. “Once you met Erin and me, you get sucked in, so eventually, Chris began to eat lunch in our classroom, often with the students. He's became a true friend to our children. When he would sit down and help a student, you would never know he was a superb athlete. He was just 'Chris' to them.”
Once, Godwin had a conversation with Mariah during the pressure of his juggling several scholarship offers in his senior year.
“He told Mariah, 'I don't why I get so upset about this, because these children in the program come to school with the best attitude, every day,” Hill said. “He told Mariah, 'They don't let their challenges slow them down or get them upset. I should never feel sorry for myself.' That really impressed me.”
In Godwin's junior year, the football team was honored at a pep rally at the school for winning the state championship.
"Chris asked me if the pep rally could also include the students from Ms. Hill and Ms. Trzcinski's classroom,” DelPercio said. “He told me, 'How cool would it be if these kids walked into the gym with us?' We walked into the gymnasium, hand-to-hand with those kids."