Scott Wynn first met Tobias Oliver in 2013, when Wynn had just become the Northside High basketball coach and Oliver was a few months from enrolling as a freshman. The young man who would letter four years and start three years as a lockdown guard was accompanied by his mother, Jennifer Arnold.
The first thing that Arnold told Wynn, he recalled this week, was that her son was going to take care of his grades. It proved to be the case.
“Anytime he had an average that got near 85, Mom was in his ear, my ear, everybody’s ear that that was not going to stand,” Wynn said, who is no longer coach and is now an assistant principal at the school.
The meeting was an indication of what was to transpire over the next four years at Northside — Oliver would excel athletically, he would handle his schoolwork and his mother would be involved. On the football field, Oliver started three seasons at quarterback, leading the Eagles to the 2014 state title. His mother was a fixture at practice.
“She was there every afternoon,” said Chad Alligood, Oliver’s offensive coordinator and position coach at Northside.
A single mom, Arnold juggled work and school to be there for her son, the youngest of three. Oliver will strive to honor his mother’s devotion at Georgia Tech, where he is the sole quarterback in the Yellow Jackets’ incoming freshman class.
Tech freshman players report to campus Tuesday.
“I just feel like, if I don’t push myself to my full potential, then I’ll be letting myself down, but I’ll be letting her and the rest of my family down,” he said. “I feel like I’m not only just doing this for myself. I’m doing it for her.”
For Arnold, the unrelenting support that she has provided her children traces to her own childhood and a promise she made to herself. Arnold was one of five children, growing up at different points in Peach County and Atlanta. Her father, Charlie Knolton, raised Arnold and her siblings by himself, making sure they were fed, dressed and sent to school. Arnold’s mother was absent through her childhood, she said, returning shortly after Oliver was born.
When she was carrying her eldest child, daughter Kearia, Arnold said she promised herself that “I would never allow my kids to suffer and go through anything by themselves. I would be 110 percent behind them.”
It was not an easy life for Arnold, who became a mother at 16. Arnold said she enrolled in college at Fort Valley State in 2010 to pursue a psychology degree, earning her degree in 2013. Working as a general manager of a U-Haul store in Warner Robins, she is now studying for a master’s in rehabilitation counseling in hopes of working in the field of substance-abuse treatment.
“We never had to worry about having a meal on the table, we never had to worry about lights being off, air being off, water being off,” Oliver said. “We always knew we would have this stuff. And being a single parent, I know that’s not easy at all.”
On a recent overcast afternoon, mother and son shared a brown couch in the front room of their home. Moving boxes packed with Oliver’s belongings filled up the home, tangible evidence of his new life ahead. An overhead fan hummed. Arnold, as lively as her son is reserved, explained her commitment to watching her son’s practices and games, which has required getting to work at 6:30 a.m. so she could leave around 3 p.m.
“That’s just a relaxation to me, to sit out there and watch my child just practice,” she said. “I did it every single day. I didn’t care if it was rain, sleet, hail or snow.”
Oliver, whose father is not involved in his life, couldn’t help but notice her mother’s dedication. With no trace of embarrassment, he sometimes sends out tweets in tribute to his mom. (Feb. 13: “mannnn, my momma is a blessing.”)
“It means a lot,” he said of her attendance at practice. “That’s just something that you can’t pay somebody back. You can’t pay somebody back for time. There’s nothing more worthy than time.”
Kearia, 23, is in the Army, stationed in El Paso, Texas. Kerry Arnold, 21, is at home, seeking work. Oliver, 17, has a zeal that burns like his mother’s.
“I’ve never been around a kid, never ever, and I’ve coached a couple that were in the (NFL), with his competitive nature and wanting to win,” said Alligood, now the coach at Washington-Wilkes High.
Alligood coached Oliver for four years and said that he never had a bad day of practice.
“He never had a bad attitude, anything,” Alligood said. “Whenever you were around him, you felt good about yourself because he is such a ball of energy, high motor. One that you wish you had a football team full of him.”
Oliver was elevated into the starting lineup as a sophomore in 2014 when the senior expected to start the season opener contracted appendicitis. Suddenly at the controls of a state powerhouse, Oliver took the job and never let go, leading the Eagles to the Class AAAAA state championship that season.
Over three seasons, Northside was 34-6. Alligood couldn’t remember a single instance of Oliver leaving a game because of injury, despite the fact that, as a sophomore, Oliver was 5-foot-10 and 140 pounds.
“He took some shots,” Alligood said. “You think, ‘Man, is he going to get up?’ And he’d get up because he wanted to be in that huddle.”
Besides setting the school record for career passing yardage, Oliver also distinguished himself as a selfless teammate, which he demonstrated on a couple of occasions, for better or worse, by hiding from reporters.
“If you look at it, technically, the offensive line is the most important,” he said. “So why not interview offensive linemen? Why interview the quarterbacks all the time?”
To Wynn, Oliver was not the most talented player on the basketball team, but fiercely competitive and not to be outworked. Oliver endeared himself to Wynn also with an unusual degree of compassion and caring for those around him.
“I love the kid to death,” Wynn said.
Oliver’s determination revealed itself on his transcript, as well. Oliver graduated from Northside with honors, a goal he set for himself as a sophomore.
“I was like, from this side of town, you see so many athletes that, they could have been this, they could have been that, but they didn’t have the grades,” he said. “So I felt like I could be the one that’s like, he’s different that he’s got the athleticism, and he graduated with honors.”
Needing a 90 grade average (which equates with an A) to earn honors, Oliver said he finished with a 93. In Oliver’s class, 21 percent of students graduated with honors.
Oliver’s aspirations are no less high for Tech. He wants to become Tech’s starting quarterback. And he wants to graduate with honors.
“He has a burning desire to be somebody great,” Alligood said.
His mother won’t be able to attend practices anymore, but she’ll adapt.
Said Arnold, “He’ll get a text every day.”