In the middle of Theodore A. Wright Stadium, the Savannah State University Tigers players finish their afternoon football practice and gather, sweaty and tired, around their new coach, ready for his encouragement, coaching, and, most of all, life lessons.
Savannah State University is the first public Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in the state of Georgia and has long been educating and supporting the Savannah area. On top of that, SSU is poised for a brand-new football season full of opportunities to celebrate 120 years of playing the sport, dating back to 1902.
Starting in his first year as the school’s head coach, Aaron Kelton is raring to go. The Boston native has three decades of coaching under his belt and is completely player-focused.
“What it is for me being in this kind of a situation is developing young men and helping them to be better people,” said Coach Kelton. “That’s what I love to do and that’s why I chose this profession. I can affect change in the world through these men. Being here at SSU is a special opportunity for me and the Savannah community has been fantastic.”
While the Tigers graduated a lot of players last year, the coach is encouraged by the players he has on his team.
“I’ve got a young bunch,” Coach said. “We’re very vibrant and we’re excited about what’s to come. While we don’t have as much experience as we’ve had in past years, they’re quite talented and these guys really love football.”
But, for Coach Kelton, much like his many predecessors, SSU football has always strived–for over a century–to train men for life off the field, stressing academics and life lessons.
“These guys are loving their academics, too,” Coach Kelton said. “That’s a huge piece. It’s what it’s all about…the biggest part of being a true student-athlete. It’s my job to put them in a position where they can make plays and have fun.”
It’s not just the players who have fun during the SSU football season. Many alumni, boosters, and fans are getting their gear and colors together for the SSU kickoff against Southeastern University out of Lakeland, Florida, on Sat., Sept. 3 at 6 p.m.
Rest assured, when the stadium gates open, there will be some of the most dedicated boosters there to cheer on their team.
Barbara McGhee, originally from Waycross, is a 1966 graduate of SSU and president of the community booster club. “When I was in school, I was a cheerleader and an assistant statistician, so I kept up a little bit about what was going on in athletics. I found myself always wanting to get to football games earlier than my friends. They’d come along around halftime, but I needed to be there for kickoff. It’s always been a love of mine,” she said proudly.
Mrs. McGhee adores football, but she’s also supportive of all athletics at her alma mater.
“We get to support the best student-athletes. Of course, that includes our football team. We try to be there to support them. They support us by doing their job, which is to put the best team on the field while making sure their grades are as good as they can be. In return, our job is supporting them in any way we possibly can.”
Dr. Jacquelyn Stephens, a 1960 graduate, is from a long line of SSU graduates. She and her two siblings attended SSU, as well as a nephew, cousin, another cousin, and so on, she shared.
“I remember when I was in elementary school, Mother took the three of us for lunch right in front of Savannah State. She had a picnic basket and told us we were going to eat amongst the beautiful trees on this beautiful campus because we were going to attend school here one day. Because of that, I always I knew it would be the place I’d attend,” Dr. Stephens said.
She met her husband, Jolly Stephens, Jr. during her freshman orientation week. “We dated for four years, graduated in June, and were married in August. We had 47 years together and a beautiful life,” she said.
Jolly Stephens, Jr. was an all-conference defensive guard for the Tigers in 1956-57. To honor her husband, Dr. Stephens established a $100,000 football scholarship endowment to help carry on her husband’s memory. And, because of her contributions to her alma mater, Dr. Stephens has earned her own parking space for home games at Wright Stadium.
She laughed heartily over the parking space.
“You know about that? Well, that came about when I first established the endowed scholarship in my husband’s name. They know how much I love football and the team.” Dr. Stephens continued, “The last two years, we’ve had a successful football team, but unfortunately the years where we went without a win, a group of us still traveled everywhere with the team. I’ve always been supportive of the team…win or lose.”
In the program’s storied 120 seasons, Dr. Stephens said she has witnessed some excellent football and suspects the best is soon to come.
“I am looking forward to winning,” she said. “Two years ago, we won our conference, but because we had just transitioned into a new [division], we weren’t eligible for the playoffs. Last year, we came in second. So, this year, I expect us to be victorious with a stellar football program. We have a new coach and more players from the Savannah area this year than we’ve had in a long time.”
And because the school is achieving such a pinnacle in its football program, alumni and boosters like Mrs. McGhee and Dr. Stephens want to encourage the whole city to support the team and get into the spirit of the season.
“We are expecting great things,” said Mrs. McGhee. “Our expectations are always right there at the top. If you put the work in, then you’ll have good things to show for it. I’m saying ‘football, football, football…we are ready!’”
Fellow alumni, Lemuel Campbell, class of 1974, had two stints at SSU when he began school in 1960, but was then drafted into the U.S. Army before returning to school and graduating. The significance of this season isn’t lost on him.
“This is a huge anniversary for the school and the football program,” Mr. Campbell said. “Activities on campus have changed over the years. When I was in school, the highlight of my day or week was an athletic competition. We were all in tune with anything like that going on. If there was a game on campus, you can bet we’d be there. We didn’t have the distractions students have today.”
“Football has been going on at SSU as long as I can remember. When I was in high school, that’s how I got introduced to Savannah State,” Campbell shared. “We would practice on SSU’s track because the public schools didn’t have them. Our coach would take us to SSU because he was an alum and worked it out where we could practice there. I fell in love with it.,” he said.
Throughout its storied program, SSU has seen some successful seasons and even helped launch many careers, the most well-known being Shannon Sharpe, SSU player and graduate who went on to win two Super Bowl rings in the NFL.
