HILLIARD, Fla. — After six straight, sub-.500 seasons, “football” and the town of Hilliard didn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.

“I was the fourth head coach in a period of one year,” explained second-year head coach John Pate at a recent practice.

“You got a community that had given up on some things. Players in the hallway that didn’t wanna play anymore. They didn’t trust what the game was gonna do for ‘em.”

Under Pate’s leadership, the Flashes won three games in 2018, and with a strong senior class coming back, Hilliard was expected to at least achieve a winning record this fall. At the forefront of that senior class: star quarterback, Nathan Dowie.

“Strongest player on our football team. Bench press. Squat. Power clean,” Pate explained.

“You lose that and all of a sudden, wow: where do you go?”

20 minutes after Hilliard’s season-opening loss to Oak Hall, Dowie collapsed in the team’s locker room. He had taken a hard hit on a touchdown run in the third quarter of the 21-18 loss, but got up under his own power and remained in the game. Dowie was rushed to UF Health in Jacksonville, where he underwent surgery to fix a brain bleed. He is currently on the road to recovery, with hopes of returning to school in January.

"We all just stand there in silence not knowing what to think,” recalled Kale Corbitt, Dowie’s friend since preschool. “We just realized that was the last game he'll ever play."

The Flashes’ season, meanwhile, had only just begun.

“We were gonna be under center. Under center with two slots,” Pate explained. “We had to completely re-tool what we want to do offensively.”

First came several attempts at running the wildcats. Ultimately, the Flashes found a new quarterback in 14-year old freshman Lyle Bennett. However, when Bennett came down with the flu, the Flashes once again had to turn to a quarterback-less scheme. Midway through the season, Hilliard was 4-4 and at a crossroads.

That’s when Bennett and the offense started clicking.

The Flashes won their final three games, scoring 33 points or more in each of those victories. They qualified for the playoffs for the first time in five years, and hosted the first playoff game at Hilliard in 14 years.

A game which Dowie was able to attend.

“I felt like it helped me ten-times,” Corbitt said. “Just knowing that he was here gave me a drive I really wouldn’t have had if he wasn’t.”

Hilliard prevailed 34-33 over Branford in overtime, their first playoff win since 2004, advancing to a second-round playoff date with defending champion Madison County.

But win or lose, this season has changed how Hilliard looks at football.

“It put such a huge cloud on the season,” Pate said of Dowie’s injury in the opener. “For these kids and this staff to battle through that, and for this community to battle through that, and win a playoff game for the first time in over a decade. First home playoff game in 14 years – that was pretty sweet.”

If you would like to donate to Nathan Dowie's recovery fund, please visit this link