Saving Eric Pringle

Eric Pringle

A year ago, Eric Pringle's mother dropped him off at Charleston Collegiate School and hoped for the best.

Her son was not doing well at West Ashley High School. His grades were about as low as his friends'. A coach suggested a smaller, safer environment. One that offered football, his best subject.

It's not easy for a kid to go from a big public high school to a small private school. The people are different. The rules are different. There are expectations above and beyond surviving until the bell rings each day.

"When I came here it was a different environment," said Pringle, now a senior at the school on Johns Island where only 265 students attend grades K-12. "I came from a much bigger school, so this was kind of uncomfortable for me at first."

It was near the end of November when he arrived. He didn't exactly fit in. He was standoffish. He didn't understand some things about his new school, but he knew about winning and losing. He watched closely as Charleston Collegiate's football team finished its season with a 2-9 record.

Indeed, he was a running back looking for a place to run. He'd played for the West Ashley Wildcats and tasted defeat. It's quite a drop from Class AAAA football in public school to Class A in SCISA, the private school league. But losing is losing.

Thanks to Eric Pringle's speed and finesse, the Sundevils will play in their first-ever state championship game Friday night. That's tangible evidence of what Eric Pringle has done for this school.

It's nothing, however, compared to what the school has done for Eric Pringle.

Goose bumps

Athletically, Pringle has been running downhill all season. Academically, however, it was an uphill climb.

"I was going to deny him because his grades just weren't good enough," said Hacker Burr, Charleston Collegiate's admissions director.

"But when I came back from the holidays, there was this two-page letter sitting on my desk. It was written by Eric Pringle. He asked me to please give him a chance to prove himself."

Those goose bumps you feel on your arm are the same ones they feel at Charleston Collegiate when they tell the story of Eric Pringle.

Today he is not only a star on the Sundevils football team, he's also a star in the classroom making As and Bs.

As he stood in the bright November sunshine near the football practice field earlier this week, it was hard to imagine this handsome young man was so close to disappearing from the radar screen just one year ago.

"If I hadn't transferred to this school, I probably would have dropped out of school, followed the wrong crowd, done the wrong things," he said with a solemn tone of reality. "But now my grades are a lot better and I'm proud of what I'm doing on and off the football field."

Something special

You have to read these statistics a couple of times to truly believe them.

To date, Eric Pringle has run for 2,416 yards and 35 touchdowns. He's also caught 12 passes for another 340 yards and led his team to a 10-3 record.

"He's something special on the football field," said Kirk Lax, the team's first-year head coach who doubles in real life as an insurance broker. "He has a cutting style and an afterburner when he hits the hole. Once he's in the open field, nobody in this league can catch him."

At 5-10, 180 pounds, Pringle reminds coach Lax of another player by the same name. "I played with his father at Summerville years ago," the coach said. "They both have amazing athletic abilities."

Eric Pringle, in fact, is playing way out of his league. But if the football got easier down here, the academics were a major hurdle.

Pringle struggled at first, but eventually the light went on.

"Eric has just come alive in the classroom," Lax said. "He took advantage of an opportunity and blossomed."

One year later Pringle is talking about college. Maybe The Citadel. A lot has changed in a year.

Money well spent

If you think a black kid with an attitude might have a tough time fitting into a small private school, you're right.

But Charleston Collegiate is a bit different from most schools of its ilk. Here, tucked away among moss-draped, sea island oaks, diversity is more than a vocabulary word. Minorities make up 25 percent of the student body and 17 percent of the faculty.

Like Pringle, more than 20 percent of the students receive some financial aid.

For the record, it costs $10,800 a year to attend Charleston Collegiate School. But it's the best money ever spent on Eric Pringle.

Just ask Evan Shears or Kevin Fletcher. Both have attended the school (formerly Sea Island Academy) since kindergarten and suffered through some miserable football seasons. Then coach Lax showed up and Eric Pringle put on a Sundevils uniform.

"Coach Lax has really changed the work ethic around here," said Fletcher, a linebacker and fullback for the team that went 2-19 his sophomore and junior years. "And Eric Pringle is nothing like we've ever seen before."

Shears, a senior wide receiver and linebacker, simply said, "It's so nice to win for a change. Eric Pringle is not only an amazing player, he's a good teammate."

Not an option

Like most private schools in this league, the Sundevils have only 20 players. Most play both ways.

Pringle, by the way, is also the team's best defensive back. When he's not scoring touchdowns, he's stopping the other team from scoring touchdowns.

Some will conclude that Pringle was recruited and his gaudy numbers are skewed by the presence of white-flight schools and denominational academies on the Sundevils' schedule.

"Eric should be doing what he's doing on the football field," said Lax, who played and coached for Summerville's legendary John McKissick. "He's a AAAA running back in a private school league. But the real story is that he cares about football, cares about his grades and cares about this school.

"He struggled last year because this was such a different environment for him. He came from a big school where you can be forgotten. He came from an environment that allows you to fail. In this environment you're not allowed to fail. Failure is not an option here."

A year ago Eric Pringle's mother dropped him off at Charleston Collegiate School and hoped for the best.

One year later, he is.

Reach Ken Burger at kburger@postandcourier.com.

or (843) 937-5598.