A Season of Survival for a Town and its Team
By Drew Jubera
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 Drew Jubera
All rights reserved.
or Your Grave Is Ready, Coach
On a blustery winter afternoon nine months earlier, before a round of meet-and-greets with a bank president, a business-running benefactor, a one-legged booster, and the pastor of the biggest Baptist church in town, Rance Gillespie stood in the middle of an empty cemetery for his unscheduled Tour of Dead Coaches.
The only other living thing around was the pumpkin-shaped man who drove him there in his neat white pickup, and who now went on in vivid, if sometimes surreal, detail about the legend buried right under their feet — the last Valdosta High football coach who wasn't fired.
He'd died instead.
Gillespie leaned in. For the newest coach of this once-mighty high school dynasty, the graveyard tour led by the program's most powerful booster was a not-so-subtle reminder of just what was at stake.
This was more than high school football, son, it seemed to signal. How much more, the red-state kingmakers who'd long nurtured this program to national prominence were only now beginning to fathom.
They'd come to a crossroad and they knew it. Their town, their team — hell, even their president (though, for the record, white folks here voted against him by almost three to one) — had all gone black. It was Friday night in the Age of Obama, and this quaint Deep South outpost of 50,000, just a dozen miles above the Florida line, was in the roiling hot middle of it. Once a metaphor for everything that was unchanging in America, Valdosta now stood for all that had changed.
So this morning inside the cemetery — cold, damp, wind gusting all the way in from the Gulf — took on the air of an over-the-top, spirit-conjuring ritual, like a river baptism, or a Sunday night snake-handling service back up in the piney woods.
"I could see why some guys would've run for home," Gillespie would say later, smiling. "I just took it for what it was: Valdosta."
Escorting the youthful Gillespie — a fit, churchgoing, tobacco-dipping fan of Metallica, Guns N'Roses, and "maybe a little Van Halen" — was seventy-seven-year-old David Waller, a self-made heating-and-air-conditioning millionaire who'd missed only five Valdosta High football games since 1947.
Back in the segregated '60s, this white sharecropper's son from out-past-nowhere Georgia, whose father once whipped him for returning home from a dinnertime hunt with nothing more than a "skinny rabbit," had proclaimed that the first time a black kid pulled on a Wildcats uniform would be the last day he ever gave the school a dime.
That was then. Now, all Waller wanted was for Valdosta's fractured legacy to mend itself and win state once more before he died. White kids, black kids, it didn't matter anymore. Winning football games had carried Waller's conscience a long, long way from its ancestral home.
That was true for much of the town. It's hard to imagine a place where winning has ever meant more than it has in this place, bounded by cotton, pine, and swamp, the air charged with a native trinity of God, Family, and Football.
The result: Valdosta had won more football games than any other high school in the country. In fact, Valdosta had won so often, for so long, it could lose every contest for the next sixty-five seasons and still stay above .500. Playing in a region so brutal it was deemed the Southeastern Conference of high school football, Valdosta also boasted twenty-three state championships and six national titles — a brag plastered across the taxpayer-funded green road signs that welcomed visitors to town. A dozen Wildcats had gone on to play in the NFL.
Off the field, season tickets inside the 11,349-seat stadium were handed down in wills and quarreled over in divorce settlements. During a wake for one recently deceased fan, in a little town more than an hour away, six tickets for the next home game were displayed inside an open casket, clutched for all eternity in the man's dead, frozen hand.
Meanwhile, the Valdosta head coach had a weekly TV show taped at the team's 3,500square-foot museum, ran a weekly game-highlight review for boosters inside the school's performing arts center, and was featured during a live hour-long radio broadcast every Wednesday night from the Smokin' Pig, a red-roofed, log-sided barbecue palace run by one of the twenty-one former Wildcats descended from the same O'Neal. Only complaint ever voiced by fans: The radio show conflicted with Wednesday night church services.
The coach also took home a six-figure salary from the school board and a free truck from the Touchdown Club, provided by a local dealership run by a former 'Cat.
On it went. While other schools had their eras, Valdosta had dominated the whole modern history of prep football, winning its first championship in 1940 and last playing for state in 2003.
So it's little surprise that the three coaches who preceded Gillespie were all fired, or skipped town, when they failed to win that one more title that Waller and other loyalists here wanted before they perished. With a largely desperate black majority and a fearful rush by white families to newer, safer suburbs — forces pounding once-proud powerhouses all over the country — folks here worried that Valdosta High might soon disappear and, by extension, erase them along with it.
An unlikely cabal of white business leaders and black megapastors was even at work to abolish the city schools' charter and merge the system with the county. Its leaders insisted they only wanted to rebalance the schools' racial disparity to better educate low-achieving students, attract new businesses, and keep the place breathing far into the future. Valdosta High was now three-quarters black, crosstown rival Lowndes High three-quarters white.
