Vivian Drake wore as many hats as one woman could for Gainesville’s state title game at the Georgia Dome on Saturday.
Even in defeat, Drake, the mother of Gainesville starting middle linebacker A.J. Johnson, played the role of proud mother, vocal leader and cheerleader with pride from her front-row seat.
"I need to be where he can see my face and hear my voice," Drake, also a Gainesville High graduate, said. "I know how hard A.J. has worked this season to get to this point."
The mood for Drake mirrored that of probably any parent that was on the Gainesville side of the field. Even though Drake was so excited about the game she couldn’t sleep the night before, her lack of rest didn’t for a second hamper her efforts to aid the Red Elephants.
"I’m going on 100-percent adrenaline right now," Drake said. "I know how important this is to my son."
Drake wasn’t alone in her vocal support of Johnson: She brought 12 family members in three separate vehicles to see the game up close.
Drake makes it a habit to sit with her friend Juanita White, mother of Gainesville defensive back Kenya Jackson, at the Red Elephants’ games.
The end zone seats they took up at City Park during the regular season were traded for front-row ones at the Dome in the state title game.
"Playing for a state title is just so exciting," White said. "Win or lose, we’re going to cheer on the Red Elephants."
Johnson’s family certainly never lost their enthusiasm during the game. Trailing 10-0 at halftime, they never wanted to let on that there was a chance Gainesville could lose. Along with a cousin, Donna Jackson, they kept the decibel level high from where they sat.
"Let’s go red, let’s go red," said Drake in a constant refrain, as Peach County took the ball to open the second half.
At the time, things continued to look ominous for Gainesville. Peach County’s receiver slipped a tackle for a first down, followed by another first down catch for the Trojans. However, before Peach County had a chance to get too far down field, Drake really had reason to be happy when Johnson combined on a sack with two of his teammates for the Red Elephants.
"This is the first time I’ve been able to see A.J. play football, even though I’ve seen him play basketball," Jackson said. "Gainesville’s fan base is wonderful and it is great to see such support for their program."
However, in the fourth quarter, the Red Elephants were about to cut into Peach County’s lead.
"I have a feeling something big is about to happen," said Gainesville fan Polly Licciardi, also sitting on the front row of the Red Elephants’ side, nestled just below the school’s band.
On the next play, Gainesville senior quarterback Blake Sims hit wide receiver Tai-ler Jones for a 49-yard touchdown with 10:48 remaining in the game.
How’d she know that a big play was coming?
"I just felt that it was coming — we were overdue," Licciardi said. "We’re a second-half team."
However, the excitement was just beginning for the Gainesville fans.
After taking possession three plays after Peach County intercepted a halfback pass from Michael Lorentz, Gainesville started a drive that showed off the bells and whistles of its spread offense. The Red Elephants took possession trailing 13-6 with 50 seconds at their own 34-yard line.
Gainesville fans immediately took to their feet knowing the game was on the line. After the first play, the Red Elephants were near midfield.
"There’s 43 seconds left," Licciardi leaned in and said. "What’s gonna happen now?"
Two plays later, Sims found Jones for a 25-yard completion with 29 seconds left on the game clock.
"Twenty-nine seconds left," Jackson shouted. "Oh, Lord Jesus!"
After two incomplete passes, the Red Elephants were really up against the wall with only five seconds left on the game clock.
Then Gainesville fans got just what they were looking for: Sims found Lorentz for a 25-yard touchdown pass on the game’s final play. That play brought on a simultaneous cheer from all wearing the red and white for Gainesville.
However, trailing 13-12, the excitement was short lived as the Red Elephants attempted a game-winning two-point conversion which was batted away by a Peach defender.
But there weren’t any sour looking faces from this hearty group of Red Elephants fans. They were all just happy to have been along for the experience and a great ride in 2009.
"I’m stunned, I’m sad," said Licciardi, before preparing to walk toward the exits.
"I’m just excited we made it this far," said Drake while preparing to gather her belongings. "It’s been a great season and it’s been a great experience for my son."