early September. A tepid rain has been falling all day on south Georgia. It
hasn't been the sort of day that normally turns an idle mind to football. But
here in Valdosta, football is always on the mind, and this is the first day of
a new season.
Indeed, a visitor
can feel a kind of lusty tension in the muggy air, which might seem a bit much
since this is high school football we're talking about. But then, the way they
play high school football in Valdosta would make the heart of any real fan of
the game beat a little quicker. You might call it hard-nosed, basic,
fundamental football, but in south Georgia what they call it is simply good
football, as in "Yeah, they had 'em a coach there for a while who could
teach those boys how to play some good football. But then he died, and they
ain't been worth spit since."
They play good
football in Valdosta like nowhere else in Georgia—or maybe the rest of the
known world, for that matter. Just consider: In the six years that USA Today
has been ranking the nation's top 25 high school football teams, the Valdosta
Wildcats have finished the season No. 1 twice and No. 2 once. Last week they
were ranked No. 3, with a 7-0 record. Valdosta claims five national high school
titles, which are even more dubious than national titles in college football,
but never mind, because if it's numbers you want, that one is only the
beginning. The Wildcats have played football since 1913, with one year—1918—off
for the Great War and the influenza epidemic. Before this season, they had won
638 games, lost 134, tied 32. They've had five losing seasons in 74 years.
Twenty-one Valdosta teams have gone undefeated.
Since 1947, when
Georgia started a playoff system to determine its high school champion,
Valdosta has been to the title game 21 times and won 18. (Valdosta also claims,
and no one disputes, the state championship in 1940, before the playoff system
was in place.) And there are folks in town who can remember every play of every
loss. "That was when Fran Tarkenton beat us," you'll hear people say,
talking about a game that was played 30 years ago as though it were just last
Unlike some teams,
Valdosta hasn't built its dazzling record by walking over weak opposition.
Football lies close to the vitals of life in Georgia. High school football on
Friday night is as essential to the small-town rhythms as church on Sunday, and
you will likely find the same people in passionate attendance at both rites.
College recruiters rank Georgia as the fifth-best state in the union for
prospects, behind the much more populous California, Texas, Ohio and Florida.
Winning the state championship is enough to establish a school as a national
prep power, but fans of the Wildcats will tell you, in the most offhand way,
"For us, winning the state championship game is a whole lot easier than
getting to play in it."
"The state is
divided into four regions," says Steve Figueroa, who covers high school
football for the Atlanta Constitution. "Since 1959, teams from Valdosta's
region have won the state 17 times. Valdosta has won 12 of those."
If Georgia is
prime football country, then south Georgia is the tenderloin.
Valdosta is one of
the prettiest and most prosperous towns in south Georgia. Its antebellum houses
are still standing because it was a few miles below Sherman's right flank on
his march to the sea. The town was supported early in this century by cotton
and pine trees and, during World War II, by nearby Moody Air Force Base. Now
there is a humming agrochemical industry. Valdosta has both charm and a certain
vitality and is the sort of town that, when you drive through, you think: Now
this would be a good place to raise a family.
The visitor makes
his way into the cozy cinder block stadium. The rain has stopped, but virtually
all of the fans are wearing plastic parkas, and it seems quite certain that no
amount of rain would have kept them away. Valdosta's population is almost
40,000, and the 12,000 seats in Cleveland Field are, as usual, sold out.
As the band plays
and the cheerleaders strut to raise the emotional pulse of the crowd, the
Wildcats come onto the field, 108 strong, wearing Valdosta's black and yellow.
They form a circle—a big circle—and begin their pregame calisthenics. The drums
beat, the players call out their cadence, the skies turn darker as the sun
begins to pass behind a thunderhead, and the noise of the eager crowd rises on
the soggy air.