COVINGTON, Ga. — It wasn’t church, but it was on a Sunday.
Call it a “come to Jesus” meeting, if you must. Except it wasn’t divine intervention. More like a coaching staff’s ultimatum for Eastside defensive tackle, Tomarkus Woods.
“It was one Sunday that the coaches came to me and told me that I’ve gotta get myself together, because if I don’t, I won’t be here on this team or in this program no more,” Woods said.
When Woods looks back on his career — particularly his senior season during a history-making 2018 campaign with his Eagles teammates — to find his turning point as a football player and, much more, a man, it’ll probably be that Sunday afternoon meeting he’ll point to that changed everything.
If you’ve watched Woods play, especially in the last several weeks of the season, you’ve seen a different player on the football field than you did at the beginning of Eastside’s undefeated regular season run.
But the kicker is, Woods’ best work and most impressive moments of maturation probably have little to do with football. In fact, he’ll tell you that his uptick in production on the field only came because of the growing up he had to do off of it.
“I’ll tell you the truth,” Woods said. “At the beginning of the season, I was just thinking about myself. I wasn’t thinking about my teammates, to be honest with you. I was only worrying about starting, and I see what happens when you just think about yourself. You’re gonna lose something, and I lost my position. It was kind of hard for me. It was tearing me up, actually.”
That’s because Woods had allowed a nasty little entitlement streak to latch onto his personality, all because the 6-foot-2, 270-pound defensive tackle earned a place in Eastside’s starting lineup last year, even while playing alongside standouts like LaMarius Benson and Spurgeon Gaither.
He registered 13 total tackles, two sacks and two quarterback hurries as a junior in seven games of action, and with the departure of Eastside’s two big studs up front, Woods took it for granted that he’d just automatically slide into those spots and pick up where they’d left off last year, in 2018.
It didn’t really work that way.
“In my mind, I kept thinking, ‘I’m gonna start. I’m gonna start this year. I’m supposed to be starting again,’” Woods said. “I thought that because I started last year it was just a given that that was what should happen this year. Then the rock dropped on my back, and said, ‘No, siree.’”
That rock’s name was Dillon Fleming.
As Woods admittedly dogged it in practices and did his best to alienate himself from his teammates with his attitude, Fleming worked hard and snagged Woods’ spot right from under him. And Woods didn’t take it well at all.
“One day at practice, I just snapped,” he said. “I got p’d off at Dillon, and coach (Jarvis) Brice and coach (Jeremy) Ross pulled me aside and said, ‘Tomarkus, you want to know why you lost your position? It’s your attitude. You care about yourself, and you don’t care about the team, and we don’t need that here.’”
Woods didn’t like it at first. But it proved to be the bittersweet-tasting salve his bruised ego needed to start the healing process on the rest of his psyche.
“That hit me dead in my heart,” Woods said. “I was like, ‘Dang, I really acted like that?’ When I got home, I felt very stupid looking at myself in the mirror.”
For Tomarkus, home wasn’t what it used to be anymore.
Six years ago, it changed for him in a very major way.
“In 2012, I lost my mom when I was 12 years old,” Woods said. “It was out of nowhere. That was hard for me and for my sister and my dad, because we were not really expecting that. We knew she had been sick, but we were just hoping she’d come back home the next day healthy. But one day I came home from school, and I remember looking in my sister’s eyes, and she was crying, and that’s when she told me Mom passed away.”
Woods’ appetite vanished. He didn’t eat for an entire week, he said. Even at his young age, he felt the clutches of depression beginning to grip at his soul. But with his sister and father rallying around him, he didn’t stay down for long.
“So here we go. I got myself back up, and I kept on fighting through things,” he said.
But catastrophe would soon strike again.
“And then in 2014 I lost my dad,” he said.
Woods’ father also succumbed to blood pressure and heart issues.
“They had to take veins out of his leg and put them in his heart to try and keep things working,” he said. “It was bad.”
What made it even tougher for Tomarkus to deal with was the fact that his experience losing his parents was almost a direct reflection of what his father experienced at a young age.
“My dad, he was just real beat up, man,” Woods said. “He’d been through a lot. Even more than I had. But when he was a kid, he lost his dad when he was 12 and lost his mom when he was 14. He had nowhere to go. He had to help himself. It was crazy.”
But his son had faith and football.
“I kept on going to church,” Woods said. “My sister told me I’ll be okay and that I’m gonna make it. The one thing I needed to do is make it. My mom had five kids and only one graduated. The other three dropped out, and I’m the next one to make it. I knew my parents and everybody didn’t want me to drop out. They wanted me to make it. To keep my head focused and concentrate on football and school, and keep going.
“Yes, it’s gonna be hard, but that’s part of life.”
Maybe the best thing Eastside coach Troy Hoff, his staff and Woods’ teammates could’ve done was not feel sorry for him. Woods, himself, will acknowledge that.
“Two times I almost quit football and just gave up on everything,” Woods said. “One of those times was during my 11th grade year. It was one day at practice I remember. I was standing out there on the field, literally saying to myself, ‘Nobody’s by my side. I’m out here by myself. I’m standing alone.’ But they would keep telling me, ‘Tomarkus Woods, you gotta get up and lift that rock up off your back, because if you don’t, it’s gonna keep driving you to the dirt, and you won’t be nothing in life.’”
Hoff will tell you that this is where the psychological side of coaching football comes into play.
“You love them all,” Hoff said. “But you treat them all different. Everything and everyone’s not the same. I learned that a long time ago as a college coach.”
