Click here to see a video interview with Gaines, Bruce Miller, and Jim Pavao.
Gainesville vs. Cartersville
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: City Park Stadium
While he’s lived in four different states and two countries, Phillip Gaines has always been able to find a home on the football field.
The son of a former first sergeant in the Army, Gaines has perfected his football prowess on fields in Texas, California and Florida, but for the past four years he has resided on the Gainesville High defense, and he’s loving every minute of it.
“Truthfully, growing up I hated defense,” said the 5-foot-10, 210-pound senior linebacker for the fourth-ranked Red Elephants (11-0). “I’ve always played running back, but in my sophomore year they needed someone to play outside linebacker, and I’ve been there ever since.”
Making the adjustment from offense to defense didn’t come easy for Gaines, but when you are forced to move every three years during your childhood, adaptation becomes a thing of nature.
“I had to make new friends every time we moved, so that wasn’t pleasant,” Gaines said. “I tried to tell my dad to stay in one area, but he kept getting shipped out to different places.”
Including stints in the aforementioned states and Germany, which Gaines said was his favorite place to live.
“It was rough,” said Phillip Gaines Sr. of constantly moving his family. The elder Gaines has since retired from the Army and is now the JROTC instructor at Riverside Military Academy. “But I think it helped Phillip tremendously. It helped him be able to adjust to different situations, ways of life and different cultures.”
That was especially true when the family lived in Germany when the younger Gaines was 3. And although his time there allowed him to witness other cultures and a different way of life, it didn’t have football — unlike the football-crazed states, Florida, Texas, California and Georgia.
“I got to play against different type of competition,” said Gaines, who played against the University of Florida’s Mike and Maurkice Pouncey and Chris Rainey, when he was 12. “The competition was pretty good.”
And it provided Gaines with insight to what it would take to become a great player.
“I just saw that I had to work harder,” said Gaines, who also plays goalkeeper for the Red Elephants’ soccer team.
All that hard work has finally paid off, as after a brief struggle with playing defense, Gaines is second on the team with 118 tackles, and his end zone interception of Oconee County’s Zach Mettenberger during last week’s 49-21 win ended a sure-scoring drive and helped Gainesville secure a spot in the second round of the playoffs.
“This year the light has really, really, really come on,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. “Phillip is a very smart player and he understands the game. He’s turned into a really, really good, no, I’d say a great player.”
After being hampered with an injury last year, Gaines sat down with Miller and defensive coordinator Jim Pavao to discuss what he needed to do to become a better player.
“I didn’t realize how well he was going to play until he started playing,” said Pavao, who Gaines called the most influential coach he’s ever had. “I think it took him a year to get it under his belt, but this year he’s played lights out.”
An undersized linebacker, Gaines uses his speed (he runs a 4.6 second 40-yard dash) and his ferocious hitting ability to make up for his lack of size.
“He’s a physical player,” Pavao said. “He’s good for about one good lick a game.”
Gaines believes that even though he’s not the biggest guy out there, being small does have its advantages.
“I can move laterally, and I’m shorter, so I can dip under blocks,” he said. “When you’re playing against a bigger back you gotta get low and I’m already down there.”
As one of the anchors of a defense that is allowing fewer than 10 points a game, Gaines and the rest of his defensive teammates know that they will have a tough test Friday, when they play host to Cartersville (9-3). With Division-I recruits in quarterback Donavan Tate and running back Morgan Alexander, the Purple Hurricanes boast speed like Gainesville has only seen in practice, but Gaines is up for the task.
“I’m always up for competition,” he said.
If Gaines, or any of the other Red Elephants are looking for some inside information on how to contain Tate and Alexander, they don’t have to look far. Gainesville quarterback Blake Sims played at Cartersville’s rival Cass High for the past two years, and played an integral role in the Colonels 34-7 win last year.
“I told them that they’re just like every other team we’ve played,” Sims said. “They’re going to come in ready to play.”
Along with helping his teammates out with his prior knowledge of Cartersville, Sims and the rest of the offense has helped Gainesville’s defense prepare for a game that will feature a highly-athletic offense.
“Our offense is so fast, when you play fast teams it’s just the same,” Gaines said.
“They’ve got the most speed we’ve seen all year,” Pavao added. “But it’s not in just one guy, it’s in all their skill position players. It’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
Facing challenges is something that Gaines is all too familiar with. And while this game pales in comparison to the challenge of meeting new friends and relocating, a win Friday night will provide Gaines and his Red Elephants with a new home: the Class AAA quarterfinals.