Tom Savage’s humble journey through highs, lows to Texans, NFL

Tom Savage was never supposed to be here. Then again, he always was. Half his life has been predetermined destiny. The boy with the arm who became one of the best freshman quarterbacks in the country. The first QB that Bill O'Brien drafted when a new coach began recreating Bob McNair's Texans.

The other half still barely makes sense. Savage ran the Wing T in high school. He bounced between three colleges in five years and went 1,024 days without taking a recorded snap. He spent his entire second pro season on injured reserve and was one decision away from quitting football two years before the Texans turned him into a project they sometimes forgot existed.

"A couple times I went up (to Pittsburgh) … and he said to me, 'I don't know, dad. I don't know if I can do this,' " Savage's father, Tom Savage Sr., said. "And I said, 'Tom, there's one thing I can tell you. And that's you're not going to be happy with this the rest of your life if you quit. You just can't quit.' "Savage never has. And now he's here.

The NFL's untouched newness in Week 1 of 2017 - and the week after the historic destruction of Hurricane Harvey. The literal next man up after all those endless Texans quarterbacks - and a fourth-year pro entering the final season of his rookie contract, with first-round pick Deshaun Watson already a franchise face in waiting. The arm, brain and body that are exactly what O'Brien was seeking as he discarded QB after QB - and the understanding that Savage will immediately be cast aside if he can't deliver during a make-or-break season for a fiery coach.

No one is as critical to Year Four of the O'Brien era as Thomas Benjamin Savage. And if you know anything about the life of the Texans' No. 3, you already know he's been heading toward this crossroads since he was a child.No wonder he believes this is his time."I know I'm not the hot, flashy name," Savage said. "But I know what I'm capable of and I know I can go out there and do it."

All business

He would fall down. Get hit. Hurt.

Then he would look around, scanning every direction, trying to find his father.

If Savage Sr. wasn't on the way, his son knew he was fine.

"I would always look over to see if he's coming," said Savage, who was born in Springfield, Pa. "And if he's not, then I'm like, 'Ah. I'm good. I'll get up.' "

He was quiet and shy and always looked up to his hero.

Savage's older brother, Bryan, could do everything and didn't hold back. High school team MVP in football and baseball. Quarterback at Wisconsin and Hofstra.

Bryan played QB, so Savage had to become one.

But when the younger brother with the arm struck out two hitters with the bases loaded to win a youth championship game, and his parents had a camera ready to snap a perfect childhood celebration photo?

"He just walks off the field while everybody else is jumping around. … I just had to laugh," his father said.

Savage has a hidden fire now. Reserved and low key in public. Hot and intense when the facemask goes down.

But he watched his dad work and provide. He saw his brother's football arc end short. So he started his own path and tried not to forget where he came from.

"To this day, Tom comes home - no matter what kind of star he thinks he is or other people think he is - and he still takes out the trash cans," Savage Sr. said.

An early lesson

It's happening.

His time. Destiny.

Savage takes over Rutgers' offense straight out of high school and even wins a bowl game for Greg Schiano's Scarlet Knights. He throws for the most yards and touchdowns by a true freshman in Big East history and ends 2009 - to this day, the best overall season of Savage's football life - with a freshman All-American nod.

It's all so easy.

But this is Savage and half of his career rarely makes sense. So, of course, his life is about to completely change.

"I was really excited as a father," Savage Sr. said. "But I knew there was a lot he didn't know about the game."

Seven years after his criss-crossed journey began - transferring to Arizona, sitting out and leaving; transferring to Pitt, sitting out and walking on; waiting behind Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer, Brock Osweiler, etc. - the Texans' starting QB in 2017 looks back on his first misstep with pure honesty.

He was wrong. He's still recovering and learning from it.

"I just went out there and I assumed that the second year (at Rutgers) was going to be easier. And that's kind of where that entitlement came," Savage said. "Like, 'Hey, I'm freshman All-American. I deserve this. I earned this.' And really in this game, you don't earn anything. You're only as good as your next game. That really just taught me a valuable lesson at a really young age. That nothing in this league, nothing in this sport, is guaranteed. You're not entitled to anything."

Not even playing football again.

Building himself up

This has always fascinated me about Savage, ever since he became the No. 135 overall pick of the 2014 draft and the first quarterback O'Brien selected: He was a construction worker.

This is after Arizona and a lost year in 2011, and before he almost quits the sport forever at Pittsburgh.

Savage returns home and begins living at his parents' house again, waiting to walk on for the Panthers.

His father, a proud member of the working class, points out the obvious.

"My dad was like, 'Hey, buddy. You've got to work. You can't just be laying around here,' " Savage said.

So a 27-year-old man, who on Sunday will become O'Brien's fourth starting QB in four seasons, starts doing it all for "peanuts."

He cleaned up. He scraped metal off the floor. He helped out with the family business while he was supposed to be on his perfect path to the NFL.

