ATLANTA — UGA football recruit Andrew Thomas and his family live in Lithonia, fairly conveniently near Interstate 20. He is an offensive tackle for and attends school at Pace Academy, which is located over in the Buckhead area of north Atlanta. It’s really not that far away, certainly not as a crow flies and only about 30 miles as a car drives.
But then you add traffic. You might have heard, Atlanta has some pretty gnarly traffic.
The Thomas family is quite familiar with that phenomenon. It has been in thick of it every weekday morning and afternoon for the last four years. Some weekends, too.
Both Andre and Belinda Thomas, Andrew Thomas’ parents, have alternated the responsibility of getting Andrew and his younger sister, Brianna, back and forth to Pace for practices, games, musical performances and the like over that time. But work schedules have dictated that Belinda handle it mostly these last couple of years.
On a good traffic day, she said the commute takes only about 45 minutes. It takes about an hour on a normal day.
On a bad day, well, the Thomases don’t like to talk about the bad traffic days. The best days are when they get up and out early, hit all the lights just right and cruise into the parking lot on West Paces Ferry with time to spare.
“Those days are rare,” Mrs. Thomas says with a laugh.
But you know what? It has been worth it.
As they mark off the decreasing number of days left on the calendar until Andrew Thomas graduates from Pace and heads to Georgia on a football scholarship, the stress, the strain, the expense, the lack of sleep, they’re all fading away in the background like so many passed cars in the rearview mirror.
“We’re so happy right now,” said Belinda, who works in the accounting department at Randall Brothers in downtown Atlanta. “To see how Andrew has excelled at Pace and now he’s about to go to Georgia where he’s going to continue to get a great education and play football, we couldn’t ask for more. We’re so proud.”
On pace for excellence
Andrew – or “Drew” as a lot of his coaches and teammates call him — is a 6-foot-5, 338-pound offensive lineman. He’s a U.S. Army All-American, a 4-star recruiting prospect and an AJC Super 11 player. He’s one of six offensive linemen the Georgia Bulldogs signed this past February (they’ve since lost one) and one of the few with a realistic possibility of playing this coming fall. In short, he’s a very good football player.
But getting to Georgia or someplace like it to play football was not what the whole Pace thing and that daily commute was about. For Thomas’ parents, it was about giving their son an opportunity to excel on all levels.
“This biggest thing about Pace is they allowed Andrew to be himself,” said Andre Thomas, his father. “The education has been just wonderful. Andrew has always been a good student, an A-B student. But Pace forced him to work hard. He could get by in public school; it wasn’t a strain for him. He’d pass tests without having to study, or he could just do a quick review and go in and pull a B out of it. Pace made him work, made him start doing a little more legwork and studying toward things he wants to do.”
Neither Andre nor Belinda had the good fortune of graduating from college. Both of them attended a short while but had to go to work. But education was always very important in their household, and they wanted to make sure their two children had the absolute best opportunities.
Andrew’s size and football abilities afforded them that option. He was recognized in middle school as both an exceptional athlete and good student. So the Thomases put out some feelers.
“It was just a thing where the opportunity arose,” Mr. Thomas said of Andrew attending Pace, one of Atlanta’s many high-end private schools. “We were actually looking at GAC (Greater Atlanta Christian) previously, but this sort of fell in our lap. We got the opportunity to go to Pace and it was a good decision for us, a good decision for Andrew.”
Andrew has flourished since they made that move. Not only has he proven an exceptional football player — helping pave the way for the Knights to win the first state championship in school history in 2015 — but he also has been able to enhance his musical talents and expand his horizons socially.
“It allowed him to come out of his shell,” Andre Thomas said of Pace. “Most people don’t know he’s really a quiet person. He’s a little more vocal now and he’s much more mature.”
That has not come without sacrifices for the family. Mr. Thomas works in general maintenance for Fulton County and his wife works for a local wood and hardware distributor. So while they receive some assistance for the high-end, private-school education their kids are receiving, it still comes at considerable cost.
And that’s not just including all the miles put on and gas put into their cars.
“He’s always hungry,” Belinda joked of her massive son. “That right there is going to help us. The grocery bill is something I’m not going to miss. He’s still growing and he likes to eat!”
Paving the way for Pace
Indeed, Thomas is “a big kid,” as they like to say. Always has been. It’s a common trait in his family.
While his parents are relatively normal in size — Dad is 6-2 — there is exceptional size on both sides of the family. Andre’s brother, Darrel Thomas, is 6-7 and played basketball at Samford University. Belinda has a brother named Emmanuel Jackson who is 6-8 and played college basketball at Stephen F. Austin
So make no mistake about it, it’s Thomas’ size and football prowess that put him at Pace. He showed up that way. His father believes he was about his height, 6-2, when he showed up opn the Pace campus.
And Pace, in turn, has benefited from his presence. The Knights won the 2015 Class AA state championship, the first championship in football in school history.
In fact, Thomas was just one-fifth of what could be considered one of the great offensive lines in state high school history that year. While he manned the left tackle position for the Knights, Jamaree Salyer lined up next to him at left guard. Salyer, a junior, is considered the No. 1 offensive guard prospect in America for the recruiting class of 2018. And, yes, Georgia is among the primary contenders.
