Monday was a big day for Elijah Gainey. He was feeling like a football player again.
The Flowery Branch High quarterback was training for the first time since a preseason-game knee injury Aug. 16, 2019 stripped him of his entire senior season.
For this first training session, no helmets or pads were involved. Nobody’s playing any contact sports while we wait out the coronavirus.
Instead, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound University of South Alabama signee was out on the field at Hammer Smith Sports in Norcross.
There, he was able to do some position-specific drills and reactive-speed training.
Right now, Gainey said he feels about 95% and eager to begin his playing career for the Division-I Jaguars, which is a scholarship offer that never wavered after he experienced a non-contact injury against Dacula.
“The coaches at South Alabama were awesome,” said Gainey earlier this week while traveling to his workout in Gwinnett County. “They called me the next day, after my injury, reassuring me that I would still have a scholarship.”
Over the past eight months, Gainey has grown more than he ever imagined he’d have to at such a young age. It definitely wasn’t the way the expected leader of the Falcons would have drawn it up.
However, he’s thrived and believes he has come out a stronger person on the other side.
Not only did he miss his final season of high school football, one he was greatly looking forward to with his friends, but he also lost the in-person experience of the remainder of his school year due to the shutdown of school’s nationwide.
It’s been a lot to take in for one young man.
“It is what it is,” Gainey said with a chuckle.
Gainey’s family, friends and a rock-solid faith in God made him see there would be brighter days ahead after his surgery on Aug. 27.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is to never take anything for granted,” Gainey said. “We never know what God’s plan is for our life.”
The highly cerebral Flowery Branch quarterback was going to be the key piece to its offense, after throwing for 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2018. The Falcons, in 2019, were certainly going to be a contender in Region 7-4A against the region’s other heavyweights, Blessed Trinity and Marist.
Without Gainey, the Falcons finished 7-4 and lost to Cartersville in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs.
Gainey is done asking himself ‘what if?’
He was greatly looking forward to playing one more season in coach Ben Hall’s wide-open offense and learning from new quarterback coach Bruce Miller, who himself won 225 games over 30 seasons as a head coach.
Gainey was picking up a lot from Miller, who coached quarterbacks Deshaun Watson, Blake Sims and Mikey Gonzalez during a long, successful run at Gainesville.
However, one fateful play ended the 2019 campaign before it started for Gainey.
During the opening drive of the third quarter of the practice outing against Dacula, Flowery Branch’s quarterback heard his knee pop while eluding defenders in the backfield. It was a very routine play. Gainey was scanning the field for an open receiver and didn’t even draw contact before going to the ground.
“In the back of the mind, I knew what it was,” Gainey said.
His fears that it was season ending were confirmed on the sideline by team doctor, Mathew Pombo, who also performed the surgery 11 days later at Emory’s Johns Creek Hospital.
Gainey said it is on himself for being in the game at the point of the injury.
He was designed to only play the first half of the scrimmage, one week before the opener against East Hall. However, not happy with his first-half showing, Gainey went into Hall’s office during halftime to ask for one more drive. The coach hesitated but finally agreed, Gainey said.
“I was having the first-game jitters and not picking up on my reads,” Gainey said. “I begged coach Hall for another drive.”
The first game he missed was the hardest for Gainey. Dressed out with the rest of the team, the Falcons’ quarterback went to midfield for the coin toss, knowing surgery was just a few days away.
After a bye week and successful surgery, Gainey said he was seated in a chair on the sideline for the game against Clarke Central on Sept. 6.
He refused to sulk. Gainey chose to be the biggest supporter for the 11 guys on the field.
Given his circumstances, it would be easy to slip into a depression.
Instead, he took on an active role in helping give advice to sophomore quarterback David Renard, who performed admirably after being thrown into action the week of the season opener.
As the fall progressed, Gainey began rehabbing away from the field.
He was at peace with it being God’s plan for his life, even though not playing with his friends was a crushing blow at the time.
Gainey never doubted for a second that he would play football again, even though it was baby steps to have his knee strengthened to its prior form.
After one month, he was walking without crutches. Three months after surgery, he was able to jog.
Only this spring was Gainey again working on gliding and cutting on the run, necessary for any quarterback to maneuver in the pocket.
During the national shutdown, Gainey has gone back to watch tapes of his games from the 2018 season.
A lifelong Auburn fan, his family also watches some of the classics.
Gainey has one more month before he’ll be cleared by his doctors to play football. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said the move-in day to South Alabama will likely be delayed and the status of the 2020 season is a great unknown.
He’s wide-eyed and eager to begin the next four-year journey as a college student and football player in Mobile, Alabama.
“I’ve definitely matured a lot and learned to appreciate the little things in life through this journey,” Gainey said.