Darnell Savage Jr.’s knack for big plays and his tendency to “eliminate” at safety intrigued the Packers.
GREEN BAY, Wis. — For the past week, Darnell Savage Sr. has racked his brain trying to remember who the man was, the former Green Bay Packers player who stopped him and his son, Darnell Savage Jr., at a flag football tournament more than 15 years ago.
All Darnell Sr. can recall is that the man said he played for the Packers, and it was at a tournament for 6- to 8-year-olds in Maryland.
At the time, Darnell Jr. was 5.
“We were trying to think who this guy was, but he evidently played for the Packers, and after the tournament he went up to my son and asked him a couple of questions,” Savage Sr. recalled in an interview with ESPN.com. “He asked him how old he was, and my son kept saying, “5.”
“He said, ‘No, you can’t be 5.’ And I said, ‘Well, he’s only 5.’ And he was like, ‘Holy crap, you’re going to be a good one.’ We were just thinking about that the other day, and we cannot remember who that was from the Packers.”
Whoever it was, he had no hand in the Packers’ decision to trade up in the first round and pick Darnell Jr. at No. 21 overall, the first safety to come off the board. But when you hear that story and you see Darnell Jr. now in the video of the moments leading up to his selection, with a chain around his neck that says, “Born Ready,” you start to believe it.
Last night started the next chapter of my life. Thank you to all who have got me here!
— Darnell Savage Jr. (@darnellsavage_) April 26, 2019
“He was pretty good,” Darnell Sr. said of his son at age 5.
Darnell Sr. was pretty good, too. A big man with a big future as a defensive tackle, Darnell Sr. didn’t have the early opportunities, both athletically and academically, that he wanted for his son in their hometown of Seaford, Delaware. Darnell Sr. played college football, but it was at FCS Delaware State, where he had to sit out his first year because he didn’t qualify academically.
When Darnell Jr. was 7 years old, his father thought he was ready for tackle football. But no league existed in their town for kids that young. So Darnell Sr., who worked for the local parks and recreation department, started one with the help of a friend — fellow Seaford native Antwan Lake, who at the time was a defensive tackle for the Atlanta Falcons.
There was enough interest for four teams. They used the names of four NFL teams: the Eagles, Ravens, Cowboys and, of course, Falcons.
By the time Darnell Jr. was ready for high school, his father, who coached at the local high school, decided to move him to a better school. They picked Caravel Academy, about 90 miles from home. As a sophomore, Darnell Jr. helped the school to a state championship, which led to myriad college scholarship offers — and not from places such as Delaware State. He had more than a dozen offers from the likes of Maryland, Penn State and others.
As a junior, however, he broke the femur in his right leg while playing running back. He then stopped hearing from the big-time schools except Maryland, which never backed off.
“That pretty much played a major part in the reason why I went there,” Darnell Jr. said, reflecting on things in a phone interview the day after he was drafted. “It’s a business, and I’m just happy that Maryland stuck with me through it all.”
With two screws surgically implanted in his right leg, Darnell Jr. excelled.
At Maryland, he became a star. He picked off eight passes, including seven in his final two seasons. Then, at the combine, he validated it all with a blazing, 4.36-second official time in the 40-yard dash.
All along, there was interest from the Packers. In fact, his agent, Seth Katz, kept telling him Green Bay was a strong possibility. Then, in the weeks between the combine and the draft, there was little contact from the Packers.
Little did he know just how much the Packers liked him.
“There’s nothing worse from an offensive perspective when there’s a guy that can roam the back end and just eliminate,” first-year Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “They can play the middle third and go either side and eliminate the whole field. There’s very few of those guys. Earl Thomas is the first guy that comes to mind. It is an extreme challenge when you’re playing a guy like that. From a quarterback perspective, you’ve got to do a great job with your eyes looking off, just because if they get a step on where you’re throwing to them — especially if you’re trying to push it down the field — it can be problematic.
“The one thing I’ll say about Savage is, and you can see it with all the highlights: The guy is a ball hawk, and he’s got good ball skills. We thought he was the best safety in the draft.”
Then came the phone call at around 10 p.m. on Thursday. With friends and family gathered at a local bowling alley, Darnell Jr. dropped to his knees when he found out the Packers had traded up from No. 30 to take him with the 21st pick.
“I was right there beside him when we got the call,” Darnell Sr. said. “His agent was there, and we were just talking about how the business works and to hang in there because it was starting to get late in the draft and not knowing if he was going to go.
“About that time, the phone rang. And Seth said, ‘That’s a Green Bay number, answer it.’ He had a lot of his college teammates there. They started hooted and hollering, but we still didn’t know who the pick was going to be, and then the commissioner announced there was a trade and Green Bay was on the clock. And it seemed like for those next two or three minutes, it seemed like 10 or 15 minutes. Because he stayed on the phone with him the whole time before they made the announcement. And when they made the announcement, the place went crazy.”
In that moment, a lifelong dream was fulfilled. But it wasn’t a pipe dream. Rather, something he — like his father and that unknown former Packers player — thought could happen all along.
“Honestly, at a young age, really, I always felt like it was kind of my calling,” Darnell Jr. said. “As long as I did things right on and off the field, good things will happen.”