Some people are just born to become leaders. Recent Pleasantville High School graduate Ernest Howard is one of them.

The Glory Days Magazine Boys Sports Senior of the Year displayed not only talent, toughness and fortitude on the football field for the Greyhounds, but became their rock in the locker room after one of the most tragic incidents the South Jersey football community has ever seen.

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During the Greyhounds’ hard-fought state playoff game against Camden in late November — with Pleasantville trailing just 6-0 late in the third quarter and a chance to go to the sectional championship game on the line — shots rang out in the home stands. Three people were injured that night, including a 10-year-old boy named Micah Tennant. The game was stopped, the stands cleared, and eventually several suspects were brought into custody. The game resumed the following Wednesday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia as the Eagles stepped up to help provide a safe environment for both teams.

That morning, as the Pleasantville players were en route to Philadelphia, they learned that young Micah had died from his injuries. Howard, the team’s captain, had already decided to switch his jersey from No. 2 to No. 10, in order to honor Micah, and the news put an even heavier weight on his shoulders. Camden eventually won the game and advanced to play Cedar Creek in the Central Jersey Group 2 title game, but Howard and his teammates earned the respect of players, coaches and fans throughout the state by doing what they had to do to finish with they started, despite playing with heavy hearts that no teenager should ever have to.

“He really did a great job of leading. The team worked together to get through that, but he took the lead on a lot of the issues, he wore No. 10 for Micah. He kind of took the bull by the horns with some of that. He’s going to be very successful at Sacred Heart, we don’t have any question about that. He’s mature, he works hard in the classroom, and he does everything off the field that helps him become successful on the field,” said former Pleasantville head coach Chris Sacco, who this spring was hired to replace Dennis Scuderi Jr. as head coach at Absegami. “When you look around at the best leaders on teams, it’s not always the best players, it’s the guys who put in the most work and the other guys see that and feed off that. He’s one of those guys who the other players were able to look at how hard he was working and they worked just as hard. That’s what makes the team raise its level. We had a lot of guys who worked hard. They work hard and the rest of the team sees that, then they want to work hard. That’s how you become a good program.”

“We’re around shootings sometimes in Pleasantville. Somebody in a family takes the wrong road. We’ve seen it before, but when it happened at a football game, that was something different,” said Howard, a linebacker and Sacred Heart University recruit. “We figured out that (we were going to continue the game) real fast though, we knew we wanted to play. We didn’t want to quit. We tried to conquer the moment. It was hard, but I was really proud of my teammates for playing. We knew we were playing for something different. The outcome had nothing to do with the score, we didn’t think about that. We just wanted to finish the game and finish strong. That’s what it was all about.”

Howard said he knew it meant a lot to Micah’s family that he was wearing that No. 10 jersey, and he wanted to make them proud.

“It was a big risk because I couldn’t go out there and look bad,” he said. “I felt like there was pressure on me. But the family loves me, they came to my graduation party and we always talk on the phone. We have a good relationship, regardless of how the relationship came to be, it’s still a good relationship.”

While Pleasantville’s season didn’t end with a championship, Howard certainly made a name for himself in the season-and-a-half he played in the maroon and white after transferring over from Mainland Regional. That’s where he got his start under the tutelage of Mustangs assistant coach Antoine Lewis, a former defensive lineman at Villanova.

“Mainland was a stepping stone for me. Coach Antoine Lewis is going to be my guy for a long time, he got me into the weight room really early and I appreciate him for that. But I think me coming to Pleasantville and playing with the guys I grew up with really made me into the player I am now. I really started getting good my junior year and things are taking off now with some new opportunities,” Howard said. “I’m most proud of being consistent. I knew (senior year) there was a big target on me. After sophomore year I started getting really consistent, I was in the gym every day. For me, I just love the process of football. I’m more motivated about that than the actual game.”

Howard became an absolute monster in his senior season, serving as Pleasantville’s main short-yardage running back while also playing middle linebacker and earning a reputation as one of the toughest defensive players in South Jersey. He rarely came out of the game, either on offense or defense, and even late in games, playing both sides of the ball, coach Sacco would call Howard’s number if the Greyhounds needed to punch it in on 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line.

“Having coached him for two years, you know if the game is on the line he’s the guy who you want to be able to call his number. Early on we had a couple guys who we felt comfortable doing that with, but he was definitely the biggest in terms of his physicality and late in the game he’s not the guy you want to be tackling when you’re tired. It paid off early in the year against Salem, he did it against Cedar Creek, he helped us run the clock out against Buena. I’m just as proud of all the other guys as I am of him, those guys helped us win a lot of games,” Sacco said. “It goes back to all the hard work. It’s not something that happened a few weeks before the season, he busted his butt for eight months before training camp. Like a lot of our guys, he worked hard in the offseason to get bigger, stronger and faster and that’s the reason why he was successful.”

“Honestly, I just think that I can’t quit, I can’t give up,” Howard said, referring to those late-game pressure situations. “People are counting on me and I know I worked out for this, I have to finish strong. You have to be a dog, that’s how it is when you’re playing linebacker. Nine out of 10 times it’s just mental toughness, those consistent workouts, running at night, running in the morning — stamina is what the second half is about. And our whole team had that, it wasn’t just me.”

Howard knows there is plenty left to improve in his game and he’ll get that opportunity at the next level, where he’ll be going to college for free — and securing a scholarship was important to Howard because he didn’t want to cause extra financial stress for his mother, Keisha.

“There’s always more room to do better. But I started from a little freshman at 160 pounds to senior year at 205 and clashing heads every play, averaging 10 tackles a game and stuff like that, it was definitely a good career. But it always could have been better,” he said. “My mom is definitely proud of me and happy that she doesn’t have to pay for school for me. It was perfect, being able to go to school for free and let my mom be stress free is the best thing about it. I’m really ready. I can’t wait.”

Howard is leaving Pleasantville High behind, but during his time there he became one of the most notable role models in the school, finishing his academic career on a high note as well as his athletic achievements.

“I just tried to connect through regular life and not just football. I tried to see what was going on with them at home and just show that I care,” Howard said of his leadership style. “I never really thought about being a role model, but to see people appreciate me for what I’ve done really means a lot to me.”

“He’s right at the top of the list when it comes to guys I’m going to talk about (to future teams). He’s a great kid. Him, guys like Josh (Kotokpo) and Keon (Henry), who are going on to play college football, I wish all of them the best. They worked their butts off for us for years,” Sacco said. “For him to come in and have to sit part of his junior year, he was hungry right out of the gate and I think that helped drive him. Being around some of the guys the year before, like Elijah (Glover, Villanova), Jabril (Shakur, Monmouth) and Mohamed (Toure, Rutgers), he worked out with them a lot in the offseason and that fed into his hunger, and on Friday nights he was able to take advantage of that.”

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