Coach Melvin Wells Turning the “Light” back on in East Haven’s “Friday Night Lights"

All photo credits to Anthony Verderame

On March 2, 2019, former EHHS head football Coach Melvin Wells passed away at the age of 55. While driving on I-95 in Stonington, Coach Wells was hit head-on by a wrong-way driver, ultimately causing his death (New Haven Register). This news soon reached East Haven, and left the community in awe at such a loss. Not only did Coach Wells serve as a hardworking, dutiful coach, he served as a mentor and role model to his athletes as well.

Years ago, when Coach Rusty Dunne was the head coach of the football team, Coach Wells was an assistant coach before beginning his three reputable years as head coach (2015-16, 2016-17, 2017-18). As a result, when Coach Wells was interviewed for the 2015-16 season, he was already equipped with experience at EHHS. During the interview, Coach Wells left an outstanding impression on the panel. With a successful track record from his previous years at Hyde Leadership School, Coach Wells already proved that he knew the ins and outs of the sport. However, what impressed the panel most was not his brain for the game, but what he saw as his role as head coach. Mr. DeNuzzo, who served on that panel, stated, “During the [job] interview he talked a lot about what he saw as his role as head coach in helping mold good men, good citizens, responsible, respectful kids.” Coach Wells was selected as head coach because of his desire to build character and respectability within his players. So, he did just that: created good, responsible, respectful men. One of the young men that Coach Wells coached was senior kicker Evan Damian. As a four-year varsity starter, Evan quickly struck a connection with Coach Wells, who gave him the special opportunity to take on such a vital role at a young age. “He gave me hope that I could do something with football in the future,” said Evan. Everytime Evan would take the field before kicking the ball, Coach Wells would say to him, “Just kick the ball man, you do you.” He had confidence in his players, and trusted they would always do their best, win or lose. Senior Michael Manning Jr. was also coached by Coach Wells. According to Mike, Coach Wells was a substantial role model throughout his high school career: “He was a father figure to all his players. I don’t have a father figure and high school has been a hard time in my life, so he helped me to become a man and show respect.” Coach Wells clearly served as a mentor to the boys both on and off the field. Mike’s favorite memory of Coach Wells is how he accompanied Mike to the hospital when he had a heart problem at football camp. He remembers Coach Wells said to him, “Mike, stop flirting with the doctors!” As shown by his strong bonds with his players, Coach Wells treated all of them as his own, making his passing so difficult to swallow.

Assistant Coach Chris Cuomo has only coached for EHHS for three years so far (2015-16, 2016-17 2018-19), but worked alongside Coach Wells for 12 years at West Haven, Hyde, and of course, East Haven. Coach Cuomo said, “When I first met coach at West Haven, we bonded instantly. He had a smile that would light up the room, and a personality that would make you feel as though you knew him all your life.” After over a decade together, Coach Cuomo described himself and Coach Wells as, “attached at the hip.” Being so close to Coach Wells, Coach Cuomo was a first-hand witness of the impact Coach Wells not only had on the boys, but on EHHS football and the community as well. Coach Wells had the first winning season in 15 years, as well as back-to-back winning seasons. He also beat a Division 1 SCC team, Hamden, for the first time, and has the state record for the longest game: four overtimes. Aside from the impressive statistics, Coach Cuomo also highlighted the sense of community Coach Wells created within East Haven: “There was a lot of hype when Coach was hired because of his successful coaching history. This was evident by the large crowds on Friday nights.” As the football team became more successful under Coach Wells’ wing, East Haven came together to rally behind them every Friday night. Coach Wells turned back on the “light” in East Haven’s “Friday Night Lights.”

In addition to coaching, Coach Wells also worked in the Department of Corrections for upwards of 20 years. Rick Sanzo, EHHS security guard, worked alongside Coach Wells at both EHHS and the Department of Corrections. He described Coach Wells as, “the salt of the Earth, a big brother, and a mentor.” Rick’s view of Coach Wells is so substantial because they actually grew up together. They met in 1981 at Southern Connecticut State University, where they went to college and played football together. After knowing Coach Wells since he was 17 years old, Rick made this the biggest point he wanted shared: “In order to get respect, you have to start with respecting yourself. Once you do that, you open up other people’s minds to respecting you, and that’s what Melvin Wells did.”

Coach Wells will be sincerely missed and the impact he left on the East Haven community will live on in the hearts he touched forever. Through simply coaching and living with the goal to help not only his athletes but all those around him be the best versions of themselves, he made a lasting impression on everyone who knew him. Said best in the words of Coach Cuomo, “As the days passed, I asked myself what Wells would tell me… He’d say ‘keep it moving.’ I’ll keep it moving and keep our boys moving.” As tough as it will be, that is what Coach Wells would want the East Haven community and football team to do. May Coach Melvin Wells rest in peace.