If it wasn’t for Demonte, I never would have made the kick. What he told me just stuck with me. I thought about it the whole night and I won that game. It made me proud and I hope it made him proud, too.Rebels kicker Zach Thomas
SPRINGFIELD — The butterflies that fluttered in Effingham County kicker Zach Thomas’ stomach were no match for the words of encouragement that were swarming in his head.
As Thomas lined up to attempt a 34-yard field goal with less than a minute left in the 2018 season opener at Evans, the memory of a thoughtful gesture by a deceased teammate took over his mind.
“Two years ago, I missed a kick against Thomson,” Thomas said while reflecting on a painful 14-13 loss. “Demonte Lee told me at the end of that game to never give up on my dreams.”
Thomas’ dreams came true against Evans. He booted field goals of 24, 36 and 34 yards, accounting for all the Rebels’ points in a 9-6 victory. He made the final kick with a player draped around his ankles.
“It wasn’t an easy kick because one of our offensive linemen got ran over. (A defender) hit my leg at the same time I was kicking it,” Thomas said. “I didn’t even know it was good because I was on the ground. When I looked up, that’s when everybody told me it went in.
“(Holder Julian Thrift) looked up and threw his arms up. That’s how I knew it went in.”
Thomas said the two-hour ride to Evans felt different than the Rebels’ usual road trip. He wanted to win the game for head coach Buddy Holder, an Evans graduate. Many of the coach’s classmates were in the stands during the game.
“Something told me I was going to end up kicking the winning points,” Thomas said. “I didn’t expect to get all the points, though I just expected to win the game.”
Thomas said he felt Lee’s presence throughout the contest. Lee, an offensive and defensive backfield standout who had just graduated, was killed in a motorcycle crash less than two months before the game.
“If it wasn’t for Demonte, I never would have made the kick,” Thomas said. “What he told me just stuck with me. I thought about it the whole night and I won that game.
“It made me proud and I hope it made him proud, too. That was a huge night for me.”
Thomas’ heroic final kick was set up by a bold coaching decision with 2:03 remaining. Facing fourth-and-1 at his team’s 36, Holder decided to go for a first down.
“He’s clutch, just clutch,” Holder said after his belief in Thomas and his team paid off. “He really drove all the field goals (through the goal posts). It was pretty.”
Thomas has entertained thoughts of getting another chance to beat Evans with a field goal. The Rebels will host the Knights in their season opener Friday at 7:30 p.m.
“I’d love it,” the four-year starter said. “I’m just going to turn it over to the offense and defense, and try to put points on the board when they need it.”
Thomas, who will double as a punter this year, has developed into one of the most reliable kickers in the Coastal Empire. He kicked a 52-yard field goal at Burke County last year and has nailed 60-yard kicks in practice.
“I’ve progressed a lot on my kickoffs, too,” he said. “As a freshman, I could reach about the 15-yard line. I started reaching the 10-yard line as a sophomore.
“As a junior, I started hitting the end zone a little bit, plus we do certain things where I kick the ball into certain places now.”
Thomas didn’t intend to play high school football but was encouraged to do so by a coach. After hitting the field, he briefly entertained thoughts of playing linebacker.
“They didn’t want me to do it because they didn’t want me to get hurt,” Thomas said. He only weighs 160 pounds.
“That ain’t much for a linebacker and it ain’t much for nothing,” he said. “I’d like to play defensive line — to be honest. There’s more impact there and you get to talk trash to people.
“When you are a kicker, you can’t do that.”
Thomas, however, has been required to make a few touchdown-saving tackles on kickoffs.
“It’s been fun playing football,” he said. “I hope to keep doing it.”
Thomas has received some interest from colleges, including LaGrange College and Kennesaw State. A school in Michigan has inquired about him, too.
“I will go whereever I have to go,” he said.
Thomas isn’t just worried about his future. He is grooming his possible Effingham County successor, freshman Wyatt Lein.
“When he first came out here for the summer, he was kicking (field goals of) about 25 yards. Now he’s kicking about 40,” Thomas proudly said. “I’m trying to get him straight so that when I leave they won’t think they don’t have a kicker.”