(Editor’s note: What follows is an excerpt of the book ‘Best Game Ever, The Story of Manheim Central and its 2003 State Championship’ penned by Lebanon resident Mike Gross, an assistant sports editor at Lancaster Newspapers. The book is available through www.amazon.com)
There’s no question when and where this story culminates: in Hershey, Pa., in a blizzard on Dec. 5, 2003. Where it begins is debatable. Perhaps in August of that year, where every football story can begin, in training camp. Perhaps it goes back to 1981, when Mike Williams became Central’s head football coach. Or even back to the early 1960s, when Williams, as a child growing up in Manheim, realized he wanted to be a coach someday. He had always been the guy in the neighborhood organizing other kids for sports, and by junior high school, he knew what he wanted to do.
For reasons that will soon enough be obvious, let’s begin in the summer of 1997, with a charismatic 11-year-old from Manheim named Shawn Wilt. “Charismatic” is Williams’ word. “Shawn has always been the kid who, when he walks into a room, the room lights up,” Williams said. Wilt wasn’t a great athlete then, now or in 2003. He did not have exceptional speed or strength. He didn’t start at Central until his senior year. But he did love football, its frenzied action, the ferocity of it, the camaraderie that came with playing it with your friends. Over time, Wilt’s intelligence and will and passion and taste for action evolved, and he became a superb two-way player with graduate-level football instincts and a sense of the moment. Ironically, he played the positions of wide receiver and defensive back, where pure athleticism counts most. “He was one of those kids coaches are always looking for, who don’t necessarily have the most talent,’’ Williams said. “But, put him on the field, in a game …”
In 1997, Wilt was just a sixth-grader, attending the Junior Baron Football Camp. There was a Camper of the Week award given by the coaches, and Wilt won it. The prize was a jersey, game-worn in the Hula Bowl and autographed by Mike Ruhl, a massive lineman who had played at Manheim Central and the University of Tulsa. “It had grass stains on it and everything,’’ Wilt said. “Very cool.’’ When camp was over, Wilt and his mom were walking back to the car, Wilt carrying his jersey. Williams walked by and chatted a bit. He jokingly offered to buy the jersey from Wilt for $50. Wilt says now he can’t believe what came out of his 11-year-old mouth. “No way I’m selling it, Coach,’’ he said. “When we win the state championship, when I’m a senior, I’ll give it to you.’’
Not if. When.
Manheim Central was an established power by 1997, but it had never even played for a state championship. Wilt took the jersey home and put it in his closet. It stayed there, on a hanger, for six years. In December 2003, at Manheim Central’s postseason football banquet, Wilt asked for speaking time. He walked to the dais carrying a box. He told the story of the camp, then opened the box. “Coach,’’ he said, “I’m a man of my word.’’