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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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Friday night, 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 week.

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.

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