Meanwhile, Pace’s center and guard and tackle on the right side of the line all ended up at Furman University. The Knights also sported receiver Trey Blount, another UGA signee, and several other top-line players.
“A solid line,” said Johnson, grinning broadly at the understatement. “We averaged 300 pounds. We’re pro style. We’ll go four or five wides but mainly we run it right down their throats, basically. It fits in well with what he’s going to be doing at Georgia.”
Building Pace’s football program into something resembling a powerhouse was the plan when head coach Chris Slade and offensive coordinator / line coach Kevin Johnson arrived four years ago. It’s not a coincidence that was the same year Thomas and a few other elite players came on board.
“Here’s the thing: You can’t walk into this school and say, ‘I’m a player; let me in,’” said Johnson. “That’s not happening here. The headmaster, Fred Assaf, he is not going to allow that. Everybody has a reputation to live off of. Pace Academy’s reputation is about academics. Now we’re adding sports and trying to make a name in that as well, like Duke University, Northwestern, places like that. We can do that here. We can definitely do it, but that’s just one part of it.”
A musical family
Indeed, Andrew has come to hone several different skills at Pace. He’s a musician, for one. He plays the drums in the school’s concert band and also plays the piano.
“He brought that with him,” Andre Thomas said of his son’s love of music. “We’re somewhat of a musical family. My wife is in the church choir. My daughter also sings and plays the flute. I’m a musician; I play the drums. So coming up he really took a liking to playing in a band, being a percussionist. He really took off in middle school with the drum line thing.”
In fact, there was one point early in his tenure at Pace that Andrew had to make a choice between music and athletics. Though he was big and excelled at it, football wasn’t necessarily his primary focus.
But Andrew, who also played baseball and basketball early on at Pace, didn’t really take sports seriously. His football coaches didn’t think he was putting forth the effort and energy they he needed in their sport. They felt he was sort of mailing it in.
“When he first started in ninth grade, he went through a period where I guess he was transitioning from middle school to high school,” his mother said. “I guess his effort wasn’t there as much in football. The coaches gave him kind of a reality check. They said, ‘if you love playing in the band, play in the band, that’s fine. Don’t play football. Put all your efforts into the school band.’ That was kind of a gut-check for him because he was growing, getting taller and he wanted to play (football). It opened his eyes and turned things around for him. The rest is history.”
Andrew Thomas didn’t put away his instruments for good. He still plays drums and performs with the Pace band at winter and spring shows.
But everything else has kind of melted away. It’s all about football for Thomas, and has been for a couple of years now.
Attracting national attention
It was football that brought dozens of FBS football coaches to Pace Academy to meet Thomas, and it was football that took the family all over the country to check out the respect campuses of his suitors.
Before it was over, Thomas had more than 30 FBS scholarship offers, including powerhouse programs like Alabama and Florida State and faraway, tradition-rich schools like Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska.
In the end, he narrowed it down to three: Georgia, Clemson and Notre Dame.
“At first it was exciting,” Andre Thomas said of the recruiting process. “You see all the opportunities that he’s getting and the chance to go see many schools. But then it becomes overwhelming because you have so many coaches calling you on a regular basis and wanting to come see him and wanting you to come see them. You don’t get as much private time as a family.”
Not surprisingly, considering their experience at Pace, Andre Thomas took a particular liking to Notre Dame. Not only was it a private school with a pretty significant football program, but it also featured the No. 1-ranked business school in America. Andrew intends to major in business.
“I was excited about Notre Dame,” Andre said. “It was moreso about the academics. I wasn’t really concerned about the football part of it. I thought wherever he went, he was going to be good enough to play. I didn’t worry about that too much. Notre Dame was just like a bigger version of Pace Academy. It was a beautiful country, a beautiful history and a great school.”
And, Mr. Thomas pointed out, there’s very little traffic in South Bend.
What ultimately swung it back Georgia’s way was Kirby Smart. The Bulldogs brought in the new, young coach after the 2015 season, and Smart brought Sam Pittman with him. While the Thomases had been recruited by Mark Richt and his staff, the intensity rose considerably under Smart, who had put a premium on finding the biggest and brightest linemen in America, starting with those in his own state.
A fast-growing, close relationship with Pittman and learning of the opportunities that UGA’s own Terry College of Business offered clinched it.
Andrew Thomas committed to the Bulldogs during The Opening camp by Nike in the spring of 2016.
“Georgia really stood out among the crowd for him,” Andre Thomas said of his son. He had a really good relationship with Coach Pittman. We enjoyed our visits with Kirby. There are a lot of different things that played a part in his choice. Academics was first and then football and then how soon he could be able to play. He realizes nothing is guaranteed. They all told him he’d have to go out and earn it.”
And now it is time to “pay the piper,” as they used to say. The commute on this long journey that the Thomas family embarked on four years ago is about to come to an end.
Thanks to his experience at Pace and those long drives from Lithonia and back, everybody who knows him believes Andrew Thomas is up for the challenge.
“He’s going to be physically prepared; he’s going to be academically prepared,” Pace’s Johnson said. “He’s going to take the bull by the horns and he’s going to roll with it. He understands the process, and the process is not all about football. The process is about finishing. We call it finishing the block. Finishing the block can be anything: academics, a workout, a play.”
It can also be about a long, hard ride, well worth it in the end.
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