In the calm of
halftime the visitor's mind settles on another football cliché, one that is
dreary and contemporary: If you want to win, then you've got to cheat.
He has heard, of
course, that there's widespread recruiting wherever big-time high school
football is played. It's said that some towns will give a man a house and a job
if he'll move in with his son who weighs 205 and runs a 4.3 40. And they'll
redshirt players—you've got guys 20 years old playing high school ball against
guys on the other side who are 14 and 15. Worse still, they'll let kids play
when they can't read a stop sign without moving their lips.
The visitor has
heard all the accusations. But they don't seem to hold up in Valdosta. It's
unusual for a talented outsider to come into Valdosta and make the team. For
most boys who are already of high school age when they arrive in town, the
intensity of the Wildcats' program is just too much. "I almost quit."
says B.J. Mason, last year's quarterback, who came to Valdosta from Orlando,
Fla., in 1984. "I'd never seen anything like it, and it wasn't fun. But I
stuck it out, and then when the season started and we were winning, it was
great." Mason, by the way, is one of three players from last year's team
recruited and accepted by that notorious football factory, the U.S. Naval
In the second half
Hyder begins to substitute. With 108 boys in uniform and a big lead, he needs
to start passing out rewards for all those hot afternoons of practice and those
early mornings of weightlifting. The reward is playing time, which even the
third-stringers can reasonably expect at Valdosta. Like so many good things, it
comes with winning. Which brings to mind one last football cliché: There is no
substitute for that winning tradition.
takes an early hold on Valdosta's youth. At the junior high level there are
four different teams to which the boys are assigned, according to their size
big secret about one thing Valdosta has, and that's tradition," says
Figueroa. "You can't buy it, and Valdosta has more of it than anyplace
else. The team has been winning since the town opened the schoolhouse door.
Even Bazemore didn't have to build from scratch, and he left an incredible
tradition for Hyder—along with the best feeder system in the world. Then Hyder
just made it better."
In Valdosta they
can spot the varsity quarterback when he is still in elementary school. They'll
have close to 250 boys playing in that junior high program, plus 50 more in the
ninth grade program, and a 10- or 12-man coaching staff working with them.
"They may not have more talent than anyone else, but they damn sure teach
more football," Figueroa says.
Buck Thomas, who
guided the Wildcats while Bazemore was at war and then ran the junior high
program until Bazemore retired, remembers how the system worked then, which is
pretty much the way it still works. "In junior high we used the same plays
Baze used," Thomas says. "But we worked mainly on the fundamentals:
blocking and tackling; tackling and blocking. Nobody ever went up to the
varsity needing to learn the basics."
Bazemore now go to Wildcat games together. They're in the stands, on the 50,
for the Camden County game. Thomas's son, Rick, is there as well. He was a
quarterback during the memorable 36-game undefeated string. Rick's son, Lee, is
on the field, playing tight end. That's part of the tradition, too.
And then there are
traditions that you need to have lived through to understand and appreciate.
While the boys who play on the four junior high teams learn the fundamentals
and get a taste of the way it's done on the Wildcat practice field, they must
still pass the final initiation, which is summer camp.