And Hoff and his staff knew that babying Woods and coddling him despite his tragic losses wasn’t going to get him where he needed to be.
“He’s had to deal with other things off the field, for sure,” Hoff said. “But a lot of it is developmental as a young man. His uncle’s been in his life, and he’s got some good support. But for him, just having periods between class where things aren’t going the right way, and coach Brice will go grab him or coach Ross, and say, ’Sit down and let’s talk about things.’”
It’s the consistency of these mini-interventions Hoff’s staff has executed on Woods that has contributed to some major maturation in his senior defensive tackle.
“He’s definitely grown up a lot,” Hoff said. “He’s learning how to deal with things, and to catch it before it starts boiling over. That’s part of being an adult. Because in the real world, you lose your mind and you can get fired from your job and worse things will happen to you than just losing a place on a football team.”
Hoff calls it the part of being a football coach that doesn’t show up anywhere on a coach’s resume or on a player’s stat sheet.
“That’s the relationship side of it,” he said. “And I think that’s why they trust us and play hard for us. And it’s not just me. Those guys, my other coaches, have been closer than I am. They have their hands on the kid every day in position groups, on the field and off the field. And that feeds into the team part of it to where it’s not even just the coaches. It’s the players encouraging him, embracing him, calling him out.”
Woods isn’t afraid to acknowledge that some of his most intense scuffles have been with players wearing the same green and white jersey that he wears.
“Last year it was Jay Lackey and Lamarius Benson,” Woods said, pinpointing the teammates who most regularly got in his business.
“This year, I’d say Hunter Williams and Dillon Fleming. Those are the guys who come up to me and talk to me every day, and tell me, ‘get yourself together. Do your job. If you don’t do your job, how can we trust putting you in the game?’”
“That’s part of the accountability to the group, to our team, that’s huge,” Hoff said. “When one of those guys, one of your teammates, says something to you, that’s more powerful than a coach. They’re out there wearing those black shirts (as starters) on defense, and they want to keep it, and they know you’re a part of that.”
Flash back to October 26 against Henry County — a game where Woods certainly performed like a blackshirt.
Early in the game against a Warhawks team that had explosive athletes who could stress a defense a bit, Henry County’s slippery, dual-threat quarterback Jaylon West took the snap and tried to wiggle his way in for a first down, if not a score on a 4th-and-1 play near the Eastside goal line.
Woods shed his blocker and pulverized West for no gain, forcing a turnover on downs and providing early preservation of what would turn out to be a 41-0 shutout win. It was the kind of backfield disruption you’d want to see from your defensive trenchmen, even if there were no gaudy stats to boast about as a reward.
And it was the kind of play Woods has begun to make with more regularity over the last four or five weeks of the season. He even garnered team player of the week honors for his efforts — a feat that even he probably didn’t see coming, given how tough things began for him this season.
He also didn’t expect to be a part of Newton County’s first-ever regular season unblemished football team, either. But now that Eastside’s making a push for a state championship, Woods has put the past in his rearview mirror and is enjoying living in the moment with his team.
“It really feels amazing,” he said. “It feels like a blessing. It really does, because I remember when I was playing middle school and here at Eastside, we never went undefeated. We’d maybe lose two or three games, lose in the first or second round of the playoffs. So this year really is amazing. We got ourselves together and learned it wasn’t about us as individuals, and that it’s about everybody. Even our coaches.
“Each week, it was never really about going 8-0, 9-0 or 10-0. It was about going 1-0 each week. Before each game we say, right now we haven’t won nothing yet. But come Friday night, we’re ready, and when we win, it’s just 1-0.”
With graduation in view, Woods now looks forward to being able to do what others in his family did not. He’s looking to make his mother and father proud. He has visions of going to a college somewhere in Georgia.
“I don’t want to leave the state if I can help it,” he said.
He wants to play football if possible. He’d love an opportunity to go to Georgia State. But if that doesn’t work out, he has aspirations of being a personal trainer.
“I love working out,” Woods said. “And I want to be able to help others, so I really think the opportunity to be a trainer is something I’d love to have in my life.”
One other thing Woods wants to keep in his life — Family. His football family.
On senior night, while Woods stood behind Williams, awaiting his turn to have his name called for recognition, Woods says he found out exactly who his extended family was.
“What really touched my heart was on that Thursday for senior night, when it was my turn, the whole football team came up to me, and they all walked with me and gathered around me and said, ‘We love you, T. We love you, Tomarkus. We’re your family,” he said.
“After the game when I got home, my sister asked me if I knew why they did that. And I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘because they care about you. They understand how you lost both of your parents and how hard that was. They wanted to show that they were there for you.’”
If he didn’t get it before, Woods says he fully understands it now.
“I didn’t always like it, but to be honest, they’re all just trying to help me with everything they said and every time I thought they were being hard on me,” he said. “Not put me down. I know me and Benson got into it a lot when he was here, and others. But looking back, they just wanted me to get myself together. I think in their eyes, they think I can make it somewhere.”
Now, when Woods looks in the mirror, he’s beginning to see what they see. So much so that he’s counting on being able to one day help someone else navigate through the same troubled waters that his football family helped him through.
“If anybody’s going through the same thing as me, I’d tell them this,” he said. “Whatever you do, never give up. And the people who are trying to help you, look them in the eyes and accept it. Because sooner or later, you’re gonna realize they’re just trying to help you, not trying to break you down.
“I honestly don’t know where I’d be without them.”