In the toughest times, the darkest hours — when fear is abundant and confidence that things will ever be right again is not — that’s when a team needs its leader the most.

On Nov. 15 this past fall, Pleasantville was locked in an intense battle with Camden in the Central Jersey Group 2 semifinals. The visiting Panthers were ahead 6-0, and Pleasantville had just punted the ball away late in the third quarter. Then everything changed in a few seconds, as shots rang out in the stands and a young boy was struck. Players, fans, coaches, officials — everyone at the stadium — ran for cover, hoping they wouldn’t be the next gunshot victim.

That was on a Friday night, and the following Wednesday — after the Pleasantville players, led by senior linebacker Ernest Howard Jr., decided to resume the game, which ended up being held at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia — Micah Tennant, the 10-year-old boy who was shot, died from his injuries. The Greyhounds got the news as they were en route to Philadelphia, and eventually Camden won the game, 22-0, and advanced to play Cedar Creek in the championship.

But although this past season didn’t end with a state championship, Howard provided much more than any ring could ever symbolize, as he kept a group of young football players from coming apart at the seams. He switched his jersey number from 2 to 10 in that playoff game to honor the age of Micah, and played his guts out for the final 17 minutes of game time that were left at The Linc. The way he carried himself is the definition of a championship, even if the Greyhounds don’t have a banner to hang inside their gymnasium.

“He definitely led the group. We had other guys who were right there with him, and when you’re a leader you lead in all facets of life. I think that’s what we saw with him, no matter the circumstance leaders rise up, and he rose to the occasion,” said Pleasantville coach Chris Sacco. “The whole incident was unfortunate and like I told the kids, there’s no playbook for this. There’s no script for how to go off of this, we just had to stick together. It started with us as a coaching staff and trickled down to the players. Everybody stuck together and it really helps when you have a guy like Ernest who can kind of keep a pulse on the players. It made things a little more smooth.”

“The shooting happened and I was just trying to think of a way to keep going. We would have had a few more games left if we had won that game, so I just tried to keep the ball rolling. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out with a championship, but at least we finished out the season. I just tried to keep everything going for the guys. That was my role,” Howard said after his recent college signing to Sacred Heart University, where the honors student will continue his academic and football careers. “I didn’t really care about the football aspect of things, to be honest. I really lost it for the last week or two. We had to finish the game (in Philadelphia) and then the whole aftermath when Micah passed away. Basically, I was just trying to teach kids lessons and keep things together in the last week or two. It was definitely hard. After the shooting we had a team meeting and I was with the other guys with whatever they wanted to do. I didn’t really care about the game at that point, but if they wanted to go out and finish it, I was going to play hard every snap of the ball. I wasn’t trying to give up at all.”

While that incredibly difficult situation showed Howard’s true character, his football ability has been on display every Friday night for the past couple of years after he transferred back home from Mainland Regional. He was a dominant force on defense, filling the role vacated by Rutgers recruit Mohamed Toure at middle linebacker, he was a running back and even a quarterback in short-yardage situations. He did it all for the Greyhounds.

“The only difference is he’s two inches shorter (than Mohamed). From a physical standpoint, he was the most physical kid on the field every game. Once he got a hold of you, you were going down, that’s how sure of a tackler he is. And his football IQ is really high. We can move him around on offense and defense, have him play special teams — he really did whatever we asked, he played quarterback,” Sacco said. “We (ran the wildcat) the year before with Mohamed because he was just physically bigger than most people, and the same thing with Ernest. Physically, he is bigger and stronger than most people and you can wear teams down like that. It was a huge advantage to us to put him at quarterback and have him run the ball a little bit, and obviously on defense he made plays.”

“I just tried to pick up where those guys left off, really. I tried to keep the ball rolling, keep everybody motivated and inspired. Throughout the season I tried to teach kids to battle through injuries. I was battling injuries since Week Two. After the Haddonfield game I had two sprained ankles the whole season but I just had to keep playing through it. A lot of it was just trying to inspire kids and keep them motivated. Obviously, we wanted to win a championship, but it was more about teaching everybody a lesson through football,” Howard said of his senior season. “We really didn’t know who was going to play quarterback and it was coming down to the last couple of scrimmages. I had to step in sometimes and I told coach I was always ready to play (quarterback). We had a whole package for me in the wildcat and I would get in there and run iso, basically. Everybody knew when I got the ball we were running it, and I just tried to run it up the middle to get first downs and touchdowns.”

In Sacco’s first season, 2015, Pleasantville went 0-10 after going 3-47 the previous five years, but with the help of guys like Toure and fellow 2019 graduates Elijah Glover and Sahmir Jones, and now Howard, the Greyhounds have become a force in Group 2. The past three years Pleasantville has racked up 23 wins against just nine losses.

“You put on the film and he pops on every film. Opposing coaches tell you that they have to game plan around him, and that’s really the ultimate compliment when you’re a player, when the opposing team has to scheme around you,” Sacco said. “I’ve had many coaches tell me the last couple of years that he’s a guy who you have to know on every play where he’s at on offense and defense. He’s a playmaker and normally the best player on the field.”

A big key to Howard’s success has been the love and support of his family, most notably mom Keisha.

“Keisha has done a phenomenal job. They are like family to us, and everything she’s done to help raise him, his sisters and his brother — he’s a great kid who comes from a great family, and we’re so proud of him,” Sacco said. “That’s one thing we wanted to create is that family environment. We wanted the kids to know that we’re their football coaches but we’re here for everything, and I think we’ve accomplished that. We’re excited to see where Ernest can go from here.”

“My mom, she doesn’t really know a lot about football, she just knows she wants me to go somewhere that I’ll be happy, and it’s academics first and foremost,” Howard added. “Going through the (youth leagues) and high school, she’s always been there at my games no matter what. And even if she couldn’t make it to a game she would always tell me that she loves me and good luck, and that means a lot. This is definitely for her. I have to do it for her.”

All that he did on the football field has opened up doors for Howard, as he recently signed his National Letter of Intent to continue his career at Sacred Heart University. The honors student and one of the top leaders in Pleasantville High School says he plans to major in engineering.

“Everything we said about his character, the type of kid he is, his work ethic — that’s what separates a scholarship kid from a non-scholarship kid, most of the time. Colleges are really risking their livelihood on the kids they are recruiting, so getting a kid like him is a surefire bet, both on and off the field,” coach Sacco said.

“I learned a lot this season and I’m ready for the next level. I’m going to miss high school football though. At the Ocean City game (on Thanksgiving) I got hurt on like the third play and I couldn’t even walk, so I was like, ‘dang, that’s how I’m going to go out?’ But there was nothing I could do about it. But ever since I got to Pleasantville (former players) got the ball rolling for me and I really appreciate that. Everything that coach Sacco, the rest of the coaches and my teammates did, they got me better. To go there for a couple of years and then become a Division I player,” Howard said. “I’m going to take full advantage of this because my younger brother watches every move I make, literally. He loves football and wants to play football, so me going to Sacred Heart will be the happy ending for everything. Seeing my mom happy — this is an opportunity I have to take head on, right from the start.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays