Michae Kneip was a freshman offensive lineman for suburban Bellevue High School in 2008, called up to the playoff-bound varsity just to see how how the older players conducted themselves and the coaches prepared for upcoming opponents.
This was how the program maintained its long-running success, was to show the next Wolverines what the expectations were and how their predecessors fulfilled them.
Kneip received more of a lesson than intended. Riding in the lead bus filled with freshmen and sophomores, he and the others were on Interstate-5 South, nearing the Tacoma Dome, when the school's second chartered bus swerved to avoid a ladder on the freeway and landed on its side.
No one was seriously injured, but the playoff game was rescheduled for the following Monday. Then Bellevue coach Butch Goncharoff used the incident to instill team unity, eventually sharing in a state championship with this group.
Kneip, a former University of Washington football player and now the Bellevue coach, likewise has referenced that bus incident to help guide his teams through tough times, notably the COVID-19 pandemic over the past 18 months.
"Control what you can control," he said. "Do the right things. Remain positive. We're all in this together. Every team is going through the same thing. We've worked hard at creating a tighter team bond."
Kneip has Bellevue off to its first 2-0 start since the 2016 season, using undersized players such as 6-foot, 200-pound George Kruger and running backs in 5-foot-11 and 165-pound Ishaan Daniels and 5-foot-6, 175-pound William Wang.
"Opposing coaches may look up and down our roster and wonder, 'Where's your varsity?' " he said with a laugh. "But we have a bunch of hitters and not hiders."
Kneip was once a 6-foot, 240-pound freshman for Bellevue who didn't scare anyone on the junior varsity team. Three years following the bus accident, he grew into someone 5 inches taller and 40 pounds heavier. He came away with four championship rings.
A first-team 3A all-state offensive lineman, Kneip signed up to play football for Husky coach Steve Sarkisian as a preferred walk-on. He finished his career as a scholarship player for Chris Petersen, as part of a UW team that advanced to the College Football Playoffs against Alabama.
In 19 career games for the Huskies, he had one recorded stat. He tackled USC's Adoree Jackson, who recovered a blocked punt but was prevented from scoring. It was Kneip the walk-on against a marquee 5-star player. The saving tackle was a lesson in itself.
"Any play can change a game," Kneip said. "Also, one decision can change your life. That might be my most important message."
With his somewhat modest contribution, he helped make the Huskies a playoff team, something he shares with his Bellevue players.
The mission is similar for the Wolverines.
"We're not rebuilding," he said. "These are 14- through 18-year-olds and we're building. We're always building them."
This is a storied program that once provided highly regarded college prospects in Budda Baker, Myles Jack, Henry Roberts, and Kevin and Shane Bowman.
However in 2016, Bellevue ran afoul of significant rules violations, such as using players who didn't live in the area, forced out Goncharoff as coach and had to start over.
Seeking a return to prominence, Kneip's Wolverines rely more on tradition than must-have players. He has 15 former players who coach for him now. Coaching his alma mater is his calling. Kneip might take a 2 a.m. phone call from a player to talk about life's challenges.\
"Every kid is in need in some way," he said. "With so much affluence here, the parents are working a lot and the kids might not get to see their parents as much as other kids."
Kneip, the overachieving player, learned all of this from his mother. She kept their family together when it hit a rough stretch and struggled financially in 2008. From her experiences, she began an outreach program to help people in need, something she passed down to her son.
"My mom has a big and abundant heart," he said. "She taught me that sharing, caring and loving others is rewarding. It is the greatest thing you can do."
From that freeway accident so long ago, Kneip is keeping this Bellevue team on the road and upright.
Tonight, the Wolverines take on Tacoma's Lincoln High School in Bellevue at 7 p.m. on Sports Illustrated All-American's YouTube channel. DiAndre Campbell, a former Univerisity of Washington receiver, and Trevor Mueller, Husky Maven high school recruiting analyst, will call the game.