Andre Gunn and Jamie Knott saw the bandwagon fill up, lose a handful of passengers and then swell back to capacity.
The two Grambling State University and former Hillsborough High football players endured a 1-4 start this season, only to see the Tigers rebound and win their final six games. That closing stretch, which included a 36-12 win against rival Southern University, has catapulted the squad into today's Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game.
Gunn and Knott are two of seven Tampa Bay area football players on the Grambling roster.
"We had the talent, we just had to learn how to put it all together and that's what we were struggling with at the beginning of the season," said Gunn, a freshman center who has started three games. "All the things we had to overcome, it's a privilege to be one of the two teams still playing right now in our conference."
Grambling (7-4, 6-3), the SWAC Western Division champion that is led by former Bucs quarterback and executive Doug Williams, will face Alabama A&M (8-3, 7-2), winner of the Eastern Division, in Birmingham, Ala.
"I don't think it has really hit me yet," Knott said. "We started off 1-4 and some of the students and teachers turned their backs on us, started talking bad about us. … Since we've been on a winning streak, a month-and-a-half straight without losing, it seems like now they're starting to jump back on the bandwagon."
Former Tampa Catholic quarterback D.J. Williams has followed in the footsteps of his father, Doug, who starred at Grambling before going on to the NFL. In 10 games, six of which he has started, D.J. Williams has completed 71 of 132 passes for 1,002 yards, 13 TDs and six interceptions.
The team's leading rusher is Clearwater Countryside product Dawrence Roberts (1,039 yards, 8 TDs). Also on the roster are Dominic Bell (Pinellas Park), Chris Ramsey (Countryside) and Jonathan Williams (Tampa Bay Tech).
Grambling is making its seventh appearance in the SWAC championship game, and the Tigers have faced Alabama A&M in three of those contests, winning all three.
During the preseason, Grambling was voted the top team in the Western Division and was expected to make it to the title game. The rough start nearly derailed that, but according to Knott, a freshman fullback, it didn't take much for Grambling to make those predictions come true.
"Nothing really changed," he said.
"We still woke up at 5 in the morning, working out, running, going to meetings. … We were still grinding to be in the position we are in today. We're basically finishing what we started."