From helmet to headset: Gator Hoskins leads Rams after loss of teammate


When the Eastside High School Rams football team takes the field Friday night for their game against the Bradford High School Tornadoes, they will be playing for more than just another win in the standings. Friday’s game will begin a weekend of events that players, coaches and classmates will not soon forget.

The game will be played in honor of senior offensive lineman Dabien White, who died on Sept. 4 of undisclosed causes. A celebration of life service for White will be held Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Eastside High School Auditorium. A place of rest ceremony is scheduled at Grasslawn Cemetery following the celebration of life event.

Head Coach Harold “Gator” Hoskins knows that this game and this season will have a much deeper meaning for the Rams after the death of one of the team’s leaders. And he knows he will be a key figure in leading his boys on and off the field in the season ahead.

“It’s more than just wins and losses for those guys, going out there and honoring him in the way that they live,” Hoskins said.

An Eastside Rams player uses his backplate to pay tribute to former teammate Dabien White, who died on Sept. 4 of undisclosed causes. White’s celebration of life event is set to take place Saturday, Sept. 17 at 1 p.m. at the Eastside High School Auditorium with a place of rest ceremony at Grasslawn Cemetery to follow. (Ben Acker/ WUFT News)

But Hoskins is hoping that his time as a Rams quarterback, as well as his stint with the Miami Dolphins, have prepared him for the challenge of leading his players through the season following their tragic loss.

Hoskins was hired as head coach to help a team that has only won five games in their past three seasons. No doubt his burden will be made easier by his staff of several coaches who also played at Eastside and eventually played Division I football.

One of those coaches is Rodney Mills, who played tight end for the Rams before playing Division I football for the UMass Minutemen. Mills said he’s known Hoskins most of his life, from playing little league basketball together to catching passes from him on the Eastside football team.

“We talk every day,” Mills said. “And it’s good to come out here, put our minds together and see the result on the field on Friday nights.”

The “Gator” nickname, used by coaches and players, comes from Hoskins’ father, Harold Sr., who grew up in Arcadia, Fla.

The phrase “Ramily” has never been more important for the Eastside High School football team, who are mourning the loss of senior offensive tackle Dabien White. Friday’s game will mark the first full game for the Rams since White’s death after their game against Buchholz High School was deemed a no-contest. (Ben Acker/WUFT News)

“Where he’s from back in the day, he says that means ‘go get ‘er,’ so he named me Gator,” Hoskins said.

Hoskins mainly played basketball growing up, but he “fell in love” with football after his mother encouraged him to try it out. Once he began playing, Hoskins set his sights on playing in college and potentially turn pro.

“That always was the goal,” Hoskins said. “The day I stepped on the campus, my first day of school, I told my math teacher that I was going to be the best thing that ever walked through these doors.”

Hoskins fulfilled his goal of playing Division I football by attending Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. However, he switched his position to tight end once he began playing for the Thundering Herd.

“I had never played tight end,” Hoskins said. “Never taught how to catch the ball, and never played with my back against a defense, so that was a little difficult.”

Coach Harold “Gator” Hoskins watches on as quarterback Holden Johnson (#11) prepares a play. “Our quarterback has been playing great, outstanding football. He’s been taking what the defense gives him,” Hoskins said. (Ben Acker/WUFT News)

The position change was a new challenge, but with “practice, practice, practice,” Hoskins had a successful career with the Thundering Herd. He finished his college career with 28 touchdowns, which is third all time at Marshall, behind only Randy Moss, who had 53, and Darius Watts, who had 47.

After graduating from Marshall University, Hoskins signed with the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted free agent in 2014. He was waived by the Dolphins later that season, but his experience at Marshall and with the Dolphins taught him a lot of lessons that he is able to pass down to his players.

“Mainly, it was the relationships that I built, you know, learning how to communicate, learning how to go through those doors,” Hoskins said. “Any time, you could be in the room with anybody, but can you stay in the room? So, I learned how to stay in the room with people that maybe I shouldn’t be in the room with.”

These lessons along with “getting those guys to believe in themselves” has helped Eastside start off their 2022 season with a 2-0 record and is likely to be helpful as the team attempts to heal from its loss in the days ahead.

The last time the team started the season with such an impressive record was when Hoskins was quarterback.

Coach Harold “Gator” Hoskins meets with his team and calls out which players have to run sprints at the end of practice. This focus on discipline and hard work is one of the reasons the Rams are off to their best start since 2009. (Ben Acker/WUFT News)

Senior offensive lineman Trevaun Sams says the “family aspect” that Hoskins emphasizes is vital to the team and was instrumental in its early success.

“I feel like that’s a big thing at Eastside,” Sams said. “A lot of coaches let it drift apart, but he’s doing a good job of holding us together.”

That family aspect is especially evident with Coach Hoskins, who is consistently working one-on-one with his players and also taking snaps as the quarterback during some first-team drills. Even though he switched to a tight end in college, Hoskins has still maintained his quarterback instincts, which can be a huge asset in helping his team prepare for battle against the district’s top talent.

And it also helps to have a role model like Anthony Richardson, who played for Eastside before committing to the University of Florida and playing for the Florida Gators.

“That’s huge,” Hoskins said, “They’re able to see a guy that went to their school, and they’re able to say, ‘if he made it, I can do it.’”

The relationship between Richardson and the Eastside Rams is especially helpful for senior quarterback Holden Johnson, who served as Richardson’s backup during Johnson’s freshman season.

“It’s super inspirational to see one of our guys excel at the next level,” Johnson said. “When I was backing him up my freshman year, he was such a cool guy and I learned so much from him.”

A 2-0 start is not going to satisfy the hunger of Sams, Johnson and the rest the Eastside Rams football team. But after White’s death, Coaches Hoskins and Mills said the team will be taking things “one game at a time, one day at a time.”

And they will be doing so with a beloved teammate watching over them.


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