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Chasing his dream: Gainesville graduate Gaither overcoming past mistakes by taking junior college football path
Donsha Gaither
Gainesville's Donsha Gaither makes a tackle in the backfield against Habersham Central during the 2019 game at City Park Stadium. Photo courtesy Lillian VanTassel

Donsha Gaither is abundantly grateful for his chance at redemption. 

The recent Gainesville High graduate takes full ownership of his mistakes that almost completely derailed a promising football career. 

It took two schools his senior year and a late full-ride junior college offer last month for Donsha to keep playing the game he loves. 

Now it’s his turn to show he was a good investment as he embarks on a journey that led Gaither, a player with a number of red flags during his early years at Jefferson High, to New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, New Mexico. 

“Football is really all I had, and I wasn’t ready to give up on my dream,” said Gaither, who just last week relocated to his new home in the Southwest, a place infamous for its fascination with extraterrestrial life forms and UFOs. “I’m out here chasing my dreams.”

With graduation in the rear view and still no college takers earlier this summer, Gaither started feeling his hopes of playing in college were slipping away. Then Gainesville coach Heath Webb made a late call to New Mexico Military Institute. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Webb was informed that two two-year schools had just dismissed a safety from the program and was looking for someone to fill the hole. 

Gainesville’s coach did as he was asked and sent Gaither’s tape. New Mexico Military Institute Assistant Coach Chase Kyser replied quickly with the good news that they had a spot for Gaither — and a scholarship. 

“This is a great opportunity to show what I can do,” said Gaither. “It’s a real strict environment and a chance to become a better person.”

Gaither is hoping to get his academics in order and put together a highlight reel of junior-college tape that will send him to the Division I level. Webb said Gaither, his fearless defensive back in 2019 who quickly became a team leader after being dismissed early in the season from Jefferson, has all the athletic ability to make it happen. 

“(Donsha’s) super athletic and you combine that with his long frame at 6-foot, 3-inches and you just don’t see many players with his athleticism and size,” Webb said. 

Gaither is a shining example of players who can benefit from the junior college football experience, which is the focal point of the wildly popular Netflix series “Last Chance U.” Now in its fifth season, “Last Chance” highlights junior colleges populated with freakishly gifted players who come with checkered backgrounds and must prove they can get it right on the field and classroom in order to make the transition to better playing opportunities. 

Junior college football is not glamorous. 

However, these tiny schools in obscure locations are good at attracting scouts from bigger schools. The first two seasons of “Last Chance U” chronicled the 2015 and 2016 season at East Mississippi Community College in remote Scooba, Mississippi (population 550). The next two seasons were at Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas, which was a factory for Division I “bounce backs.” 

Season 5, which was just released last week, told the story of the 2019 team at Laney College in Oakland, California.

The biggest migration of local talent to the junior college circuit is to Garden City Community College in Kansas, one of the rivals for Independence in Seasons 3 and 4 of “Last Chance U.” Inked to play with the BroncBusters are recent Gainesville High graduate Walt Dixon and former Red Elephants standout Justice Johnson, who played his final season of high school at Buford. Also, former Wolves running back Anthony Grant is going to Garden City after leaving Florida State, according to Johnson.

Gaither, also a basketball standout for the Red Elephants, is willing to do whatever it takes to make amends for making teenage mistakes and previously showing indifference to being successful academically.

In the case of Gaither, he was dismissed from the Dragons program early last season after losing his cool with the coaching staff. He didn’t go into specifics about what took place but is clear about being the aggressor in the situation. 

“I took it too far,” said Gaither. 

Once Gaither was dismissed from the team at Jefferson, it took plenty of moving parts to get his football career back on track. First, Gaither’s family had to move 25 miles to Gainesville for Donsha to even be eligible to play football for the Red Elephants. 

Webb probed into Gaither’s background with his friend at Jefferson, head coach Gene Cathcart, to learn the particulars of why Donsha was dismissed early in his senior season.

“Coach Cathcart said Donsha was a good kid who deserved a second chance,” Webb said. 

Once Webb felt comfortable with the situation, Gaither was able to come out to practice with the Red Elephants. However, it was clear that Donsha was going to have to earn a chance to play, even though he already demonstrated a great ability to play football. 

Quickly, Gaither showed he could make Gainesville better. Not only did Donsha bring a fearless attitude to the field, but he was willing to speak up to try and motivate his new teammates.

“He’d been through two or three practices with us and said he wanted to address the team in a meeting,” Webb said. “Donsha told the rest of the team that we weren’t practicing at a championship level.

“It took a player to stand up and say it for the rest of the team to buy into it.”

Right away, Gaither’s impact at safety was immediate. Webb recalls a goal-line play against Habersham Central when Donsha sprinted across the field to make the stop in the backfield. 

“That was a ‘wow’ moment,” Webb said. “It was a play that most players couldn’t make.”

Then in the third quarter, Gaither hauled in a long pass from quarterback Gionni Williams, deep in Habersham Central territory.

Despite the ability to play on both sides of the ball, Webb said Gaither’s future is in the defensive secondary. 

Donsha’s got the big frame that college scouts covet, but still has room to put on some weight, which he will undoubtedly be able to do once he gets into a college weightlifting environment.

“He’s kind of a Jack of all trades but a master of none,” Webb said. 

Gaither’s path to college was complicated further with the COVID-19 pandemic this spring. Webb did his part by constantly working the phones, calling schools from coast to coast about Gaither. 

The Red Elephants’ coach knew that junior college was going to be the best opportunity for Gaither to keep playing. 

Webb said that the “Last Chance U” phenomenon has been accurate in selling the fact that the level of play in junior college football is high. Plus, four-year schools keep close tabs on the players who excel in the transition from high school. 

“Everyone wants the kids from Georgia,” Gainesville’s coach said. “I called all the Juco’s in Kansas, a few in Arizona and a couple in Texas about Donsha, probably around 20 total.”

Now, Gaither is ready to show everyone that their belief in him was not a waste of time. 

He’s eternally appreciative of Webb and the distance the Gainesville coach was willing to keep his football future intact.

“I’m so thankful for coach Webb,” Gaither said. “Without him, I’d still be at home.”

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