Sills did not recoup the shoulder pads, which are too big for some of the new Red Lions, whose center is 190 pounds; a guard weighs in at 205. Twenty-four players came out for the first practice last Wednesday, and when new coach David Needs asked if they'd ever played high school football, four hands went up. They will have to rely on six or seven eighth-graders this season.
Needs has been coaching in Delaware since 1979, when Mount Pleasant High hired him after 16 starters were suspended for alcohol and drug use. Fourteen of the players quit, and the team went 0-8-1 in his first season. Two years later, Mount Pleasant won the Division II title. Needs runs the triple option, and in the first practice he taught the Lions how to stand, how to hold the ball, how to break the huddle. They are starting over, with 10 games on the schedule. "God willing, we'll play it all," Needs says.
The school is in better shape than the team, with a new $5 million loan from TD Bank, which helped cover a renovation of neglected early-education and elementary buildings. Red Lion's enrollment has dropped to 670, but diversity figures remain strong, with more African-American students than last year. In February the DIAA reinstated Red Lion as a full member. As Betters gives a tour, he walks under a banner emblazoned with a verse from Timothy 4:8: PHYSICAL TRAINING IS GOOD BUT TRAINING FOR GODLINESS IS MUCH BETTER.
Many Red Lion students are still friends with Eastern Christian students and wished them luck before the trip to South Carolina. The Honey Badgers led early, trailed at halftime and scored four touchdowns in the second half. Sills was sublime, passing for more than 300 yards and finishing off Strom Thurmond late in the fourth quarter with a 26-yard scamper into the end zone by the pines. After time ran out, the Honey Badgers lingered in the middle of the field, snapping pictures and chatting with fans. They absorbed the atmosphere of an old-fashioned high school, where on fall Friday nights a hundred cliques come together as one.
Finally, Eastern Christian Academy climbed aboard an air-conditioned bus for the long ride back to its virtual home.