"I learned so many lessons from it," Savage said. "It was good to go through, because you're going from a freshman All-American in college to - there's nothing wrong with construction work. But it's just not what I envisioned two years later."

His father's wisdom: "You go out there and you break your hump every day for no money, then you can appreciate other things."

On the verge of quitting

There was still another level to fall.

Savage goes from Nov. 13, 2010 to Sept. 2, 2013 without even playing in a college game.

He's actually practicing again. But he's walking on and paying to attend Pitt and it's training camp and nothing is going right and, really, let's be honest - what's the point?

Savage has never forgotten that moment and the feeling.

"I was literally this close to quitting football. I was just like, 'I'm done.' I had enough," Savage said. "The coaches were yelling at me. I'm like, 'What am I doing? You're going to go get a job, get my degree. … This is rock bottom, for sure.' "

Savage remembers riding his Big Wheel around as a child, falling over and scraping a knee. His mom would start to help him up. His father would grab her first.

"Let him figure it out," Savage Sr. said. "He'll be fine."

The older brother that a quiet, shy kid always looked up to? Bryan's college career ended in tears, after a serious back injury was discovered just before the start of his senior season.

All those life lessons and everything that had already been overcome, and now the second son wants to quit?

"I remember my dad said, 'That's fine. I'll come pick you up,' " Savage said. " 'But just one thing: When you get older and your kids ask you about football, how are you going to tell them that it ended? Are you just going to tell them that you just quit? Or are you going to finish out and do it the right way?' "

Savage stayed, became a team captain, and completed 61.2 percent of his passes for 2,958 yards and 21 TDs in his only season playing for the Panthers. Then the young man who was at three colleges in five years started shooting up final mock drafts.

The Texans had just gone 2-14 after Matt Schaub fell apart and they needed a quarterback.

A slow NFL start

He showed up on Kirby Drive in June 2014, still driving a 2007 Chevrolet Malibu that came from his college years.

Color: "Terrible black."

You have a new four-year contract that pays an average of $575,000 a year. You're not going to buy a new car?

"I'm going to stick with the Malibu," said Savage, back when Fitzpatrick was O'Brien's first answer, and Case Keenum and T.J. Yates were competing for the Texans' No. 2 spot.

Mallett soon held that and Savage became third string. NFL life comes at you fast.

Savage got a shot in Week 15 of his rookie year at Indianapolis, after Fitzpatrick broke his leg. The young man with the arm looked promising - until he ended up in a knee brace.

Nine months later, Savage sprained his shoulder in pointless preseason game four. In the season of Hoyer versus Mallett, the Texans opted for an extra roster body, locking Savage away on IR the entire year.

He wanted out when his world changed at Rutgers. At Pitt, he nearly walked away when the road felt too far.

In 2015 - a season that doesn't feature a single regular-season stat for No. 3 - Savage made the smartest move of his career. He acted, studied and observed like an NFL starter, even though he was never going to play and constantly thought the Texans could cut him.

He went to work, just like his father taught him.

"(Savage is) a resilient guy," O'Brien said. "I was always struck with his demeanor, his poise and his straightforwardness, and you could just tell that he was a guy that believed in himself through all the things that he had been through."

A solid foundation

He's learned patience and perspective.

He's a husband and father now. When he stood behind a podium last month as the Texans' starting QB, his baby girl, Summer, rested in his arms.

He works with wood in his free time, crafting the furniture that sits inside his family's home, building a world that was unimaginable when he almost walked away for good.

"When I leave this (stadium), I kind of need to decompress for an hour. … It's really therapeutic and it's really rewarding," Savage said. "You've just got to be perfect at it, you know? Everything's got to be perfect. Not to get too philosophical, but you've got to be perfect with it or it's not going to operate."

No one in Houston is expecting anything close to perfection. Tom Brady lost Thursday and Alex Smith looked like the better QB. Atlanta blew a late 28-3 Super Bowl lead in the stadium Savage calls home.

Life is hard. The NFL can be incredibly cruel.

But if Savage can lead and last and keep Watson on the sideline in Year One? If one of the NFL's best defenses finally has a quarterback that doesn't let it down at the worst time?

Savage will become one heck of a story in 2017.

"So many people ask me about what happened and who they're always bringing in and they drafted a first rounder," he said. "Listen, that all is part of this game and I haven't done anything to prove them otherwise. So I know, as a competitor, that it's my job to go out there and prove that I can do it. And until you do that, they're going to have to make decisions for what's best for this organization. And I know that and fans know it and everyone knows it. It's just the way it is."

Savage was always supposed to be here. The time is now his and this is the best chance he's ever going to get.

It just took him forever to arrive his own way.

"All that stuff built the foundation to where I am now," Savage said. "I know I'm very flat-line in here. But I'm telling you, out there … I'm pumped and I'm ready to go."

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Neil S. Schwartz

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