Note: The following appears in the Florida State gameday football program.
Death Valley has one of the most electric environments in all of college football. Tiger Walk, rubbing Howard’s Rock and running down the Hill have created an atmosphere few, if any, can match.
Several years ago, Head Coach Dabo Swinney had a local DJ (Sha) begin to play music at practice to create a fun experience even when the hard work to prepare for a game was at hand. It was then added to the pregame routine in Death Valley that creates an even more “lit” pregame spectacle.
While having music used as motivation is not unusual in 2019, there is one song, “All I Do Is Win,” recorded by DJ Khaled, that perfectly describes Gage Cervenka.
Cervenka, a graduate offensive lineman from Greenwood, S.C., began his wresting career in seventh grade and had a winning percentage that is hard to fathom. He finished his high school career with four state championships and an astonishing 199-1 record.
When he runs down the Hill prior to another tilt against Florida State, his record as a Clemson Tiger is almost as gaudy as the catchy tune with an impressive 46-3 mark. It is hard to imagine anyone else with a career winning percentage that high.
For Cervenka, the success on the gridiron can be tied to his complete domination inside the wrestling circle. Considered by many to be the ultimate one-on-one sport, Cervenka has used his experience in wrestling to achieve success between the white lines of a gridiron.
It would be easy to say that Cervenka always knew wrestling would lead to success in football. But it is because of his older sister, Ashley, that wrestling became such a big part of this life from middle school on.
“My sister was a few years older than me and was in high school when I was in sixth grade. The wrestling coach told her that I needed to come home and talk about wrestling. I was skeptical at first. I was like a lot of guys that say they don’t want to wear a singlet and train like wrestlers have to train, but my dad and I went to a practice and saw what was involved. I could see right away that it could help me with football, which was my main goal.”
There is no question wresting can lead to improvement in football for an offensive or defensive lineman, but Cervenka saw the mental qualities of being on the mat as equally important.
“Everyone talks about how leverage can carry over from wrestling to football, and it does. But the biggest thing wrestling helped me with was a mindset. Wrestling is me versus you. It is knowing I am not going to lose, no matter what.”
Prior to fourth-quarter play starting at a Clemson home game, Tiger players, coaches, fans and even a few visiting team players and coaches, take a close look at the videoboard at Memorial Stadium. The fourth-quarter video, coupled with the motivating words of Director of Football Strength & Conditioning Joey Batson, “They don’t put championship rings on smooth hands,” blare through the sound system. The energy displayed from the video is something that Cervenka experienced as a wrestler.
“Wresting is all about the one-on-one matchup. Wrestling is about knowing I am not going to lose. I feel the same way when it comes to football. That fourth quarter really defines that. No matter the situation, you have to push through to get the job done.”
Swinney is a big fan of having former wrestlers wearing the orange and purple. In addition to Cervenka, names like Jonathan Willard, Grady Jarrett, Maverick Morris and John Simpson have shown a clear picture of how wrestling has helped the Tiger fortunes in football.
“Pretty much every wrestler we have had has been an excellent player for us,” said Swinney. “It is a really hard sport. You have to be disciplined and committed. There is competitiveness to wrestling that is hard to duplicate. In wrestling, there is nowhere to hide. There is so much confidence that is gained from that sport. Gage is certainly an example of that.”
While Cervenka could have pursued wrestling at the college level, there was little doubt that he would play football at a place he has loved since he was a youngster. A top-15 recruit in South Carolina by all recruiting services, he was an all-state defensive lineman who was recruited by former Tiger Assistant Coach Dan Brooks and current Assistant Coach Mike Reed.
“Greenwood is so close to Clemson and I grew up rooting for the Tigers. My mom, Dottie, and dad, Scott, brought me to my first game when I was two or three years old. My mom still has a picture of me walking into the stadium.”
Cervenka did not come to many games while growing up, but he did take part in another Clemson tradition of running onto the field after the game whenever he was in attendance. He was one those kids who wanted to be close to a current player and perhaps get a glove or wristband.
“When I was at a Clemson game and ran on the field, I thought those guys were bigger than life. I would try to talk to them and take home anything they would give me.”
It is that interaction that makes postgame at Death Valley so special to Cervenka.
“Growing up a Clemson fan, I know how special it is to so many people. To have an opportunity to see a young person be excited to meet you is special. After every home game, it is special to see all those kids getting autographs and trying to be close to us.”
While postgame is always a special time at Clemson, the pregame tradition of running down the Hill is something that Cervenka enjoys as well. While redshirt players are not required to dress out, there was no way a lifelong Tiger fan was going to miss the opportunity.
“Every opportunity I have to run down the Hill…I am going to do it. When I am there, I feel like I am on top of the world. It is an incredible feeling that is hard to describe. In my redshirt year in 2015, I did not have to dress out, but there was no way I was going to miss that chance.”
After his redshirt season, Cervenka made a choice to switch positions from the defensive line to the offensive line. The decision to switch had been mentioned by some since high school, but once the decision was made, he has thrived.
In 2018, he logged 549 snaps on the offensive line and earned his first career start at Florida State. That was a game that saw the Tigers register 59 points and 524 yards in a dominating 59-10 victory that left Doak S. Campbell Stadium mostly empty except for a small contingent of orange-clad fans.
“People had joked about me playing on the offensive line. I had always loved playing defense, but when I got here, there were so many great players, like D.J. Reader, Carlos Watkins, Christian Wilkins and a bunch of other guys. The coaches never put that thought in my head, but I knew I was going to have a tough time getting on the field. I knew moving to the offensive line was the best thing for me and the team. I have not looked back.”
His work on the offensive line has not gone unnoticed. In the 2019 offseason, he received a 99 rating in ESPN’s PlayStation player impact rating for the 2018 season, the highest in the nation. It is rare for an offensive lineman to receive positive attention, but the 2019 preseason All-ACC choice took the mention as a positive.
“It is not something I think about much, but it is nice because it did recognize me as an impact player. I want to be a player who makes a difference when I am on the field.”
The success Clemson has enjoyed in the winningest decade in school history will always be something that Cervenka can be proud of. But as a senior leader, the bonds he has shared with teammates will be what he remembers the most, as the current offensive line is a close-knit group.
“We are such a close group. The bond we share is much more than just being on the field together. The offensive line hangs out together all the time. We have a bond that will be there forever.”