“I’ve never wanted to go anywhere else but the University of Georgia,” Pierce County High senior Thomas Echols said. “I grew up in Georgia, grew up going to football games. Plus, my Uncle Ted (Echols) went there, and so did my Papa Jack (Hobbs). I just love it there.”
Echols, a three-sport performer, celebrates his acceptance to UGA, where he has also qualified for the prestigious Zell Miller Scholarship. Echols’ résumé includes several other meritorious achievements, which have in turn led to other recognitions. That list includes his service on the First Southern Bank Junior Board of Directors. A man for all seasons, Echols competed in football, wrestling, and soccer at PCHS.
“I think doing early acceptance as he did had a lot to do with Thomas getting accepted, but I think his extracurriculars did too,” his mom, Tricia, said. “I think they look for depth. Thomas will tell you he’s not a superstar athlete, but he enjoys being part of a team, and he wanted to find out where he fit and how he could contribute. He talked about that in his application. This was the only place he applied, and he knew the rigor of academics and the things that taught him a lot of life lessons.”
Perhaps most impressive on the Echols résumé is his elite designation as an Eagle Scout. Over the course of more than 100 years, only 4 percent of nearly 50 million Boy Scouts have ever earned the designation. Qualifications include earning at least 21 merit badges, completion of a service project, and regular demonstration of Scout spirit and leadership.
“Becoming a Boy Scout was a very big decision that I made because my grandfather and my uncle were both Eagle Scouts,” Echols said. “I also had a bunch of friends who joined, which helped me stick with it. Also, being in scouts showed me how to be a decent person, and when I received my Eagle Scout rank, I was able to look back and say that being a Boy Scout was a great experience.”
Ranking 31st in a class numbering 257, Echols carries a 4.0 GPA and a cumulative academic average of 95.429. He also scored 1280 on the SAT. He is a Beta Club member and has maintained a heavy load of college classes through the Move On When Ready (MOWR) program, including U.S. History I and II, Human Anatomy, Public Speaking, and MOWR Calculus, Algebra, and Pre-calculus.
“I need to especially thank my mom for my academic success because she always pushed me to do homework and study for tests when in reality I wouldn’t want to do it, “ Echols said. “She reminded me of my goals like getting 4.0 and getting into UGA. Without her, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
His dad, Harris, added: “Thomas has got a lot of his mama in him, but he does a lot on his own. You don’t have to get on to him to do a lot, and I think he gets that from his mama. As far as homework and schoolwork, it doesn’t matter if he has to stay up until 2 o’clock to do it. He is just an easy child to parent.”
Playing three sports certainly didn’t make the job any easier. A defensive back since his freshman year, Echols didn’t crack the starting lineup until this season, when he became the team’s long snapper. He was among the best in the region at the latter craft, with no bad snaps on extra points, field goals, or punts the entire season. Consequently, the Bears’ opponents were unable to block any kicks, and teammate Cooper Saussy established new school marks in all kicking categories.
“Thomas approached me during the spring before his senior year and told me he wanted to be the starting long snapper,” special teams coach Seth Boyett said. “He knew he wasn’t the most athletic player on the field and that he would have a very slim chance to see the field as a starter his senior year. He showed me his technique, and his snaps weren’t the best I had ever seen, but they also weren’t the worst. I gave Thomas some pointers and told him it would take a lot of practice on his own to earn the starting spot. With that, Thomas took the coaching and ran with it. He worked on his technique during summer workouts and on his own time. By the time the season started, Thomas earned the starting position as long snapper and found a way on the field.”
Echols’ attributes propelled him to even greater success on the wrestling mats. By his own admission he wasn’t athletic enough to play basketball, so he went out for wrestling in sixth grade. He didn’t win a single match that first season but improved to second in his weight class at the conference tournament the following season. He was among the top 10 in his weight division by his freshman year. Brandon Jernigan, PCHS athletic director and assistant head football coach these past several seasons, served as head wrestling coach throughout Echols’ high school career.
“Thomas is probably one of the most humble young men I’ve ever had a chance to coach,” Jernigan said. “He’s the guy everyone in the gym is pulling for. His résumé speaks for itself with all his honors and awards. But his personality and approach to life is something that most are amazed at. He comes from an outstanding family that has reared him to respect authority and to give his all in everything he does. Thomas has ‘it,’ what you need in life to be successful, and I know that we’re going to see outrageous, crazy things from this young man in the future.”
Success hasn’t always come easy, though. Echols broke his right leg during a wrestling warm-up as a junior. He pushed himself during rehab with coach Marlin Brown, the team’s trainer, and after hours.
“They say I rehabbed quick and got better quick,” Echols said. “I probably did a whole lot more than what I should have been doing.”
Nonetheless, he was back on the mat as a senior and considers the recovery to be the highlight of his sports career.
Echols briefly gave baseball a look as a freshman. He has since played soccer each spring. His rookie campaign on the pitch even saw a two-goal game against Johnson High. A self-professed “bench guy” now, he sees spot duty on defense. The soccer experience, he said, helped keep him in shape for year-around sports. Plus, he also enjoys hanging with his good friends on the soccer team, a group that includes Saussy, Ben Hopkins, Jake Wheeler, Joe Stewart, and Ashton Cantrell.
With most of his college math requirements already satisfied via MOWR, Echols has his sights set on biology courses as he heads to Athens. He wants to major in pre-med, though nobody in his family has ever worked as a doctor or in the medical field. He’ll be a pioneer if that endeavor moves forward. But he has simpler expectations for how he wants to be remembered.
“I don’t really want to be remembered as some star athlete, but as somebody who knew who he was and tried his best,” Echols said. “I just want to be out there on the field and have fun with a bunch of my friends.”
Southeast/Academic Athlete/March 2017
Pierce County High School
Written by: John DuPont
Photography by: Jennifer Carter Johnson