Toughness is Savage's best quality

Tom Savage's plan for his junior season was a simple one. After the Cardinal O'Hara football team suffered through a difficult 3-8 campaign during Savage's sophomore season, the standout quarterback was going to do everything in his power to make sure the Lions never again experienced that type of year with him under center.

It all started out smoothly when Savage passed for 130 yards and two touchdowns in a 32-7 victory over Shanahan in the season opener. The Lions were off and running, and they had the stud quarterback needed to make them a legit contender in the vaunted Philadelphia Catholic League.

Week 2 brought gridiron powerhouse North Penn and a chance for Savage and the Lions to make an early-season statement. But on the second play of the game, those dreams came crashing to a halt.

Savage dropped back to throw just like he had countless times before. Only this time, he felt a crack when he pushed off the ball of his left foot. Savage didn't think anything of it, believing perhaps it was nothing more than a sprain. So he played through the injury against North Penn, throwing for 161 yards and a score, though the Lions fell, 30-16.

As a precaution, Savage visited the doctor that weekend and received the dismal news he had broken the sesamoid bone in his left foot. He came into school on Monday wearing a protective boot.


Movie: "Gladiator"
Actor: Will Smith
Musical Artist: Lloyd Banks
Pregame Song: "I Get Money" by 50 Cent

Watch Savage and Cardinal O'Hara vs. St. Joseph's Prep Friday at 6 p.m. ET on ESPNU.

At first glance, it appeared Savage's season was finished. But what happened next exemplified his toughness and team-first attitude, two integral traits that have helped the Rutgers-bound signal-caller become one of the nation's top recruits. Now a senior, the 6-foot-5, 220-pounder — who participated in the prestigious Elite 11 quarterback camp this summer — is rated Pennsylvania's No. 1 quarterback and the nation's No. 8 signal-caller in the ESPNU 150.

After the loss to North Penn, Savage was forced to miss the following game against nationally ranked Don Bosco Prep (Ramsey, N.J.), which dominated the Lions, 56-7. But the next week against Bonner, there was Savage racking up 178 passing yards and three touchdown tosses in a 33-8 Lions victory.

"I knew deep down inside that I could seriously hurt it, but I just really wanted to play," Savage says.

A lot more went into Savage's remarkable comeback than just suiting up. He wore the boot the entire previous week except for the 20 minutes of practice he was allowed to participate. Come game time, metal plates were placed in his shoe, which was then taped up so he couldn't bend and injure the foot even more.

After his dramatic comeback performance against Bonner, Savage then passed for 190 yards and two scores against North Catholic. But in the next game against Roman Catholic, Savage's injury-induced lack of mobility caught up to him. Teams figured out that he couldn't move and began sending blitzes in waves. One Roman Catholic defender crushed Savage on a blitz and knocked him out of the game with a concussion.

At that point, O'Hara head coach Danny Algeo decided his star quarterback was at serious risk if he continued to play, so he sat him out for the next four weeks. But once again, Savage made sure he'd see the field as he returned in time to guide O'Hara in the PCL Red Division playoffs. He threw a touchdown pass in a first-round win over La Salle, but the Lions bowed out to St. Joe's Prep in the semifinals, ending a season that had started with such high hopes.

Despite missing five games and playing only the season opener at full health, Savage still copped All-Catholic League honorable mention honors from the Philadelphia Daily News after passing for 809 yards and eight touchdowns while rushing for three more scores. He also earned enormous respect from his teammates by playing through pain for the good of the team.

"That shows that he's a leader and would do anything for the team," says junior running back Corey Brown, who's one of the nation's top recruits in the Class of 2010. "He's real tough, physically and mentally. That made everyone want to step up."

"The kids knew how competitive and tough he is, so from that standpoint we weren't surprised he came back so soon," adds Algeo, who's in his fifth year at the helm. "But most people would not have even attempted what he did. He's very team oriented. He's a lot tougher than people give him credit for."

The first two-year captain in school history, Savage displays outstanding leadership even when he's not playing. He knew he wanted to commit to Rutgers a month and a half before pledging to the Scarlet Knights in April over Georgia, Miami and Louisville. But Savage held off his commitment so that when college coaches continued to come watch him play, they'd notice other players on his team.

Aside from being a phenomenal field general, Savage also has all the physical skills colleges look for in a quarterback.

"He has the size and the arm strength," says Algeo. "Holy smokes, he has a cannon."

Just ask some of his O'Hara receivers. Brown says some of Savage's passes are so hard that they've ripped holes in his gloves. But Brown also points out they're on the money — Savage prides himself on his accuracy.

As a youngster, Savage learned how to become a precision passer during contests with older brother Bryan, now the starting quarterback at Hofstra. Tom continues to work on everything from his arm strength to his grip, which is why there's always a football lying around in his house, car or locker.

"He's a student of the game," says Algeo. "He spends all offseason going to camps, working on fundamentals — anything that will make him a better quarterback."

What Savage hasn't needed to work on is his toughness. That's a given.

Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.