Others saw more nefarious agendas: a payoff, a power play, a back-door real estate scheme. One prominent black lawyer, a fifth-generation Valdostan, called the impulse to consolidate "the monster under the bed," a strategy to dilute the power of the city's narrow black majority by buying off a few and keeping race in its proper place. Eventually, city and county governments could merge as well.
Real estate agents, who many believed segregated the landscape in the first place by steering white home buyers to new developments in the county with asides about Valdosta's black-and-getting-blacker schools (a tactic locals called "fearing"), now seemed eager to cash in again on a single, rejiggered district.
"There's something here that somebody's not telling people," Sam Allen, retired as Valdosta's first black superintendent, said of the richly financed push by the city's business elite to combine the two systems. "There's something they're not willing to say out loud."
If it did happen, Allen believed, not only would Valdosta's children be no better served, it would mean the end of Valdosta High football as anyone had known it, with the school absorbed and marginalized by its whiter, wealthier, on-the-make county brethren.
The county high school had already taken full advantage of this demographic shift. Lowndes High now had a thousand more students than Valdosta, and its football Vikings, who had won three titles in the last six years, had emerged as perhaps the state's most dominant program. Even worse for fans of the town's school, separated from its rival by only a few miles and a mall, was that Lowndes had beaten Valdosta six straight games, including the previous season's 57–15 drubbing — worst loss in Wildcat history.
Just four days after that midseason embarrassment, Valdosta's head coach was summoned like a teenaged truant to the superintendent's office and fired. He became the third coach axed or pushed out in just seven years.
So Gillespie, an intense young white guy with a guru's rep from the cool blue mountains of North Georgia, was now seen as the school's last, best hope. Only football, folks here reasoned — with its historic power in towns like these to inspire, unite, and protect — could save them.
Standing in the cemetery's early-afternoon chill, the grandfatherly, God-fearing Waller just wanted to make sure Gillespie got all that.
* * *
First stop on the Dead Coaches Tour: the grave of Nick Hyder.
Wind swirled through the monuments inside Sunset Hill, final resting spot for a century-and-a-half-long parade of random townies. These included mayors, judges, Civil War vets, parents of the Wild West gambler and gunfighter Doc Holliday, infant quintuplets, an air force major killed in Iran during the attempt to rescue American hostages, and an animal trainer from New Orleans crushed to death in 1902 by an escaped circus elephant named Gypsy.
Waller and Gillespie stared together at the iconography that stretched across Hyder's double-wide tombstone. Words and images bloomed everywhere: a black-and-white photo of the animated coach clenching a whistle between his bared teeth; an inscription that noted his THOUSANDS OF VICTORIES FOR CHRIST; his mission — some would say missionary — statement of priorities: God, Family, Country, Friends, Academics, Team; and his most oft-repeated exhortation, running the length of the monument's granite base: NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER QUIT.
The gravesite rested just beyond the shadows cast by a grove of towering oaks, draped in green-gray Spanish moss that fell in ragged sheets, like uncombed hair extensions, and nearly brushed the mowed grounds below.
"I'm surprised," one fourth-generation Valdostan mused of Hyder's site, given the place its occupant held in this town, "they didn't bury him in a pyramid."
Waller came here often to talk with his old best friend. He knew he was mostly talking to himself, of course, but being in the presence of his soul mate's mortality helped him to curate his thoughts. He'd done it since the day he buried Hyder, fourteen years earlier.
It was the funeral service preceding that interment that everybody here still talked about. Held in the stadium just blocks from where Waller and Gillespie now stood, it was still the most marveled-at spectacle in the town's long history.
* * *
The coffin sat on the 50-yard line. It was open. The man in repose — who just three days earlier slumped over a lunchroom table in the school cafeteria, where he'd picked out a piece of baked chicken — wore a smart gold sport coat, a black-and-gold tie, and a faint, proud smile. A football was tucked under his left arm, as if he'd demonstrated some routine ball-handling maneuver at the very moment of his heart attack and now cradled an eternal handoff.
The scene teetered between homespun and South Georgia Gothic. Despite the Sunday afternoon heat (96 degrees and only the middle of May), nearly 8,000 mourners streamed into the same stadium they filled on warm autumn nights to live and die with their Wildcats. Young and old, white and black, land-rich and dirt-poor, they shuffled past tall pines and live oaks and magnolias. It was a second Sunday service for most of them. The town's low-slung skyline was pierced everywhere by needle-nosed church steeples, but Cleveland Field was the only house of common worship that could fit, and would welcome, them all.
