High school football: Wrestling champ Gaither a UNCP football recruit

Published 12:01 am Thursday, February 24, 2022

By Mike London

SALISBURY — Salisbury linebacker Jaden Gaither is part of UNC Pembroke’s 22-man football recruiting class, but UNCP had no idea it was recruiting a wrestling state champion.

Imagine Captain America pinning the Incredible Hulk on the mat. That’s basically what Salisbury senior Jaden Gaither accomplished at the recent 2A State Championships in Greensboro.

Jaden Gaither — submitted photo

Gaither was 70 pounds under the weight limit when he took the 285-pound title and gave the Hornets a wrestling state champ to brag about for the first time in a dozen years.

Salisbury head football coach and AD Brian Hinson shook his head in amused bewilderment at the scenario.

“Jaden weighed in at 215 pounds in Greensboro,” Hinson said. “He actually was lighter than Reed Fugle, our 220 guy, who weighed in at 219 (and placed fourth). Jaden was a linebacker who was wrestling linemen, but that wasn’t a big deal for him. That’s basically what he was doing for us throughout the football season.”

Gaither proved to be too quick for the wrestling heavyweights he was tangling with. And he was just as strong, despite that monumental disadvantage in bulk.

Gaither wrestled as a freshman for Salisbury when he weighed about 182 pounds and didn’t return to the mat until he was a senior. That’s another odd facet of his improbable story.

“He didn’t wrestle for two years, but he spent those two years getting stronger for football, building himself up, preparing himself, and it’s paid off,” Hinson said.

Gaither didn’t make the finals at the Rowan County Wrestling Championships in December.

At the 2A Midwest Regional at Cabarrus Arena, he wasn’t one of the favorites. He needed a top-four finish to qualify for the state tournament, but his back was on the mat quickly. He was pinned by West Wilkes’ Alex Rowland in the second round.

“I struggled with that kid, but I woke up the next morning knowing that all I had to do was win three matches and I’d still go to states,” Gaither said. “I just had to have a winning mindset. You can’t go out there thinking that anyone is better than you.”

Gaither recorded three straight pins to finish third in the regional and was headed to Greensboro with a modest 15-5 record.

In his first state match, nerves just about did Gaither in, but he won 8-6 in a sudden-victory session. After clearing that hurdle, it was pin, pin and pin, and he was an undersized state champ.

On the football field, Gaither began his sophomore season as a jayvee, but his work ethic and strength attracted the attention of Salisbury’s coaching staff. He got a shot with the varsity. By the end of that 2019 season, a surging Salisbury team was playing for the state championship against Shelby. Salisbury lost in the title game, but that was the breakout for Gaither. He made 11 tackles against the Golden Lions.

As a junior, he made a big hit on the opening kickoff on opening night against West Rowan. He had four tackles for loss in that game and never looked back. He blossomed into one of the best players on a dominant defense.

As a junior, standing out for a state champion team, he had 103 tackles, including 13 for loss.

As a senior, he had 92 tackles, with 14 for loss. He scored touchdowns on a blocked punt and a fumble return. He was named to All-State teams, as well as the standard all-county and all-conference laurels.

His exploits didn’t generate a monster recruiting fight, but there was significant interest. Catawba really wanted Gaither, but he wanted a college experience beyond Salisbury.

Winston-Salem State offered. So did Division I Gardner-Webb.

It was in January, with National Signing Day fast approaching when Hinson took Gaither down to UNC Pembroke.

“He worked out for them, and he was weighing about 220 then, and he was the biggest linebacker they had down there,” Hinson said. “He’s a strong kid, but he’s got the ability to move his hips and change directions quickly. They got excited. They loved him, and he was excited about them.”

When UNC Pembroke jumped into the recruiting tug-of-war,  Gaither hit it off with defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Bill Young, who sort of looks like he could be Hinson’s older brother.

“I think I’ve found another Coach Hinson,” Gaither said with a laugh.

In the days that followed, UNC Pembroke pushed ahead of Gardner-Webb on Gaither’s pros and cons list.

“Gardner-Webb is D-I, but UNC Pembroke was where everything felt like home,” Gaither said. “I’d talk to their coaches on the phone, and it felt like I’d known them a long time. I could tell they really wanted me, and that’s what won me over. I felt very comfortable signing with them.”

Gaither, who plans to major in business or sports marketing, lists his mother (Felicia Gaither) as his hero.

He likes pizza and UNC basketball. Not surprisingly, his hobby is lifting weights.

Wrestling is behind him now, but that sport has provided an incredible lifetime memory.

Not many athletes get to be high school state champions in two sports.