He had made the 145-mile drive from his Hamden home to Curry College in Milton, Mass., too many times to count. On Saturday, Melvin Wells Jr. brought a weightlifting belt, water and chalk.
“Anytime I needed something,” Melvin Wells III said, “he’d be right there.”
Unconditional love is not a sometimes thing, but sometimes it may appear mundane. Saturday was one of those days. Melvin arrived at his son’s dorm about 3:30 in the afternoon.
“We hung out and talked for an hour,” said Melvin III, a 350-pound sophomore offensive lineman at Curry. “We went to get gas. He filled up the truck. I filled up my car. We hugged. I told him I loved him. He told me he loved me.
“That’s the last I saw him.”
Melvin Wells Jr., a man who coached Hyde to the state football title in 2009, who coached at Bloomfield, West Haven, East Haven and Hillhouse, was headed south on I-95 in Stonington around 6:15 p.m. Saturday. A wrong-way driver named Larry Stallings crashed into his vehicle. Both were killed. There are few right ways to die, but this was among the worst of the wrong ways.
“A terrible situation,” his son said.
Melvin Wells Jr., born in Brooklyn, N.Y., who would become a football standout at Southern Connecticut and one of the beloved coaches in the state, was 55.
Melvin III got the call around 7:30 p.m. It was his mom Lisa. Dad had been in an accident. They had airlifted him to Rhode Island Hospital. Melvin III was about 40 minutes away and rushed to Providence. He was the first family member there. He had decided on Curry because of how close-knit the players were. He said he has forged a lifelong brotherhood with 110 players. A handful of them would accompany him to the hospital.
“I sat in the family room for a bit,” Melvin III said. “They sent in the social worker and I knew it wasn’t going to be a good outcome. Then I talked to the doctor.”
Melvin III did something in the midst of his grief that would make his mom, his family and especially his dad proud.
“I thanked her for all her efforts,” Melvin III said.
His sister, Alexandria, is a doctor in Jamaica Queens, N.Y. He understands. He also understands his dad was a giant of a man. He had a big voice, a big heart and a big soul. He had an understanding for reaching kids in ways only gentle giants can.
“I went in to talk to my father,” Melvin III said. “He already passed, but it was nice to share some last words.
“I told him I missed him and was going to miss him. He was going to be with me forever. I felt his soul. I told him everything from this point on was in his name, especially since we have the same name. That is something I was taught from a very young age. My name isn’t only mine. It’s the name of the men who have worn it before me. I have to honor those men.”
The football community was shocked by Melvin’s death. The outpouring of love from every direction has been immense.
His son and I sat alone in a locker room at Hillhouse Tuesday night. He had been presented with a game ball before the Hillhouse girls state playoff basketball game against East Haven. A sold-out crowd showed their appreciation. Melvin III smiled. “It was lovely,” he said. “My dad loved this place. He loved all the places he coached.
“I was talking to my mother. I had known he had touched a lot of people. I don’t know if she knew how many. Seeing on social media, on the news, how many people he had touched. You can do the math, each class at those different schools and Pop Warner. He loved kids. He loved to help kids. I loved that there was nothing too big to ask. To see it all come back to my family, it’s just phenomenal.”
Over three decades, Melvin Wells Jr. was a high school head coach and an assistant coach — his last position was as an assistant at Hillhouse. He was vice president of the Southern Connecticut Pop Warner organization. He was a retired deputy warden for the state Department of Corrections. He was a husband. He was a dad.
“I couldn’t play Pop Warner because I was always too big,” Melvin III said. “So I always hung around the kids and coaches. My dad would tell me, ‘You just wait. If you still love the game, you’ll get your opportunity.’ ”
The opportunity came in middle school and the grandest opportunity came at Hyde.
“I played for my dad freshman to junior year and that experience is something I can hold on to for life,” Melvin III said. “You can ask any of my teammates. Having him as a coach was insane. He was such a good man. He loved every single one of us. It changed me, it showed me how to be as a person.
“A lot of people thought because he was my coach there wasn’t an off switch, but there definitely was. When that switch turned off he was like any other dad. ‘How are your grades?’ ”
Wells left Hyde for two years at prep school.
“Respectful, loving, caring,” said Hamden Hall coach Joe Linta, a NFL agent. “If you just met the kid, you’d say, man, I bet he has great parents. It’s so apparent.”
Melvin III and Matt Murchison, now playing at Bryant, combined for nearly 700 pounds of the Hamden Hall offensive line. Their cafeteria appetites were legendary. Although Melvin Jr. was a high school coach, Linta said he didn’t try to intervene. He was supportive of his son, but it also was whatever it took to improve.
“My junior year, that summer, we conditioned together,” Melvin III said. “He’d run with me. At Hamden Hall, the conditioning test was 16 110-yard sprints. The entire summer we were building up. Me and my father made it. He was big. He was like 52 years old.”
Melvin III broke into a laugh at the memory.
“You could see their bond,” Linta said. “As intense as his dad was on the field, he was kind off it. Both of them, gentle giants.”
Melvin III wanted to talk about the car rides home after their games at Hyde. Not after the bunches of wins, but after the losses. How coach and player would slowly become father and son. The quiet would give way to a life lesson, about how they would live to play another day. In other moments, Melvin would talk to his son about death, preparing him for the inevitable loss of a father. The son is 20 with a huge and eager laugh, yet when he opens his mouth out pours wisdom of a man three times his age.
“One of my dad’s sayings was just because you have a problem, the world doesn’t stop,” Melvin III said. “You take that, put it in context. What has happened, obviously this situation is really hard, but you’ve got to keep moving. That’s what he’d say. Keep moving.
“I used to think my dad was invincible when I was little, but no one is invincible. You never know when it’s your last opportunity to talk to someone. Be genuine. You love someone, tell them you love them.”
You do that with your dad?
“Every single time,” Melvin Wells III said. “Every single time.”
A celebration of the life of Melvin Wells Jr. will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Community Baptist Church, 143 Shelton Ave. in New Haven. A viewing will be from 9-11 a.m. at the church.