Scott German: Reminiscing with Virginia football great Ray Savage
Savage’s career ended in the 1990 Florida Citrus Bowl in the Cavaliers first-ever New Year’s Day bowl game, a 31-21 loss to Indiana.
Today, Savage living in Newport News, is still very much enjoying success he had when he suited up in the orange and blue. Savage is at the head of three very successful entities, including his most satisfying venture, Savage Sports Community Development Corporation.
Savage capped a brilliant career at the Citrus Bowl as an indispensable member of perhaps the most successful team in Cavalier football history. Sparked all season by Savage’s dazzling defensive play, the ’89 Virginia team reached a team-record 10 wins, earning a share of a first-ever ACC championship.
Known for his almost vicious-like style of play and relentless intensity, Savage finished the 1989 campaign with 91 tackles, including 49 solo tackles.
I was working the 1989 season for Rich Murray, the sports information director at Virginia. My game-day assignment was to record defensive tackles, first hits, and solo tackles. I watched every UVA defensive play through binoculars, tracking and recording every defensive stop. My memory of that task was the fact that Savage, if not credited with an official stat, was in the my “circle” of view on practically every play.
A four-year starter, Savage finished his outstanding career ranked fourth (now 12th) among UVA’s all-time leading tacklers with 302 stops.
Savage was selected by the Los Angeles Rams in the eight round of the 1990 NFL draft. I recently spoke with Savage from his Tidewater home about his playing career, the matchup with the Illini in the Citrus Bowl, including the Jeff George altercation and life after football – his most satisfying accomplishment.
“What a great time I had at Virginia, on and off the field, a great decision to come to Charlottesville,” said Savage.
And a tough decision indeed for the high school All American at Warwick High School. The star rating for evaluating high school players did not exist in 1985, but had it been in place, Savage would have been a five-star player for certain.
“All the top schools came to my parents’ home – Alabama, Florida, Maryland, Penn State,” said Savage. And Virginia? “Oh, yes, Coach Welsh and OB (assistant coach Tom O’Brien), they came early in the process.”
“Coach Welsh talked almost exclusively about Virginia’s graduation rates, especially for football players. He talked about his players were mentored to be good football players, and better people,” stated Savage.
Savage paused for a moment and apologized for getting emotional before continuing, “Coach Welsh focused on his kids who were disciplined and had the vision of building something on their own. He (Savage again pausing to compose himself) tugged on our heartstrings and talked about being the first of something, not the next at (North) Carolina, or the next at Penn State,” remarked Savage.
In contrast to the other schools, how was the Virginia recruiting a big enough difference to get you to UVA, I asked Savage.
“That’s easy, I’ll tell you how,” said an anxious Savage. “Coach Paterno (Penn State head coach Joe Paterno) and his posse of assistant coaches walked into our living room, and almost the first thing out of Paterno’s mouth was, you’ll be redshirting your first year,” noted Savage. “It was almost like he already had my commitment, no mention of educational values, graduation rates, nothing.
“Then my father, who rarely got upset said, Coach, get the hell out.”
Savage committed to UVA shortly thereafter, and the domino effect began.
“We (Tidewater area players) helped coach recruit the Terry Kirbys and Chris Slades. The Tidewater players are tight. It’s a bit frustrating to see the lack of recruiting of our guys down here,” said Savage.
Savage knows a little about 757 football, having played high school ball there, and serving as head coach at Menchville High School from 2015-2018. Savage’s son, Ray Savage III, was a walk-on recruit at UVA in 2016, and graduated from the University in 2020.
In Ray Savage’s first season at the University of Virginia, his team won three games. By the time he graduated, the Cavaliers were co-champions of the ACC.
That three-win 1986 season led to something big in 1987. What exactly happened between a dreadful 3-8 year that ended with a 42-10 home loss to Maryland?
“One thing, the summer off-season in Charlottesville,” declared Savage. “Coach Welsh said we needed to hang together, not just white players with white players, black players with black players, but everyone together, get to know each other, really know one another, he said,” noted Savage.
“We worked out together, we sweated together, we partied together,” stated Savage.
It didn’t take long for the results from that summer in Charlottesville to rear its results.
Virginia opened the 1987 season at Georgia between the hedges.
The Cavaliers gave the Bulldogs all they wanted before falling 30-22 in front of nearly 80,000 in Sanford Stadium.
Virginia dropped it next game at Maryland, but regrouped and closed the season 7-4. Virginia beat Hall of Fame coach Lavell Edwards and BYU in the All-American Bowl.
Savage said that previous off-season bonding served the team well throughout the year.
“We played as a team. Every game, we had each other’s back, we never thought we were out of a game,” said Savage.
Now, finally I said to Savage, let’s talk about the 1990 Citrus Bowl. We know Illinois won, 31-21, but how about the Savage-Illini quarterback Jeff George third quarter incident.
Do you recall that Ray, I asked?
Not hesitating, Savage said, “Oh, yes, very well.”
Can you elaborate, I asked?
Savage said, “it went like this, I guess you might say I was a bit frustrated, but looking back I also think it might just have been my style,” Savage replied, almost pleading his case.
“I had a clear path, and I just drilled him. After the hit the referee screamed at me, Didn’t you hear the whistle? I said, no, like, what else would I say,” quipped Savage.
The referee didn’t buy it and threw a flag for a late hit. George, after digging his facemask and himself out from the dirt, found Savage and promptly gave him the football squarely in the facemask, quickly resulting in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
A brief entanglement between the two players occurred before they were broken up. A verbal exchange took place.
What was said, I asked Savage.
“He didn’t say anything, I don’t believe. I called him a big baby and to grow up.”
A few years later when Savage was briefly with the Indianapolis Colts, he was reunited with George, who was the Indy quarterback.
And? I asked Savage.
“We became good friends, we joked about it, it’s all good,” said Savage.
Fast forward nearly three decades later, and Savage is again excelling in life.
His non-profit Savage Sports Community Development Corporation in Newport News may be his most satisfying achievement.
The non-profit promotes youth and fosters an environment of respect for others and self. The corporation provides nutritious food and beverages to local youth and their families. But more importantly, according to Savage, the program instills confidence and discipline while encouraging youths to utilize opportunities available to them.
“It’s very empowering to be making a difference,” proclaimed Savage.
The corporation works with local government agencies to plan ways to feed youths in the summer and to make sure no child must do without essential supplies.
“Without a doubt, this might be my most important work, certainly my most satisfying,” said Savage.
Ray Savage left a legacy at Virginia. His No. 56 is now a retired jersey, his intensity and competitiveness among the greatest ever to wear a Cavalier uniform a difference maker on the gridiron.
Thirty years later, and No. 56 is every inch that individual that ruled Scott Stadium. Now instead of chasing down opposing quarterbacks, Ray Savage is chasing down opportunities for the youths of 757. And for that he remains an All-American.
Story by Scott German