On his FOX show, “Undisputed”, in June 2020, Sharpe said, “After my sophomore season, I was an All-American. I was player of the year, conference player of the year, and offensive player of the year. I was going to transfer to the University of Miami. Coach (Bill) Davis sat me down and said, ‘why do you want to transfer?’ I said, ‘Coach, I want to play in front of 75,000. Plus, I want to go to the NFL. Ain’t nobody going to see me here at Savannah State.’ He looked me dead in the eyes and said, ‘Son, you good enough, they’ll find you.’ I walked out of his office and never looked back. No regrets. One of the greatest decisions I ever made because I got with people who taught me history, who taught me my history. And [they] helped me have a better understanding of what my history was, of what blacks had done in America.”
The boosters and alumni aren’t the only ones excited for the season to start. The current roster of players leaves the field with intensity in their eyes and a bounce in their step.
This is more than a mere team game. It’s a brotherhood and a shared experience that will lead them all into manhood.
Junior Makenly Newbill, defensive end, finds himself learning how to step into a leadership role. The Savannah native says it’s a “surreal feeling” playing for his hometown university.
“I know there are people who don’t have the same opportunity to play at this level, so I just enjoy every second of it because I know in a second, it could be gone,” he said.
“I’m learning how to step into my leadership role. I’m not here to just perform; I have to lead a group of men,” he said proudly. “It’s helping me to mature and to understand people, where they’re coming from, and making sure I learn a lot of things about being a good person. There are 50 other men who make it easy on me because they listen.”
Newbill has obviously been influenced by the positive work ethic of his new coach.
“Our biggest fan right now is Coach Kelton,” Newbill said. “We’re building chemistry on the team every day. There aren’t a lot of big egos. Coach is a genuine person.”
Newbill admits before every game, he always searches out his number one fan.
“I transferred from Valdosta State, coming home to Savannah when COVID hit to take care of my mother,” he said. “She’s doing really well now and is here for every game. I have to find her in the stands before I can concentrate on the game. We wave, make eye contact, and she knows we can hear and it makes us feel good.”
Newbill isn’t the only one paying homage and tribute to his family. Apparently, it’s a great ritual for team members to seek out their family members in the stands.
Quarterback JT Hartage from Forsyt agreed.
“When people are here to watch and support us, we see it and feel it,” the junior said. “I look for my mom every game, as well. I’ll also check back when I’m on the sidelines. I always know where they are in the crowd.”
Hartage, too, realizes the significance of the opportunity he has.
“We were learning a whole different offense in the spring, so when we came here in the fall, we didn’t expect to learn a new offense. But, we’re learning more and more every day and getting comfortable with it. We’re slowly, but surely, coming together. We just have to believe in each other and everyone does what they do best, which is to play football.”
“It feels good when you’re winning,” Hartage said. “You get more from the fans and the community. It’s a great feeling to know our fans want us to win outside the game of football.”
Having such support from family members, alumni, and other students is paramount, but the SSU coaching staff, team, and boosters hope the Savannah community will rally around the football season.
“I’m looking forward to more community participation and media attention,” said Dr. Stephens. “We have the name Savannah and I would love for the city to embrace SSU more. I’d love to see us get the recognition we deserve because we have improved so much. We are on a winning streak. I’m looking forward to it continuing.”
Lemuel Campbell stressed the importance of Savannah State University, not just as entertainment for sports in the community, but for the opportunities.
“If it wasn’t for SSU being here in the city of Savannah, many of us wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go to college. Many of us were able to work and go to college simultaneously. At the time, it was the only four-year college in the area.”
“We are Savannah’s football team,” Coach Kelton said. “We’re really excited. We’re going to get our coaches and players into the community more to events and stores and different places, so we can be seen. We are Savannah’s football team. We need to make sure we get that message out.”
“We’re getting better every day. I’m excited about what’s to come and what Savannah State has to offer. Also, knowing there’s community support like we have is fantastic. All of that coupled together will lead to us having a great program.”
Barbara McGhee encourages everyone to come out to the games and see some incredible, local, college football. “We are it! This stadium should be packed every Saturday there’s a home game in Savannah, Georgia. Not only are we the first public HBCU in the state, but we’re also the first four-year college here in Savannah and we continue to offer a product we certainly hope the city is proud of. The best way to support the team is just that…be there. There’s nothing that makes our young women and men in athletics work harder than seeing an array of school colors cheering them on. They feel pride in representing.”
Dr. Stephens echoes the sentiment, as well.
“We would love to see the city embrace SSU totally, not only with the football team and athletic program but the university as a whole. We will continue to have an important impact, but we could do even more if we had the citizens of Savannah embrace our campus. It is a gem and a treasure. We’re the university by the sea and we appreciate the support from the community and local businesses.”
“I hope we’ll have a lot of alums and folks in Savannah come out to participate and enjoy the games,” said Mr. Campbell. “We need folks in the stands, especially alums and locals. Come get your tickets and let’s have a great time. Our young people need to get a great education, so any support helps fund the schools and our future. We want to support the young people coming in because we were in that same position once.”
TJ Hartage asks fans to “Be ready for Saturday, y’all. Bring your best energy because your energy boosts us. When people are here to watch and support us, we see it and feel it and it shows in our performance.” Most of all, Hartage is grateful for what he has here at SSU. “Being a part of the HBCU community is an amazing feeling for me. I’m playing with people who can relate to me and I can relate to them. The 120th season… well, I want it to be one of the most talked about seasons ever. That would be pretty cool.”
The Savannah State University Tigers football schedule and tickets can be found online at ssuathletics.com