They say silence is golden. Not for football players, though. The opportunity to play between those white lines, to hear the screams of thousands of rabid fans, is what drives young kids to strap on their pads and chase dreams of NFL glory.
Dwayne Savage knows the routine well. He's been coaching high school football and molding future generations for 25 years. Each speech is a way to break that silence. Every word is tailored to getting the most out of his players at Camden High School.
On November 15, Savage was instilling a valuable lesson that tomorrow is never promised in a riveting pregame pep talk before Camden's NJSIAA playoff game at Pleasantville. Go out there and play every down like it's your last. Then, gunshots rained down in the third quarter and his stirring speech almost turned eerily prophetic.
The game was stopped. Three people were injured, including 10-year-old Micah Tennant, who was randomly shot in the neck and died five days later. The scene that evening was like something out of a movie. More Friday the 13th than Friday Night Lights. Surreal.
"We want the football field or our weight room or our facility to be a safe haven for them, so they can kind of forget about everything else. All of the other problems," Savage said. "It really gets under your skin that it took away our safe haven."
Now the Philadelphia Eagles are honoring Savage as their nominee for the 2019 Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year Award. Savage grew up in Mount Holly, New Jersey as a die-hard Eagles fan and lived next door to former Eagles wide receiver Irving Fryar. He was never big on wearing jerseys, but by winning this award, he'll get new swag and an all-expenses-paid trip to the Pro Bowl in Orlando later this month.
"It's an honor to be named Coach of the Year," Savage said, "especially from the Eagles who have been my hometown team since I've been a little kid, so it's a very big honor coming from them."
Growing up as Camden football royalty
Dwayne Savage has really good bloodlines, a good pedigree as NFL scouts say.
In addition to growing up as Fryar's neighbor, Savage is a first cousin of Heisman Trophy winner and former NFL running back Mike Rozier, a Camden native. Tragically, the first time Savage witnessed senseless gun violence happened when he heard gunshots ring out at a Thanksgiving Day high school rivalry game that Rozier, a star at Camden's Woodrow Wilson High School, was on the field for in 1979.
"Two motorcycle gangs. Mike was going to score a touchdown and then shots rang out. As a little kid, you can't comprehend it as much," Savage said. "As an adult, with the situation here, you're looking at keeping 60 kids safe and fortunately, all of our kids were kept safe."
As the community attempted to balance the enormous weight of the city's most recent tragedy, Camden and Pleasantville still had to finish their halted playoff game. That is, if the players wanted to step back onto the field.
"First thing was, do we want to play the game still? We had to find out where our kids' minds were at," Savage said. "To each man, to each kid, to each player ... they all said we want to play."
There was another problem, though. They needed a neutral site to host the game and no one wanted to pay for security. The teams were destined to play in an empty stadium, until the Philadelphia Eagles called with an offer no one could refuse.
The organization invited them to come to its house, at Lincoln Financial Field, and finish the game on November 20. Their fans and loved ones were welcome to attend. They would be greeted by Eagles players, get dressed in a real NFL locker room, and experience the thrill of running out of the tunnel. Camden beat Pleasantville 22-0 on that day, but the score didn't matter. There was much more on the line than a potential trophy.
"For me, the day that we got to play in the Eagles' stadium, that washed away a lot of the stain from the 15th, that Friday," Savage said. "What the Eagles did, running out of the tunnel and all that, that just gave my team a whole extra pep. When they went into the locker room and actually saw their nametags on each locker, they were in awe."
Building something special at Camden High
Dwayne Savage doesn't consider himself a role model. Not in the slightest. The head coach isn't warm and fuzzy enough, although the 48-year-old says he's working on it.
He played defensive back at Montclair State and Rancocas Valley before accepting his first job at West Side High in Newark. There, he served as an assistant under ex-Cleveland Browns running back Edgar Whipps before moving on to coach at Pennsauken High.
Savage took over the head coaching reins at Camden High in 2012 after serving as an assistant at cross-city rival Woodrow Wilson, the same high school his cousin (and future Nebraska star) Mike Rozier attended. Football was all around him, in his DNA.
"I went to a lot of Nebraska football games and got the bug that football was the way to go," Savage said. "I was at the Orange Bowl when they lost the National Championship, so it was just one of those things. My older cousins and siblings all played football."
Along the way, he has always taken immense pride in watching kids from Camden flash into beacons of hope. Camden natives like Fran Brown (secondary coach at Rutgers), Elijah Robinson (defensive line coach at Texas A&M), and Sean Chandler (safety for the New York Giants) are his heroes. Chandler often visits his hometown and talks to the team.