They flocked to the stadium from every baked and rutted corner of the region. Many of the men wore dark suits and cinched ties; women wobbled up the ancient wooden bleachers in heels. Politicians and fellow coaches, from both high schools and colleges, drove or flew in on private jets from around the South. The Rev. Billy Graham, unable to scramble his schedule on such short notice, was a last-minute no-show.
Only the visitors' stands, on the north side of the field, were deserted. On this day, everyone sat on the home team's side.
A covered stage used by the city for public events was set up behind the casket. It held about a dozen people, including an elderly man on electric keyboard who accompanied the service with hymnal standards like "Sunrise Tomorrow" and "How Great Thou Art." Eulogizers included a former Wildcat quarterback now playing at Boston College, booster club brass (Waller among them), and the minister of the First Baptist Church of Valdosta, where Hyder had served as a deacon.
They talked some about the coach's sideline genius — his 300 career wins, his seven state titles at Valdosta, his three national championships — but mostly they talked about what he meant off the field to players, parents, and the community. The mood was lightened only occasionally inside a stadium that sounded eerily empty rather than filled to the top row.
"Nick said, 'I don't believe there's going to be a North heaven and a South heaven, do you?'" the preacher recalled. "And I told him, 'I believe it's all one — white, yellow, black, together in that great, big Baptist heaven.'"
The otherwise subdued crowd sounded grateful for the inside-joke chuckle, but their sense of loss remained powerful. Some compared the town's reaction to the unexpected death of their vibrant, sixty-one-year-old coach to the shock that followed the Kennedy assassination. Indeed, the lobby of the hospital where Hyder was rushed after his collapse swelled quickly with more than 150 locals, including students who sped there right after the high school's early dismissal. The crowd kept silent vigil until a doctor stepped out to officially announce what they all knew but not a single one of them appeared ready to hear: Their coach was dead.
In that instant, much of the town felt orphaned by a man whose only children were the students and citizens of Valdosta; even the Lowndes coach could be heard sobbing in the hospital's lobby. Many wondered during the days that followed if the community could continue on a righteous path without its paternal, pastoring coach.
"Where do we go from here?" one man cried.
Implored another, "The captain of our ship is gone. Give us the strength to look ahead."
Jack Rudolph, a former NFL player and an architect of Valdosta's universally feared defense, told one reporter that at the school in the days after Hyder's death "the psychologists worked as much with the adults as with the kids."
"Our wonderful coach had become a crutch for us," the Rev. Delos Sharpton allowed during his eulogy that sweltering spring day of 1996 — a year near the cusp of a new millennium everywhere else in the world, it seemed that afternoon, but here.
Reverend Sharpton looked out onto the crowd. Folks waved programs to roust a breeze, and opened umbrellas to block the hammering sun.
"As individuals, as a team, as a community, we always depended on him being there," the minister continued. "We always looked to him to be our best conscience ... looked to him to be the voice of the community in race relations."
"Nick didn't see color," he emphasized. "He only saw heart."
Reverend Sharpton hit all the right notes. Yet even he sensed that nothing he could say would ease this gathering's communal grief.
"I'm simply a struggling pilgrim," he pronounced at one point, "with a broken heart like you."
For those who'd played for Hyder, memories throughout the weekend's blizzard of newspaper and TV coverage around the South often centered on the times before or after practices. The games, oddly, now seemed almost beside the point.
It shouldn't have been surprising. With a voice distilled like aged whiskey from his home-place mountains in East Tennessee, the razor-featured, charismatic Hyder (a former assistant described his entrances as being "like Elvis walking into a room") usually saved his best preachifying not for Sunday mornings at First Baptist but for those hot weekday afternoons on the bright green rectangle behind the school. There he'd expound on subjects that ranged from developing a relationship with God to daily grooming habits to the avoidable ravages of venereal disease. Assistants sometimes had to remind him in the locker room when he got on a roll before practice that if they didn't get out there soon, it'd be too dark.
"He'd start off talking about football," recalled one former Wildcat, by then a Valdosta businessman, "but pretty soon he'd be talking about how you need to act when you take out a date, what time you should be home, the importance of saying 'yes, sir' and 'no, ma'am' to your parents."
Another ex-player remembered, "There were times we'd get through practice and he'd gather the team and start talking, and the next thing you knew it was dark and the parents in the parking lot were turning the car lights on."
The thousands inside the stadium listened shoulder to shoulder for nearly two hours. Concession stands were opened and free Cokes handed out.
Coach, meanwhile, just lay there in the eternal sunshine. Some worried the pancake makeup that gave his face a rich, golden glow might liquefy in the heat and puddle in the casket's satin lining, but the ol' boys at Carson McLane Funeral Home had prepped and buried this town's sons and daughters without a hitch since 1936. This day would prove no exception. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Must Win by Drew Jubera. Copyright © 2012 Drew Jubera. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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