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Winnersville U.S.A.
Geoffrey Norman
October 31, 1988
In high school football, Valdosta (Ga.) High is as good as it gets
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October 31, 1988

Winnersville U.s.a.

In high school football, Valdosta (Ga.) High is as good as it gets

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This particular summer camp comes in the crushingly hot part of August, just before school opens. The boys leave home and move in together for two weeks of two-a-days.

In Bazemore's time, camp was held just outside town, at a little lakeside resort. That tradition endured until 1986, when the resort closed for renovations. Camp is now held at the school. Mattresses are moved into the gym. and the boys sleep there. In the old days, if you couldn't take it and wanted to go home, then you had to be picked up by your father. No mothers. But that rule now lives only in Wildcat lore. "Couldn't still do it, not that way," says Mike O'Brien, Hyder's backfield assistant. "Too many of these boys today don't have a daddy living at home."

Hyder's strongest admirers point to that sort of thing often. In the unspoken but ceaseless comparison of Hyder to Bazemore, the Hyder partisans point to the much tougher social climate during his era—divorce, drugs, crime and a general relaxation of discipline. Bazemore agrees: "Nobody else could do what Hyder does for the boys who have the kind of problems you see today. I never had to worry about those things, and I'm glad I didn't."

During camp the school's regular cafeteria staff is hired to cook. Their wages and all the other costs of camp—some $12,000—are picked up by the Touchdown Club, which raises nearly $50,000 a year. In addition to financing the camp, the Touchdown Club provides a car for Hyder, currently a 1988 Honda. Each of his assistants—there are 21 in the junior high and high school program—receives a modest cash gift from the club.

During the football season the Touchdown Club meets every week to watch films of the last game and to listen to a talk from Hyder, who, following a Bazemore tradition, generally tries to scare the hell out of everyone present by building up the next opponent so much that another win seems almost too much to hope for. There's no alcohol served at these meetings. "We're not that kind of a group," Hatcher says firmly.

As custodian of the Valdosta tradition, the Touchdown Club does a booming business in videos of Wildcat games going back more than 40 years. Two members of the club are also writing an official history of Valdosta football. Their plan is to do a full-color coffee-table book, handsomely bound. Even though it is sure to bear a hefty price tag, nobody worries that sales will lag.

No, lack of interest is never a problem in Valdosta. This morning, 11 hours before game time, students crowded into the gym for a pep rally that lasted about an hour. They weren't required to attend, and some two dozen chose to sit in the cafeteria with their books while nearly two thousand cheered and shook to the beat of drums.

In the old days students would roam the town on the night before every big game, painting cat paws on the streets and driveways (this artistry is now limited to a few games against traditional rivals). There would also be semisanctioned bonfires to attract crowds, and there was always the stadium wall on which to spray paint. Opponents would sometimes leave dead cats on Cleveland Field, though some people suspect that Valdosta students themselves did this from time to time, when they thought emotions were at a dangerously low ebb.

Emotions don't run wild after Valdosta's easy win over Camden County this evening. It is only the first game of a season of hope after what only Valdosta fans could call "a season of disappointment" in 1987. In what was to have been a rebuilding year, the Wildcats went undefeated during the regular season, won their region and then, a week later, lost to the team from the weakest of Georgia's four regions in a state quarterfinal game. The championship game was played Christmas week. Some Valdosta fanatics describe the feeling of a championship game without the Wildcats as being something like Christmas without the tree.

But after Christmas vacation the players began arriving at school at 6 a.m., when it was still dark out, to put in an hour on the weights. "The off-season conditioning program is very important," Hyder says. "Very, very important." The visitor wonders idly what part of the program is not.

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