Packers safety Darnell Savage endures injury, tragedy to find voice as locker room leader
GREEN BAY - First, a fractured femur and dislocated kneecap, and a distressed mom who took off from the stands to get near him.
Darnell Savage would worry to her: Mom, I’m never going to be able to play football again.
Then, after a return to the field less than a year later, all the “big-time” programs have moved on. Save one. The state university.
“It’s not a good look if you come calling just because my son’s a great athlete,” Darnell Savage Sr. said. “I understand it’s a business, but when Maryland stuck by him — that meant something to us. That showed their loyalty. That showed they were committed to us, so that’s why we committed to them.”
After making the move to college, the head coach is fired. Then the interim head coach. Do you remain loyal to those men, or your teammates and program?
“I’m in great awe of him,” Mitzie Savage said. “I’m so pleased with the way he has handled everything. But then when I sit back and I think about it, that’s just my son, that’s the way he is, and that’s pretty much the way we expected him to react because that’s just the way he carries himself.”
In a span of three football seasons, from his junior year of high school through his freshman year of college, Darnell Savage had every reason to quit. He had other options athletically as a high schooler. Why risk another brutal injury? Then, he had every reason to transfer out of Maryland. Why stick with new coaches and change positions?
Such things never entered Savage’s head. And aside from those initial moments of doubt after his injury in high school — which his mom thinks she brought about by her own fear — if Savage hurt, or had struggles, he didn’t say much about it. He went about his business, even before sports were a business. Early workouts, or late. “Leading by example,” embodied.
“He’s always been a special person,” Savage Sr. said. “He’s just always been quiet. He’s humble.”
But if Savage felt he hadn’t ever been truly tested, that version of his reality was permanently fractured last June with the death of friend and teammate Jordan McNair, who died of heatstroke suffered on the Terrapins’ practice field.
Compounding the tragic loss of McNair was the calamitous fallout around the Maryland players. Not only did they have their own pain to work through, but from June through the suspension and subsequent firing of head coach D.J. Durkin in late October, there were investigations and reports, an ESPN exposé on inner workings of the program and social media salvos.
DRAFT BIO: Darnell Savage Jr.
Within all that, they had obligations to fulfill. For instance, Savage was one of three players, along with offensive lineman Derwin Gray and wide receiver Taivon Jacobs, sent to answer questions at the annual Big Ten media days in July. It was the first time any player had spoken after McNair’s passing.
After that the Terrapins had to keep practicing, prepare for a season and continue to suit up on Saturdays.
“He took that responsibility on,” said Matt Canada, who began 2018 as the Terrapins’ offensive coordinator and ended it as the interim head coach after Durkin’s dismissal. “He got everybody lined up (on the field) and he was a leader in the locker room, which is even more important than anything that was ever said to the media. He certainly was keeping everybody on the right page, keeping everybody together.
“I think he’s a guy that had that ability to pull everybody along and then represent the feelings of the team to the media in a way that came across and was measured in feelings and emotions, because we had a lot of them, about a lot of different topics. He’s a special kid.”
On the surface, conducting interviews or the simple “I got you, coach” to Canada on the practice field may not seem like much, but there was an eight-month stretch when Savage found himself more in the spotlight and relied upon to speak up on behalf of not just himself, but others — and in many ways the university itself.
“I’ve always just been …” he began, before lowering his voice and pausing a beat for the right words. “People have always just like gravitated toward me, followed me. (It was) just me taking advantage of me having that voice where people would kind of listen. I think that was like, pretty much a perfect opportunity to just kind of pull everybody back together and get everyone on the right page.”
That newfound role culminated with his pre-draft interview experience, in which not only did the media want to know how he handled himself but team personnel as well. The 21-year-old answered to it all. But he also impressed upon anyone doing the asking to really get to know him as a person. The football ability was evident — the Packers traded out of No. 30 overall and an additional two fourth-round picks to get him after all — but what he could bring to the locker room may not have been as clear.
“It takes more than just being a good player to last in this league, you know?” he said. “It takes character, it takes hard work, it takes dedication. It takes a guy that has all those things.”