Antwone Savage has enjoyed a long and winding football career. He began as a star QB at Westover, signed as a WR with Oklahoma — where he helped lead the Sooners to the 2000 national title — then nearly made it in the NFL before going on to a successful arena league career. He won a title with the Spokane (Wash.) Shock in the af2, then came back to his roots, where he became a teacher at Turner Elementary and joined Albany’s two arena teams — the South Georgia Wildcats and the Albany Panthers, who he helped lead to the title last year. On Saturday, he has a chance for another ring, then he’s calling it a career. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
WHO: Richmond Raiders (11-2) at Albany Panthers (11-2).
WHAT: Inaugural PIFL Championship game.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Albany Civic Center.
RADIO: 97.3 FM.
LIVE UPDATES: Log on to: twitter.com/AlbHeraldSports.
TICKETS: $10 in advance; $15 on game day; available at Civic Center Box Office or by calling (229) 317-7201.
ALBANY — Antwone Savage lifted his hand and pointed to the rafters at the Albany Civic Center during a practice early last week.
Then the former Westover star turned to Panthers GM Will Carter and said with a smile, “You should hang my jersey up there after this season, retire my number.”
Carter returned the smile and said, “Give me one more year — and I will.”
All Savage can promise, however, is one more game.
The receiver, who leads the team in receiving and is third in the league with 20 touchdowns and 896 yards this year, has announced that Saturday’s PIFL Championship game against the Richmond Raiders will be his final outing in a long career that started and ended in Albany.
His No. 6 jersey has been a mainstay in the three-year history of the Panthers’ organization, and before practice Wednesday he talked about what it would mean to see his jersey hanging from those rafters.
“It would be a great honor,” he said. “When I do come back to decide to watch a game, I can always come back and talk to my family about that jersey. I can always have something to remember what I did in this arena.”
He’s done plenty in the Albany Civic Center, which is why Carter isn’t ruling out retiring Savage’s number — that is, if he can’t convince him to come back.
“If he does decide to retire, I can see somewhere down the line when you do see No. 6 retired in an Albany Panthers uniform,” Carter said. “He has brought great leadership to our team and a lot of experience. And a lot of the guys look up to him. They look at him as a mentor and how to be a professional.”
Savage, who is now 31 years old, graduated from Westover in 1999 and took his talents to Oklahoma, where he exploded onto the scene, setting single-season school records for catches (31) and yards (426) for a freshman and he was named the Big 12 Freshman of the Year. It only got sweeter his sophomore year when the Sooners won the national championship.
Winning championships became a trend for Savage, who won an af2 title with the Spokane Shock and was instrumental in last year’s Panthers SIFL Championship — the first professional football title ever won by a team from Albany.
Savage left Oklahoma as one of the most successful receivers to ever come through the Sooners’ program and made the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad his first summer after college, but he was cut from the team before the season began. Since his brief stint in the NFL, Savage has played arena football all over the country, including stops with the South Georgia Wildcats, Spokane (Wash.) Shock, Austin (Texas) Wranglers, Dallas Desperados, Orlando Predators, Chicago Rush and Georgia Force.
But his home, he insists, has always been Albany.
“I feel like the city is behind me,” Savage said. “The fans around here acknowledge that I am out here still doing this, and I appreciate it. That’s why I come out here every Saturday, to give them something to remember me by when I hang up these shoes.”
Retiring from the Panthers wasn’t a decision that Savage took lightly, but it’s a step that he is ready to take in life so he can devote more time to his family and his teaching career.
He teaches physical education at Turner Elementary and recently finished up his Master’s in health and physical education at Albany State. He was also married March 11 and has a 14-month-old daughter, Autumn.
Savage’s face lights up when he talks about his daughter coming to the Panthers games in a shirt with his name on the back, sitting in the stands with either his mom or wife and dancing so much during the games that she “puts herself to sleep on game days.”
He also loves sharing his football career with his students at Turner Elementary, where they love “Mr. Savage” and even brought 250 kids to a game earlier this season just to watch him play.
“It’s pretty crazy to play on Saturday and then go back to school on Monday and have something to laugh and talk with the kids about,” Savage said. “I coach a lot and try to give them something to go off of, not just words.”
The newlywed has a life full of blessings outside of football, but Savage’s relationship with his teammates is what is making his exit so tough.
“It’s about winning and catching touchdowns, but at the same time it’s about camaraderie with the teammates and fellow players you take the field with every day,” Savage said.
And none of those relationships are as special as the one he developed with quarterback Cecil Lester, who played with Savage on both the Wildcats and the Panthers.
“Outside of football, Savage and I are best friends,” Lester said. “He is like a brother to me. He is a great teammate and is somebody who is very competitive when it comes to the game. He is a friend when you need him and is always available to me. I love him as a brother and wish him the best after this season.”
Then Lester starting rattling off compliment after compliment when asked to describe Savage as a receiver: “Reliable, clutch, great hands, great routes, huge competitor, deceptive speed.”
Lester paused, then added, “I call him, ‘A-Save Me’ (and) ‘Antwone Save Me, Please.’ Anytime you get in trouble you can look for him, and he will get you out of a jam.”
There have been times in Savage’s own career when he has found himself in jams. After his successful career at Oklahoma, he seemed to have one door after another slammed in his face, from never truly getting a shot in the NFL to getting cut by a series of arena teams.
He talked about all of those setbacks as he stood next to the Panthers’ field Wednesday, almost the exact place he was cut by the Wildcats six years ago.
“It was April Fools’ Day, and I thought it was a joke,” Savage said.
It was no joke — but Savage inevitably got the last laugh when he almost immediately signed with the Shock and won the 2006 af2 title. The next four years, he moved up but bounced around the AFL and was cut by the Desperados, Predators, Rush and Force and never seemed to be given a chance.
That’s about the time Lucious Davis took over the Panthers and decided to give Savage a shot.
“I had never really dealt with him one-on-one until I took over the Panthers,” said Davis, who is finishing up his third year as Albany’s coach. “There was a misconception about him. You hear a lot of things about players and their attitudes and their character, and you sometimes prejudge them without even knowing them. I think I was a victim of that, hearing negative things about Savage from other coaches. But then you get to know him, and he’s not like that at all.”
Savage turned into one of the most likeable players on the Panthers’ roster, beloved by both his teammates and the fans. He’s no longer fighting for a roster spot, and his days of not getting respect are long gone.
But that hasn’t stopped him from wanting to prove himself every Saturday he slips on that No. 6 jersey — including this weekend when he dons it for the final time.
“Every time I step on this field I feel like I have something to prove,” Savage said. “A couple of years ago, people felt like I was washed up. I heard that, but I don’t hear that anymore. That’s why I come out and do what I do, to keep the naysayers’ mouths closed. You always got critics, and you gotta keep your critics quiet.”