As dusk turned to dawn on Nov. 17, Memorial Stadium's lights flickered on and Todd Rhodes took center stage wearing a creamsicle-orange t-shirt that read, “If not now, when?” The coach and founder of the 6-U football team, the Savannah Royal Lions, stood in front of Memorial Stadium on the visitor’s side and opened the candlelight vigil with an impassioned speech about ending gun violence in Savannah.
“Father, God, Lord, we ask that you forgive us,” Rhodes, also a minister, prayed. “Forgive Savannah for our sins, forgive Chatham County for our sins. Father God, to the leaders in the city, dear God, open up their minds, open up their hearts to God. Father God, we can't rely on the government, we can’t rely on our own power. Because God we need you we tried to fix it there. Father God, we’ve tried but it ain't working. So we came here tonight at Memorial Stadium. Father God, please, parents, help these students, help these kids? Father God, heal us.”
Earlier in the evening, before he gave his speech, Rhodes said he’d seen “young people lose their life because of emotions, because of poor choices, because of stupidity.”
After one Royal Lions game on Oct. 12, where he had young players on the field, a domestic dispute between a father and stepfather ended in homicide. A separate brawl three days during one of the Royal Lions' practices involved a fight between a parent and a player that resulted in another spectator pulling a gun.
Rhodes recalled, too, standing in a hospital as a 12-year-old kid — he declined to mention his name — was fighting for his life in the ICU after getting shot in the head at a funeral.
“That did something to me,” said Rhodes. “It did something to my soul. Because it’s to the point where nobody cares. It’s to a point now where nobody cares because it happens so often. So we have to recognize it. And we got to understand: when is enough enough? Because if we don't do something about it, guess what, God forbid, it may be our kids next. It may be your child next, it may be your nephew next. So, it only affects the person who happens to, but it affects everyone. That's why we've got to heal today.”
Victims of gun violence speak out
The recent spate of incidents in Savannah related to — or caused by — gun violence largely explains why Rhodes chose to host the End Gun Violence Rally . Rhodes coordinated the event for multiple victims of gun violence to speak publicly about their experiences , including Toni Grant, chief project manager of Grant Enterprises.
In 2017, Grant received a phone call that said her 16-year-old son had been shot and was being rushed to Memorial Hospital. Terrified, Grant raced from Skidaway Island to Memorial Hospital in five minutes. When she arrived in the emergency room, she called her son’s father and her husband, who met her at the emergency room. While sitting, waiting for news, Grant watched a chyron roll across the bottom of the television screen: A local news station television reporting that a shooting involved a young man in a home in Savannah.
“That was my 16-year-old son in a shootout with Savannah police,” said Grant. “Of course, when I saw that, again, I wrote that down because when you get involved in a shootout with a police officer as a young black man, [the police] are shooting to kill.”
Hours after she arrived in the emergency room, doctors told Grant that her son was “alert and alive.” The gun shot went through his head, avoiding any arteries, so no surgery was required.
“I thanked God that moment that my soul was still alive, being in an incident with the police officer,” said Grant.
Days later, police officers visited with Grant to explain what happened. Grant, a former correctional officer at the Department of Juvenile Justice, said she told the police officers, “I know the difference between a rubber bullet versus a live bullet. If you can’t come to me with the truth, don’t come to me with nothing at all.”
Because of the incident with police, her son headed into the juvenile justice system. Grant remembered telling her son, “I don't understand everything and I don't pretend to understand everything... The only thing I knew was, he was stressed and he was overwhelmed.”
Her son's girlfriend had delivered a daughter just before the shooting.
Grant's son was tried as an adult and received a 20-year sentence. Because of her efforts to bring fairness to the criminal justice system, her son has since been released, and is a 20-year-old student at Savannah Technical College, training to become a barber. He will successfully complete juvenile probation in January 2022.
“If you're not the age of 18, and are not registered, you need to put it down," said Grant. "If you find a gun off of the street, a gun probably has a body on it, that can probably fit in the armed robbery somewhere. And if you're caught with it, you're gonna get charged, regardless if you was there or not.”
'Change is Gonna Come'
Calvin Ford, 23, sang a three-minute solo during the rally, part of his personal mission to share an anti-violence message.
The first time Ford encountered gun violence was as a kid walking home from school.
Ford saw the crime scene where rapper Camouflage, a.k.a. Jason Johnson, was murdered in 2003 outside of Pure Pain Records recording studio while he was walking his toddler son.
"I've been scarred ever since," said Ford. "I say that to say this: We don't understand that our actions not only affect us, but affect others as well." said Ford.
Ford later lost a friend, Tristan Gray, who was murdered while being robbed on Savannah's eastside. Gray, who was 17 at the time, had a full-ride scholarship to Mercer University at the time, said Ford, but somebody "took his life because of jealousy of what he had."
Those two gun-related incidents inspired Ford to obtain a registered gun permit, he said. "Learn how to use a gun, learn how to protect with the gun, it's not flashy...at the end of the day I'm going home back to my daughter."
Then, Ford sang, Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come."
Two nights ago, Eric Johnson’s nephew won a championship as part of the Savannah Royal Lions. “He felt like he won the Super Bowl,” said Johnson. “He cried. And it made me tear up.”
Johnson kept looking at him, reminding his nephew over and over of how proud he was of him. Johnson values moments like that, especially because one of his other nephews lost his life due to gun violence in 2008.
“Understand this: our brother is gone and I’ll be gone,” said Johnson. “My mother will have two sons not here with her and her grandsons that she will try to have to raise. So I have no other choice but to be here for them. Gun violence affects everyone.”
Drew Favakeh is the public safety and public health reporter for Savannah Morning News. You can reach him at AFavakeh@savannahnow.com.
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Savannah Royal Lions coach Todd Rhodes holds End Gun Violence Rally