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Former Red Elephants remember their shot at claiming a state title
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Ashley Turner, left, and Liz Leneski paint the Gainesville High rock with a message for the Red Elephants’ football team Wednesday afternoon. The team will take on Ware County for the Class AAAAA state championship Friday night at the Georgia Dome. - photo by Scott Rogers | The Times

Coming Friday
The Times celebrates Gainesville High’s appearance in the state title game with a special wraparound section reviewing the season and looking at the game with Ware County. This commemorative section will be available only in Friday’s print edition.

Coming Saturday
We’ll have complete coverage of Gainesville’s bid for its first state championship with game stories, photos and videos from inside the Georgia Dome in both print and online.

It was below freezing on an early December night as a group of young men clad in red and white stepped onto the field at City Park 52 years ago.

That night, those boys, who have now moved on to become businessmen, real estate agents, parents and eventually grandparents, were looking to make history for Gainesville High School: the first state championship in the modern era of Georgia high school football.

But they, like a number of Red Elephant teams in the past, came up one game short.

In 1960, Gainesville’s football team was coming off a 1959 season that ended with a 21-14 loss to Rossville in the semifinals of the state playoffs.

No one, including the prep sports writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time, thought the Red Elephants would compete again.

“The prep writer said we would do well to be .500,” said Bimbo Brewer, an offensive lineman and captain of the 1960 squad.

But the team, led by Coach Graham Hixon, had other plans. In its first five games, it outscored opponents 129-0.

“It was a team that gelled and came together and everybody just played their part perfectly,” said Brewer.

At the end of the regular season, the Red Elephants stood 8-1-1, outscoring their competition 254-34.

In the North Georgia Region title game, Gainesville beat Chamblee 26-7, earning its second region title in as many years.

Up next in the semifinals: the team that ended Gainesville’s state title hopes the year before.

“Rossville had been our nemesis for four or five years during that period of time,” said Johnny Rogers, a junior fullback on the 1960 team.

And on Nov. 25, 1960, the Red Elephants avenged the previous year’s loss to their “nemesis,” taking home the victory 12-0 and securing a spot to play Waycross for the state AA title.

That semifinal win, however, came at a price.

Starting running back and team captain Royce Anderson was hurt and was forced to sit out the state championship game the next week.

In fact, most players left that field limping.

“That Rossville game was the most physical game I’ve ever been in,” said Brewer. “They were bad, they really were.”

But after beating a school that had become a rival, the team, however nicked up, was confident going into the state title game. As it turns out, that confidence may have bordered on hubris.

Waycross, a small town near the Florida border in South Georgia, had put together an impressive season of its own. The Bulldogs came into City Park with a 12-0 record that year, scoring nearly 40 points a game, while only giving up an average of four points per game to opponents.

When the South Georgia boys rolled into Gainesville, Brewer remembered, it was 6 degrees and the field may as well have been a parking lot. Brewer figured the advantage went to the North Georgia born and raised.

“I just thought them gnat boys couldn’t handle it,” he said. “We were overconfident until we saw them in uniform.”

The Red Elephants won the toss, and, Brewer and his teammates said, “that was the only part of the night we did anything good.”

Waycross walked away from City Park that night with a 49-0 state title win.

“Mentally, we were not ready to play,” said Rae Greene, a junior defensive lineman in 1960. “Physically we were all right, but we didn’t have the mental toughness to win a tough game.

“That’s what hurt us, I think. We didn’t have quite enough competition throughout the year to toughen us up.”

In 1961, the now seniors again topped the region, but fell to Rossville in the semifinals, wrapping up the season at 11-1. (Rossville lost the 1961 AA state championship game to Waycross, 23-7).

But over the years, the bitter taste of the 1960 title loss started to dissipate, but never quite left, and for the next five decades, Gainesville saw its share of success but never finished on top.

In 1982, the Bobby Gruhn-led Red Elephants fought their way into the state title game again, but fell to Bainbridge, finishing 13-2. And, most recently, the 2009 team, with one of the most potent offenses the school has ever seen, lost in the championship game to Peach County in the Georgia Dome, finishing 14-1.

Fast forward to 2012, and yet another Red Elephant team finds itself playing for the state title.

But not only is this year’s team playing for the first championship in the modern era (Gainesville’s only state title came in 1925, prior to the formation of the Georgia High School Association), it’s playing for those teams that got so close.

Actually, the irony of this year is obvious. On Friday, the 2012 team heads to the Georgia Dome to take on Ware County, where Waycross is the county seat.  

To those on the 1960 team, a win over the team that shut them out 52 years ago, ending their title hopes, would be “sweet.”

“I think it’s great that they get another shot at Waycross,” said Anderson. “It’ll be nice to even the score.”

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