Before every game, the Eastside Rams huddle close and share a prayer.
These are the moments, Ernest Walker feels safest. Walker, who plays wide receiver on Eastside’s football team said it’s like a protective cloak shields him and his teammates on the field — rain or shine.
Eastside students have yet to fully return to school, even months after Alachua County Public Schools announced its transition to online schooling in March. Since then, sports have become an outlet for student athletes to regain their social lives and a sense of normalcy.
“I feel free when I’m on the field,” Walker said. “Football understands me more than anybody else can ever understand — physically and mentally. Without football I wouldn’t be me honestly.”
The 17-year-old never expected that he would start his senior year online. Aspiring to play college football, he wakes up at 7 a.m. every day, brushes his teeth, gets dressed and logs onto Zoom, where his six classes are held until 2:45 p.m. During the lunch break, he tries to get ahead on his assignments.
Then, at about 3:30 p.m., Walker prepares for football practice at his school’s field, where he reunites with the teammates he doesn’t get to see in the Eastside hallways.
“We’re like a brotherhood,” he says, “When I wanted to quit, I felt like the sport wasn’t for me anymore. I thought I lost the love for it. They tell me to keep going, to keep pushing.”
Jerome Reed sees a lot of potential in student athletes like Walker at Eastside High School. The 29-year-old is the founder of RAWE Recruits, which stands for Reaching Athletes With Education.
RAWE Recruits aims to help student athletes by creating skill tapes for scouts and serve as a sports media news source for the North Florida area, Reed said.
With coverage ranging from Jacksonville to Tampa, Reed said East Gainesville student athletes don’t get as much attention from news media outlets, and therefore, college scouts. He wants to change that.
Eastside coaches have expressed to Reed that they felt their student athletes were underrepresented. Reed says that, as a whole, East Gainesville gets overlooked and it trickles down to its student athletics. He likes to visit practices and make himself available to coaches and their players.
“From what I can see, from the student athletes, from the fans, from the parents, this is something that runs through their veins,” Reed said. “They believe in Eastside, green and orange. And I have a lot of respect for them for how proud they are of their young people.”
When stepping into the school’s gym, the big trophy case isn’t hard to miss, Reed said. Since its founding in 1970, Eastside has won state championships as well as district and regional championships across multiple sports, such as basketball, soccer, swimming, tennis.
Anthony Gainey Sr., a 59-year-old Lincoln Estates resident, played football for Eastside. Now, his son, Aziel Gainey, 18, plays on the same fields for the school’s football team.
Gainey Sr.'s admiration of the sports discipline runs deep. After graduating from Eastside in 1979, he played basketball for College of Central Florida in Ocala. When his son expressed interest in playing basketball and baseball as a boy, he encouraged the budding athlete.
“I have always been supportive of my boys, because I know sports can take you many places, places you can only dream of,” Gainey Sr. said.
Like Walker, Gainey hopes to take his talents to a college football field. His brother, the youngest of 16 siblings, also plays basketball for the school.
The players of the Eastside Rams look up to their coaches, who serve as mentors on and off the field.
Despite the unconventional school year, morale is high among the football players, said Harold Hoskins, the 28-year-old assistant coach, who is one of two Eastside alumni who went on to the NFL.
Students on the sidelines must respect social distancing, he said. Five to six players can hang out in the same area throughout games. Tickets are sold online to manage the bleachers’ capacity and attendees must wear face masks at all times.
To Hoskins, the sport is teaching the young athletes valuable life lessons.
“We’re gonna continue to fight and get better,” he said. “A lot of things that you’d learn on the field are things that you would use in life: leadership skills, team skills, facing adversity.”