Pardon me for being a bit parochial here, both in subject matter and regarding the author.
Drew Jubera, a former features writer at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (my former employer) is the author of “Must Win: A Season of Survival for a Town and Its Team.”
It’s the story of high school football in Valdosta, Ga., three hours south of Atlanta on Interstate 75 and one of the storied names in the game. In 2008, ESPN ran a month-long feature on “TitleTown USA,” alluding to the 23 state titles and more than 800 wins in the team’s history.
But a year later, Valdosta lost its noticeable swagger when it was defeated by crosstown rival Lowndes. The result was the mid-season firing of the third Valdosta head coach in seven seasons, which caused heads to turn all around Georgia and beyond.
Jubera reported on the matter for The New York Times, and it led to the book, which was published on Sept. 4. One of the primary voices of the story is former Valdosta and University of Georgia quarterback Buck Belue, now a sports radio talk show host in Atlanta, who recalled that “playing for Valdosta on Friday night was as big as the dream got” but that “there’s a bad vibe going on.”
The story, and the book that has followed, delves into the pressures levied by well-heeled football boosters and the politics of race and shifting demographics in a small Southern town.
Valdosta’s last state title came in 1998, and constant reclassification of high school sports in Georgia has divided the state athletically like never before. The largest classification includes eight regions: seven comprised of schools in metro Atlanta and its exurbs, and just one in south Georgia, including Valdosta, stretching from southwest Georgia to Atlantic Ocean coastal communities.
If you’re familiar with the vast geography of Georgia, this is a lot of ground to cover, and over state highways that aren’t easy to traverse.
Having grown up around high school football in this state, south Georgia absolutely ruled. My suburban Atlanta high school reached the state championship game once, in 1973, losing to Thomasville High School and future Atlanta Falcons running back William Andrews.
When a nearby high school reached the state finals last year, it was routed by another suburban school that opened 12 years ago. That’s how much the prep football landscape has changed around here, and judging from what Jubera has put together, it’s hard to see Valdosta ever retaining its former dominance.
Here’s a review by Phil Kloer, another former features writer for the AJC, on the ArtsATL site.
If you’re in Atlanta, Jubera will be having a book signing tonight starting at 7 p.m. at Manuel’s Tavern, my favorite watering hole in town.