Lee County star linebacker and Herald Dynamite Dozen selection Thomas Wright, foreground, center, poses for a photo with his family after signing with Valdosta State on Wednesday. Wright was joined by, from left, sisters Tianna and Tierra, father Tony, sister Tya, mother Tonya and brother Trey. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
LEESBURG — There they were, the entire Wright family, gathered at a rest stop about three hours from home, embracing each other and the moment — the moment that would change Thomas Wright’s life.
They will talk about that scene for a lifetime.
Wright, an incredible linebacker from Lee County High, signed his national letter-of-intent and accepted a football scholarship from Valdosta State on Wednesday afternoon, but the decision — the one he and his family wrestled with and anguished over — came Sunday afternoon.
Wright, who had more than 100 tackles as a sophomore and 112 as a senior (he missed most of his junior year with a knee injury) had offers from in and out of Georgia, but he knew he wanted to stay in the Peach State.
“It really got crazy in the last week or so for Thomas,’’ Lee County coach Dean Fabrizio said. “Coaches were coming to the school, and it was a difficult decision for him to make. He had a lot of offers, and the last week the coaches were really on him. Valdosta is getting a great player, and they are getting a great person. He was a great leader for us. They are getting a steal getting Thomas.’’
It came down to a photo-finish.
Wright narrowed the field down to two schools — Georgia Southern and Valdosta State — and when he made his official visit to each university’s campus, his family came with him — the whole family. Not just mom and dad but little sisters Tianna, Tierra and Tya, and his younger brother Trey all looked over Valdosta and Georgia Southern.
“We’re a family,’’ Wright’s father, Tony said. “We do things as a family.’’
Thomas then added: “I brought my family on both trips. We made the decision together.’’
They literally made the decision Sunday on the drive back from Georgia Southern.
“We were about an hour outside of Statesboro on the way home,’’ Thomas said. “That’s when I asked my parents how they felt, and they both said that Valdosta State made them feel like they would take care of me.’’
That’s when they pulled over to the rest stop.
“We made the decision there,’’ Thomas said. “I started tearing up and broke down, and my mom and dad did, too. The burden was lifted off my shoulders. I called the coach at Valdosta State and he said he was at a loss for words.’’
It was that difficult for Wright, one of the most intelligent football players anywhere, to make the final decision. He has a 4.51 GPA and scored an 1,190 on his SAT test. He’s Lee’s salutatorian, graduating second in his class before heading to college, where he plans on majoring in architectural design.
He was a force on the field, where he had 217 tackles his last two full seasons, including 18 tackles for losses this season. He also rushed for five touchdowns and ran in six two-point conversions. Wright was a Herald Dynamite Dozen selection, a Herald All-Area pick and the 1-AAAA All-Region player this year. He was also the MVP of the Georgia-Florida War of the Borders All-Star Game in Moultrie.
But it was more than football that landed him in Valdosta.
“Every college preaches family,’’ Thomas said. “But at Valdosta, I saw a real close family with coaches, students and players. That was the difference.’’
His father felt the same way.
“Valdosta just had that edge,’’ he said. “We are so proud and so happy he is going there. It’s awesome. We know they will take care of him there.’’
And it’s close by.
“We will be going to every game, home and away,’’ Tony said. “The whole family will be there.’’
They wouldn’t have it any other way — it’s the Wright Way.
LEE WR PADEN ALSO SIGNS WITH VSU: Lee County had two players sign Wednesday, and both are heading for Valdosta State, where receiver Brandon Paden is going along with Wright.
Paden missed his junior year of football and then came back as a senior to have a standout season, catching 25 passes for 391 yards and four touchdowns.
“He came back out for football after missing his junior year, and he was a big surprise for us,’’ Fabrizio said. “I think his best days are ahead of him. I think he’s just finding out how good of a football player he can be.’’
Paden had several offers from schools such as LaGrange and Huntington College, but he was smitten when he visited Valdosta State.
“When I visited there I loved the campus,’’ said Paden, who has a 3.1 GPA and plans on majoring in pre-law. “And I stayed and saw one of their games and liked it so much. I liked everything, the campus, the environment. After that visit I knew I wanted to go there.’’