Rising LaFayette sophomore Austin Whitten and his parents made the drive from the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, where Whitten has been in rehab. Whitten was paralyzed from the chest down following a swimming accident back in June.
Dressed in his familiar No. 8 jersey, Whitten was wheeled around the track to the LaFayette sidelines midway through the first quarter by his parents, Brian and Angie, to a standing ovation by the Rambler fans in attendance and hugs and high-fives from his teammates.
Whitten said he has made strides in his efforts to one day leave behind his wheelchair for good.
"I have made a ton of progress," he said, sounding upbeat. "I came out of Shepherd's a totally different guy than the guy that went in, Now I'm in their day program, so hopefully I'll make a lot more progress."
And like any good host, Gordon Lee had a gift ready for their visitor in the form of a check for just over $3,600. The donation to the Whitten family was a joint effort between the students at Gordon Lee High School, Gordon Lee Middle School, and Chickamauga Elementary School.
Both teams flanked the family at halftime as the check was presented to Whitten by the Gordon Lee cheerleaders, earning a standing ovation by the home fans. Several Gordon Lee players also stopped to shake hands with Whitten, and Trojan senior player Tanner Sexton presented Whitten with an other envelope containing more than $500, which had been collected at the gate.
"It's amazing," Whitten added. "I can tell they all have hearts. All I can do is thank them."
"It was just sort of a group effort," said Gordon Lee teacher and cheerleading coach Mandy Sturdivant, adding that the $3,600 was raised in just four days. "We had talked about taking up donations at the gate for the scrimmage, and one thing sort of led to another, and it just grew from there. It started with just the high school, but it ended up spreading to the middle school and elementary school because everyone just wanted to help and make a difference.
"I was hoping we might make $1,000, maybe $1,500, but by Tuesday, we already had $1,000, and the kids just kept saying 'we're going to come on strong at the end', and they did. They certainly exceeded my expectations."
Gordon Lee senior cheerleader Courtney Ramey said her squad joined forces with the high school's journalism class on the bake sale fundraiser.
"Just the fact that our schools could come together on such short notice and raise all this money for someone in another community, it just touches my heart," she said. "This is amazing."
Brian Whitten teared up when asked what the gesture meant to him and his family.
"Like I've told everyone, there's no words than can express the way we feel and all the gratitude we have," he said. "It's just amazing how everyone, not just our community, but Chickamauga and all the surrounding communities, have come together to help us. It's just awesome."
LaFayette head coach Tab Gable said the whole team got a lift by seeing their teammate on the sidelines once again.
"It was really a class act by Gordon Lee with the money and all," he added. "It's just great when you see two schools, especially rivals, get together like that. It was the best part of the night."