By Jeff Odom
Brian Gainer left home last summer with a dream in mind.
The Steinbrenner High graduate had already accomplished half of it by signing to play football at University of Mount Union in Ohio, a Division III powerhouse. Now he has achieved even greater goals by earning a roster spot and a national championship.
Gainer began his high school career at Alonso as a freshman, then with Sickles and eventually wound up at Steinbrenner for his junior year.
His drive to start every Friday night was there, but when he arrived at the school he found himself sitting behind two players on the depth chart.
“I’m not going to lie, it made me angry, and sometimes I wanted to quit,” Gainer said. “But I knew I couldn’t give up on my dream of playing in college and eventually making it pro.”
Gainer worked on getting better after the Warriors finished 5-5 in 2010. Although he didn’t know it at the time, his number would be called on multiple occasions after injuries plagued the team’s roster, especially running backs.
“I wanted to prove a lot of people wrong (that year) that told me I was too small or something and I did,” Gainer said. “I was confident in myself, and I had a drive to keep getting better.”
That drive granted him his dream.
After posting 216 rushing yards on 19 carries with three touchdowns during Steinbrenner’s 7-3 season in 2011, Gainer caught the eye of Mount Union, which offered him an academic scholarship and a chance to play football for a program that has had 14 undefeated seasons and won 10 Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl titles — the Division III national championship — since its inception in 1993.
Gainer signed to attend the school in May, donning the purple and black alongside two of his teammates, who also signed with other Division III universities.
There wasn’t much time for celebrating and reflecting on his accomplishments as Gainer wanted to start working out to get ready for the transition from high school to the collegiate level.
Gainer saw an immediate change in the culture compared to what he had at Steinbrenner when he arrived at Mount Union.
“Steinbrenner had a solid football team,” Gainer said. “They weren’t winning any state championships, but the biggest difference was really just student-based. The players, they take their football a little more seriously. The things that distracted high school kids don’t distract in college. They know what they want.”
And soon, Gainer did too.
Long before the break of dawn, he would begin morning workouts back at home, knowing it would take more than just hard work to get a spot on the team’s travel roster.
“This summer, every morning I would get up and get going at 6 a.m. on my own,” Gainer said. “I didn’t have a college coach waking me up; I just woke up quietly without waking up my mom, left the house and met up with a Sickles kid named Adrian Lopez, and we went to the field from 6 to 8, and then we’d lift (weights) until about 10 Monday through Friday.”
Once Gainer arrived in college, he said the team’s captains would make sure all of the new players were dialed in.
“We’re a brotherhood,” Gainer said. “The brother relationship that you build is crazy. You wake up and brush your teeth together, shower together, sweat and eat together, go to class; you live together. It’s a family, and I think that was the biggest adjustment I had to make from high school.”
As the season got underway, Gainer was informed that he would be the team’s top freshman wide receiver on the traveling team. He earned his first playing time midway through the season and soon realized just how good his team was.
The Purple Raiders were blowing out opponents left and right, winning by scores of 66-0, 62-0 and 51-0.
It was then that Gainer understood that his visions of hoisting a national championship trophy might soon be reality.
“Being the No. 1 freshman wide receiver on the depth chart was really amazing, and to be a part of all of what was going on, I was just so happy,” Gainer said. “I joined FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) and my faith in God got stronger, and everything has been nothing but good news.”
Mount Union continued its domination of opponents all the way into the playoffs until it met Mary Hardin-Baylor in the semifinals.
The No. 2 seed led the Purple Raiders at halftime, becoming the first team to have a lead against them all season. But what happened in the second half makes even Gainer shake his head and call it the “most amazing game I have ever seen in my entire life.”
Mount Union scored a touchdown with 42 seconds left in the game to pull even. Then, with just five seconds remained, Jake Simon pounded it in from 12 yards out to go ahead, and a 25-yard fumble recovery with no time left put the Purple Raiders up by two scores to secure the berth in the national title game.
Mount Union defeated Saint Thomas 28-10 Dec. 14 on ESPN in the Stagg Bowl for its 11th national championship and to complete a perfect 15-0 season.
Gainer became the first Steinbrenner alum to win a national title in any sport, something he didn’t really ponder until he returned home for winter break. He added that he’s thankful for the beginning of his football career.
“Wow, honestly I didn’t even think about that,” Gainer said. “That makes me more appreciative than what I was before. I chose Mount because of the championships they’ve won, and we did it.
“Over the next three years, I want to call the people that have helped me reach my success and tell them, ‘Thank you,’” Gainer continued. “There are so many people who have helped me get where I am. My mom, my dad, my coaches and teammates, and I’m just so thankful. Hopefully (in three years) I’ll be a three-time All-American, preparing for the NFL Draft. That’s my dream.”
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