My first encounter with former Newark High head coach Butch Simpson was in the parking lot just outside the Hive.
I was the new sports reporter for the Newark Post and my then-editor, Marty Valania, suggested I go talk to Simpson on the second or third day of preseason practice. I sent Simpson an email, quickly learned he didn’t “do” email when I got no response for two days, and so I gave him a call. He picked up on the second ring and we scheduled a meeting.
Having lived in or near Newark for nearly 20 years at that point, including during the heyday of the Yellowjackets’ state title runs, I had heard of Simpson. But I had no idea what he looked like.
“He’s bald with a bushy mustache,” Valania told me.
I soon learned it was a description matching nearly half of the Newark coaching staff.
I eventually tracked Simpson down and he invited me into his office at the Hive. He pulled out of his drawer three pages of hand-written names with positions and class written next to each of them along with a few tidbits about the key players.
As I started scribbling notes in my pad, he told me, “No need for that, I wrote these out for you.”
My career as a sportswriter was officially underway. I’ve had hundreds of interactions with coaches since that moment. I’ve forgotten nearly all of them. That one with Simpson I’ll never forget.
You only get one chance to make a good first impression. He made an indelible one on me.
Friday night at Newark High, dozens of former coaches and players gathered under a tent in the outfield of the baseball field reminiscing with Simpson and each other over the illustrious 39-year career that Simpson enjoyed in the stadium less than 20 yards away.
Dutch Hoffman, who played for Simpson and whose father, Bob, the stadium is named after, spoke to the gathering about how Simpson immediately became and remained “a connection” between him and his father after Bob Hoffman passed away suddenly at the age of 41 while playing pickup basketball in the Newark High gym. Quite a first impression.
The celebration then moved to the field as fans made their way into the bleachers to witness history and the unveiling of the new stadium sign: Welcome to Butch Simpson Field at Bob Hoffman Memorial Stadium.
After a few short ceremonial speeches, Ben Campbell, who transferred after his sophomore year from the Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania back to his hometown school in Newark, took the microphone.
He talked about how he was going through a very difficult time in his life during his transfer – Campbell’s mother had passed away two years earlier – and asked to speak to Simpson about playing football for the Yellowjackets. He shared that what impressed him the most about Simpson was that the conversation didn’t turn into talking about how Campbell could probably become the starting quarterback for the team given his resume from the Hershey School (which he did), but rather the focus was on Ben Campbell, the person.
He hinted that he wasn’t sure if Simpson ever knew just what that conversation meant to him and that it was time for him to thank him before it’s too late … “Before you head back to Florida,” he added, amid laughter from the audience.
Campbell looked away from the crowd, turned to Simpson and poignantly said: “You genuinely listened to me during one of the darkest times of my life. Thank you.”
Campbell ended his remarks by summing up Simpson’s impact as a coach, teacher and mentor perhaps as well as anyone could have.
“Thank you for everything you’ve done for me, for this school and for this community. You truly are a legend,” he said.
Everyone on the outside knows about Simpson the legend on the field. Two-hundred and eighty-four wins and a Delaware-record nine state championships tell you all you need to know about Simpson the coach.
On Friday night at Newark High, the outsiders were given a peek inside to a few of the stories and private conversations that took place behind closed doors, inside the Hive, on the bus rides to and from games, or on the sidelines of the field that now bears his name.
They were reflections about a man who came from Pennsylvania to Newark because he wanted the chance to be a football coach. Boy, did he ever become one … and so much more.
The naming of the field in Simpson’s honor was a celebration to remember, honoring a legend we’ll never forget.
For those in attendance who had never met Simpson, it was quite a first impression.