CAMDEN, NJ — This past football season for Camden High School Football Coach Dwayne Savage and his Panthers has been full of hardship.

And not just the football kind. 

Camden's Panthers lost 31-23 to the Cedar Creek Pirates on Nov. 30, missing out for the second year-in-a-row in the sectional championship and continuing a 43-year drought.

Sign Up for Camden Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

But 15 days earlier, the coach and his team faced a tougher challenge with much higher stakes.

During the semifinal playoff game against Pleasantville, someone opened fire in the third quarter — injuring three people including a 10-year-old boy who died as a result of a neck wound.

“My speech before the game had to do with the fact that tomorrow’s not guaranteed for anyone, so we need to go out there and play with everything,” Savage told TAPinto Camden. “After the incident, I remembered saying those words.”

It’s both the football and the human lessons that Savage instills in his players that led the Philadelphia Eagles to nominate him for the 2019 Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year Award. 

“It’s a great honor, especially coming from the Eagles, which is one of my favorite teams,” said Savage, who’s favorite Eagle of all time is Wilbert Montgomery.

The Eagles said they nominated Savage for, “his ability to get the very best out of his players, both on and off the field [and because he] has played an instrumental role in their academic and athletic achievements in college and beyond.”

The coach will board a flight to Orlando, Florida, tomorrow to partake in events with 31 other nominees, all leading up to the 2020 Pro Bowl.

“I'm excited to make the trip,” Savage noted. “Not just for the award but the game itself too. I plan to get some tips while I’m down there...mostly having to do with tackling and limiting contact” 

On and off the field

Savage began his career as a coach in 1996 as a defensive coordinator for West Side High School in Newark. He also served from 1997 to 2011 as a linebackers coach for Rancocas Valley Regional High School, Pennsauken High School and Woodrow Wilson High School.

He was named the head football coach of Camden High School in 2012. His overall record with the school stands at 62-25, including six winning seasons and two seasons with 10 wins.

“Over the past two decades, Savage’s dedication to high school football has greatly impacted the lives of his players, their families and the South Jersey community,” said Julie Hirshey, Director of Community Relations for the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Panthers finished their most recent season with an 8-4 record. 

Still, Savage said nothing could have prepared the 60 or so players that make up the team for facing an active shooter situation.

“You do drills in school, but it’s hard to be prepared for that. The adrenaline just kicks in,” Savage said. “I think the district coaches and security did a great job of not only getting the players and public to safety, but the cheerleaders and band members as well.”

Micah Tennant, 10, who was reportedly sitting behind the targeted victim, died five days later from his wounds — hours before Camden finished the rescheduled game at the Philadelphia Eagles’ stadium.

After their 22-0 victory, Savage had the Panthers bus detour and make a stop in front of Cooper University Medical Center, where the boy was being treated earlier that day.

The team also dedicated the victory in memory of Tennant.

“It’s tough but I teach them to keep moving forward,” Savage said, noting that 20 players on the team were seniors. 

The winner of the award, which will be announced Sunday during the Pro Bowl, will receive $10,000 and his high school football program will be awarded $15,000.

“I plan to use the money to enhance our program,” Savage said. “Such as helping students to visit colleges, pay for their SAT tests, as well as improving our equipment.”