A year ago, around this time, the Pleasantville football program held its first major signing day under coach Chris Sacco, who just finished his fifth year at the helm, and that class included Mohamed Toure to Rutgers, Elijah Glover to Villanova, and Sahmir Jones, who signed to Boston University on a track scholarship. This year there was one guy at the table, but he was the heart and soul of the Greyhounds’ program through a year that saw the team not only reach the sectional semifinals for a second straight year, but also deal with one of the most horrific tragedies the South Jersey football community has ever seen.

On Friday afternoon, surrounded by a throng of friends, family and Pleasantville staff, Howard took off his Howard University sweater and picked up a red hat, revealing that he would be spending the next four years at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., as an NCAA Division I scholarship player.

“Everything we said today about his character, the type of kid he is, his work ethic — what coach (Chris) Mancuso said about his practice habits — that’s what separates a scholarship kid from a non-scholarship kid, most of the time,” coach Sacco said at the signing event in the school’s library. “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.”

Howard is not only the best football player at Pleasantville, he’s also one of the school’s top students. It wasn’t a matter of if he would get a Division I scholarship, the only question was where. He also fielded offers from schools such as the University of Connecticut, Stony Brook and Elon, among others.

“It just came down to where I would have a chance to play early, and Sacred Heart was giving that to me. They really showed love early on, were always talking to me and trying to get me on campus. They were always trying to do something with me and I really liked that. It felt like another home. The team is like family — if somebody’s going out to eat or something, the whole team is going. The whole team moves together and I like that,” he said. “School-wise, getting a degree from Sacred Heart is going to take me a long way, and it’s definitely academics before football, so I’ll be good in the long run. I’m going to school for engineering. My GPA actually is a 5.3 even though a lot of people don’t believe me. I take a lot of weighted classes. I’ve always been dedicated in the classroom — my mom doesn’t play around.”

Howard was outstanding on both side of the ball for a team that went 8-4, won a division title and advanced to the Central Jersey Group 2 semifinals. He rushed for nearly 500 yards and nine touchdowns as a running back and part-time quarterback, had nearly 100 receiving yards and was one of the team’s leading tacklers as a middle linebacker, taking over the role Toure had vacated.

“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 short yardage) 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.”

“It’s amazing. That moment (on Friday) was so surreal. Last year I was nowhere near being able to go to college for free,” Howard said. “In less than a year, everything changed. Going into Pleasantville (as a sophomore) the recruiting process started heating up because of guys like Mohomed, Elijah Glover — all those guys got the ball rolling for me, so I had a lot of eyes on me junior year and I picked up a couple offers. Senior year was really a statement year when a lot of coaches were talking to me.”

Howard made his statement as the team’s unequivocal leader after a shooting incident during the Greyhounds’ playoff game against Camden. In the third quarter, with Pleasantville trailing 6-0 and the winner moving on to face Cedar Creek in the championship game, shots rang out in the stands, halting the game. A 10-year-old boy, Micah Tennant, was shot and died a few days later from his wounds. The game was resumed the following Wednesday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field, with Camden eventually winning, 22-0. Howard switched from jersey No. 2 to No. 10 to honor Micah.

“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. “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.

“The family was there (Friday), his mother, Angela Tennant, was there, and that meant a lot. I didn’t really know him, but I met his family a lot over the last couple of weeks and it definitely means a lot to represent him in any possible way.”

“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,” Sacco said. “I think that’s what we saw with him, no matter the circumstance leaders rise up, and he rose to the occasion. 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.”

Through it all, Howard has become one of the best leaders Sacco has seen in his five years as Greyhounds coach, and now he has a golden opportunity in his hands to get a free education at Sacred Heart. Howard said he’s not about to squander that chance.

“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,” said Howard, who plans to major in engineering. “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