Donning the WWE championship wrestling belt of A.J. Styles during a recent team-centered steak dinner was just part of a two-week span where everything has come up roses for the Gainesville High football program.
Holding a 1-7 record on Oct. 24 and rather tenuous outlook on making the postseason, the reigning WWE champion was brought in for a surprise visit by Red Elephants booster club president, Mark Wright, who is also a long-time friend of Styles.
The wrestler, whose real name is Allen Jones, shared his personal story about coming from a hard-scrabbled background before graduating in 1996 from Johnson High and going on to his national acclaim.
Fast forward a week, and Gainesville (2-7, 2-2 Region 8-6A) can lock up the school’s 19th consecutive football playoff berth with a win against Lanier (6-3, 3-1) on Friday in Sugar Hill.
“I’m so happy right now,” Gainesville senior offensive lineman Max Brand said. “We were 0-7 early on, but didn’t give up and kept fighting.”
One thing about Styles’ talk really stood out to Brand as it related to football.
“He told us we had to learn to hate losing,” Gainesville’s lineman said.
While the Red Elephants are assured a playoff spot with a win, other scenarios are in play for the final three spots between Lanier, Gainesville, Habersham Central and Apalachee. Dacula has already wrapped up the region championship.
However, nobody at Gainesville wants to depend on others for good fortune after a late-season surge few saw possible after a 17-point loss against Habersham Central on Oct. 5.
“We’re all out there working like we’re still 0-7 and trying to get that first win,” Red Elephants senior defensive back Rassie Littlejohn said.
First-year Red Elephants coach Heath Webb never wavered in his confidence in his squad, even after finishing the non-region portion of the schedule 0-5.
After a bye week and 0-7 mark, getting that first win against Winder-Barrow gave Webb a tangible payoff his team could enjoy.
“It was a relief to get that monkey off our backs, for sure,” Webb said.
Mere days after the team’s first win, Webb got to see the look in his players’ eyes when the reigning champion of the biggest professional wrestling company came in the room with his championship belt, which is adorned with real gold and diamonds, according to Littlejohn.
Unaware of the surprise visitor beforehand, Webb's players immediately grabbed their phones for photos. Gracious with his time, Webb said Styles took countless pictures and signed autographs.
Webb even got his chance to pose with Styles and the flashy belt.
“Man, that belt was heavy,” said Webb, who said it weighed 20-25 pounds.
More importantly, for Webb, was the message Styles had to share about overcoming obstacles in life. The wrestler’s background included growing up poor and being told he wouldn’t achieve his goals of being a pro wrestler.
“AJ came from tough circumstances, probably much like some of the players on our team,” Webb said. “He was poor and lived in a trailer park as a kid with no heat in the winter. It really meant a lot for our kids to see someone who is from Gainesville be able to make it. ... They loved it.”
Webb said the tide turned for the Red Elephants on the field during the win against Winder-Barrow. Marred by penalties much of the season, Gainesville’s players kept their composure on the receiving end of three personal fouls on one play from the Bulldoggs, setting up first-and-goal at the 5 and a Gionni Williams touchdown run on the next play.
Williams’ rushing score put the Red Elephants ahead 7-0 as it went on to win 20-7.
“We were so happy to finally score against Winder, because it was a hard game all night,” said Brand. “Once we scored, I looked back to make sure there were no flags before celebrating.”
Against Apalachee, the Red Elephants also had to survive a close one, winning 7-6. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Wildcats scored a touchdown, but the kicker’s extra-point try went wide right. Webb said the pressure his squad put on the Apalachee kicker, including a pair of blocked field goal tries, was likely why he hurried the kick that would have tied the game.
Now, the Red Elephants can extend that playoff streak dating back to 2000 — which is before any of the current players were born.
Quite a turnaround from a season that just weeks ago was in range of going winless.
“I never saw this coming,” Brand said.