"We call him Champ because he helps us out a lot," Savage said of Chandler. "He comes to work out with the players, and they see his work ethic, and he gives them hope. Sean has a similar background, so they know they can make it out of Camden and into the pros."
This year, Camden fell eight points shy of a state championship. The Panthers were down 24-7 to Cedar Creek with less than five minutes to play and rallied to within a point before eventually losing 31-23 on November 30. The loss was bittersweet, considering the nerve-rattling whirlwind the team and city had endured. In the end, they just weren't good enough.
"We were feeling good, had chances to win the game, but the better team won that day," Savage said. "We couldn't click on all cylinders until the end of the game."
They showed a great deal of resiliency, a unifying staple of a Savage-coached squad. It's a trait that has shown up in the classroom, too. The coach is quick to bring up his students' academic victories in the same breath as their athletic ones. He was most proud that 16 of his players have gone on to Division I schools while another 50 enrolled in an accredited college.
"For them, I'm an ear they can talk to, try to steer them on the right path," Savage said. "I guess, with a lot of guys, they call you and you stay in touch with a lot of players about different things in life. Make sure they stay on the right path; some of them are going to slip and some of them are not."
It's not easy. Not in Camden.
In 2014, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie stated that only three high school students in the city were "college ready" – and only one of them had scored better than 1,000 on the SAT. Well, according to Savage, he has watched nine of his players surpass that benchmark on the test.
"We had a kid at Michigan graduate in three years. We had a kid at Austin Peay graduate in three years," Savage said. "You're talking about kids coming from Camden and graduating in three years instead of the other route."
The other route can be anything from drug addiction to gang violence. Camden is consistently ranked among the most dangerous cities in America, with an estimated 1,200 violent crimes reported in 2018. Violence is a way of life. In fact, Savage recalled an incident from last year when a few of his players witnessed a shooting right before football practice.
"For us, for our kids – which is kind of sad – is that a lot of them have been through trauma already," Savage said. "Last year, before practice, some of my football players went to a store and a guy got shot right in front of them, right before practice. And they came to practice like it was nothing. For them, it kind of becomes normal."
The forgotten football prayer heard around New Jersey
There is one small ritual, perhaps a bit taboo for a public high school, that happens in the locker room before every game at Camden High. Dwayne Savage leads the team in an introspective round of prayer.
The prayer session is voluntary, and players are permitted to opt out if it clashes with their beliefs. But rarely does anyone skip it. In the days after the November 15 shooting incident, the players attended a grief counseling session and a few of them came to a stunning realization. They hadn't prayed together that fateful evening before playing Pleasantville.
"We didn't pray that game. Our routine was a little bit off because of how far the stadium was and we didn't get a chance to pray," Savage said. "And then, that happened."
Camden didn't forget to pray in the games following the tragic shooting. On the way to Lincoln Financial Field to finish the semifinal showdown, the team bus stopped in front of Cooper University Hospital to hold a moment of silence for Micah Tennant. The 10-year-old victim had just been taken off a ventilator.
"We didn't know he had passed until we got to the stadium," Savage said. "He was fighting."
Savage has grown a special bond with Micah's mother, Angela, and checks in on her often. Angela and Micah weren't even supposed to be at the game in Pleasantville as it was a last-minute decision. Now, her son is dead and his older sister saw it happen.
"She's going through a lot," he said.
The whole experience has affected the way Savage coaches, or at least made him re-evaluate his motivational methods. He has long been known as a strict disciplinarian, a hard-nosed drill instructor who benches a player for failing tests or showing up late for practice.
"That day puts stuff in perspective," he said. "I like to coach our kids hard, so it put it in perspective that maybe I need to mellow out a bit."
His motto is simple: "We don't cut players. They cut themselves." (Translation: he's going to make your life difficult and maybe force you to quit, if you mess up). He'll never kick a kid off the team. It's all on them because "tomorrow's never promised," says Savage.
Obviously, it's worked. But he acknowledges he might have to lose the tough-guy act amid all that has transpired. Camden is losing 19 seniors from its roster, plus Pleasantville is entering its conference. Next year is going to be an emotional roller-coaster.
Anything but silent.
"I guess it's a moment that you never forget but you have to move on. It's going to be tough next year," Savage said. "After that week, how do I handle some of that stuff now? Not everything is promised. Do I keep the same coaching style? Do I need to be more lenient on them? I need to figure it out."