Pleasantville High School senior Ernest Howard woke up Wednesday morning around 7:15 a.m., which meant he was running late for school.
After hurrying to school, he was going about his day as he normally would. That was until there was a message over the school's public address system around 10:45 a.m., calling for all members of the football team to meet in the auditorium.
Having the entire football team meet in the auditorium on a Wednesday was outside of the norm, but unfortunately for Pleasantville, not much has been normal since this past Friday night.
Top-seeded Pleasantville was looking to cap off one of its best seasons in school history with a trip to the Central Jersey Group 2 title game. All it had to do was defeat Camden, the fourth-seeded team in the group.
However, the game on Friday night was abruptly halted with 4:58 left in the third quarter after gunfire rang out in the stands at Pleasantville High School's football stadium. The pop, pop, pop from the gunshots sent hundreds of people, including the players, running for their lives. Three people were wounded, including 10-year-old Micah Tennant.
When Howard and his teammates settled into the auditorium Wednesday morning, they received the worst possible news. Tennant was going to be removed from life support, meaning that he had merely hours left in his life.
Sounds of crying and yelling rang throughout the auditorium. Howard took it especially hard, as he had changed his jersey number from 2 to 10 in honor of the 10-year-old victim.
Howard began walking around, trying to clear his mind of the tragedy, but to no avail. He eventually went out to the school's football stadium and sat in the same spot Tennant did before he was shot.
Howard sat there for about 10 minutes, asking himself one question: Why?
Why did this happen during a high school football game? Why did this happen to an innocent child?
Howard could have sat in the stadium for hours searching for the answers to those questions, but he didn't have much time. He still had a game to get ready for.
Yes, the same game where tragedy struck still had to be finished. The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association initially decided Saturday evening that the game would be resumed at a neutral site on Wednesday at 4 p.m., but the Eagles stepped up and offered a formal invitation to both programs to complete the game at Lincoln Financial Field.
For Camden High School athletic director Mark Phillips, the opportunity was bittersweet. On one hand, it was the opportunity of a lifetime for Camden's students – to have a chance to dress in the same locker room, play on the same grass, and run across the same goal line as some of their NFL heroes obviously meant the world.
But on the other hand, the circumstances surrounding Camden's trek to Lincoln Financial Field were heartbreaking.
"It's been crazy," Camden head coach Dwayne Savage said. "The kids have been very resilient."
Savage was the first person the Eagles reached out to in an effort to gather more information about the halted game. While Savage was happy to see it all come together in the end, the catalyst for the changes left him angry.
"I really can't speak about it because negative words might come out of my mouth," Savage said. "It's very disappointing for that to happen because we always preach to our guys (the football field is) our safe haven. We forget about all of our problems on the football field or in between the white lines."
The Eagles did all they could to make the best of a terrible situation on Wednesday. Each team got to use a locker room in the stadium. Pleasantville was set up in Temple's locker room, while Camden used the visiting team's room.
Each player's locker was adorned with a custom nameplate as well as an Eagles hat. The smiles grew even wider once the players made their way to the field, where they were greeted by current and former Eagles, including head coach Doug Pederson and quarterback Carson Wentz.
"It was just a really special day for the kids," president Don Smolenski said. "The communities all coming together to not let what happened Friday night be a defining moment for these kids."
"It might not undo what's happened, but just trying to bring some joy and get all those families to just keep moving forward," Wentz said.
For Phillips, the gesture went a long way in showing the players that people care about them beyond athletics.
"When people know you care about them, it makes you walk a little straighter, a little prouder, with your shoulders back and your chin up," Phillips said.
Right before the game was resumed, players from both teams stood across the field arm in arm in a showcase of unity between the two communities. While the players were standing there, the dreaded news of Tennant's passing was announced over the speakers.
It served as a harsh reminder of why everyone was there to begin with. None of this started in a good way, but here was Pleasantville and Camden trying to make the best of it.
Moments later, the players lined up over the ball and play continued with Camden holding a 6-0 advantage. Camden scored 16 points in the fourth quarter to defeat Pleasantville, 22-0, and advance to play Cedar Creek in the Central Jersey Group Championship Game. Cedar Creek has only lost twice in 2019 – to Camden and Pleasantville.
But football was merely a side note on this cold day in November. Wednesday was about honoring Tennant and bringing two hurting communities together.
"I wish we could have pulled it out today because I think it would have been a hell of a way to end the week, but regardless, I'm proud of these guys," Pleasantville head coach Chris Sacco said after the game.
After the game, reporters flocked to Howard, as his show of support for Tennant touched people all across the nation. Howard admitted to not being able to grasp the impact of his gesture fully, but said he wanted to do his part in showing other children how to keep fighting, no matter the circumstances.
"It's a lot of ups and downs in life," Howard said while his mother, Keisha Miles, stood nearby beaming with pride at her son's maturity. "You might get knocked down one day, but you gotta get up the next day. It's very hard to deal with or even cope with, but you have to do it."
Wednesday's game went a long way toward soothing the pain left from the shooting, but there is still much healing left to do, especially in Pleasantville.
"We're mourning," Pleasantville High School athletic director Stephen L. Townsend said. "We're grieving right now. This is like our third shooting."
"We're resilient. We're strong. We're going to come back from this, and we're going to bond and build together," he added. "That's what it's all about, bond and build together."
Part of the building will be changes to the security protocols at Pleasantville's football stadium.
But that is only the beginning.
"I think Pleasantville is going to be strong because Pleasantville is going to come together as a community," Miles said. "Maybe this incident might have brought Pleasantville together and we have to recognize and protect our youth. We have to build our youth and we also have to protect our youth. Point blank. Period."