"Must Win" captures drama of a small town's passion for high school football

For decades, Valdosta High School teams had dominated statewide football championships. A newer high school in Valdosta, named Lowndes (as in Lowndes County), had achieved recent success, too. Drew Jubera, a former writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wanted to document the high school football culture in Valdosta. So he lived there for a while with his family, absorbing himself in the daily life for the entire 2010 football season, as well as before and after.

Disclosure: I dislike football, as a sport and as a compromiser of academic culture in many high school and college towns. But I recommend Jubera's chronicle heartily. Yes, football is at its center. The book, however, is filled with insights into high school students, teachers, administrators, coaches, the parents of students and former star football players who have moved on with their lives (or not). The book is also skillfully reported (Immersion journalism is almost always a productive technique when carried out by perceptive reporters.) and written with style, despite the occasional use of sports cliches.

Jubera fills the narrative with literally dozens of interesting characters — and that can cause a problem for readers from far away who are unfamiliar with the cast. Wisely, though, Jubera gives one character primacy, and that provides the narrative thread to prevent readers from wandering in the wilderness of too many names. The protagonist is Rance Gillespie, hired to restore Valdosta High School football to its dominance after too many years of lower than number one ranking.

Gillespie and his wife Claudette understand they are assuming a risk by moving to Valdosta with their young daughter. Football coaches who fail to win every game at Valdosta High School are often fired summarily despite seasons that would qualify as successful most other places. The Gillespies accept the offer because of the challenge involved and because, after all, the Valdosta name remains legendary. Claudette quickly becomes the first lady of the Valdosta High School cohort, being critiqued one way or another much as Michelle Obama on a bigger stage. Jubera earns lots of points from me for his attention to the female side of Valdosta football craziness, exploring not only Claudette's life but also the impact on student cheerleaders, girlfriends of players and mothers of players.

Rance Gillespie is a sympathetic protagonist. He comes across as sensible, intelligent, caring, experienced — as a football coach and as an overall human being. At times it seems as if Jubera has fallen under Gillespie's spell to the point of hero worship. Fortunately, Jubera never quite gets buried in that journalistic pit. Although the 2010 season produces only two losses on the football field, one of those losses is at the hands of cross-town rival Lowndes, and the other occurs on the way to the hoped-for state championship. The excellent but not storybook season forces Gillespie into deep self-examination, and that in turn humanizes him beyond plaster sainthood.

When Jubera breaks away from the action on the football field and in the locker room, he frequently focuses on some of the team's players, current and past. A lot of them come from unstable families and struggle with school attendance, with adequate classroom grades, with unplanned teenage pregnancies, with illegal drugs and with street violence. The student football players who come from relatively stable homes face their own struggles. Throughout the off-field narrative, matters of racial discrimination abound. While racial tension seems minimal during football practices and games, it can sometimes feel pervasive in Valdosta, giving Jubera's book a well-told civil rights dimension. African Americans are not always powerless in contemporary Valdosta. But, as Jubera demonstrates, there is a Caucasian power structure still in place—its members are apparently often well intentioned when it comes to citywide unity. "Often" is not the same as "always," though.

Each reader will identify different subplots with different levels of fascination. I found the growth of the second high school, Lowndes, a fascinating subplot, especially because the intra-city rivalry became so heated so fast. Lowndes County High opened in 1959 with 671 students, according to Jubera. The first football game between the two high schools occurred in 1968. The first nine years of competition, Valdosta High School massacred Lowndes on the football field. Then the balance of power began to shift, slowly at first, then speedily.

The apparent hatred between those attending the competing Valdosta high schools can be difficult to grasp when civic pride for both would seem a much more logical outcome. Jubera does his best to explain such conundrums. In an epilogue, set during late 2011, Jubera reports that Gillespie's team has defeated Lowndes on the football field. Happy times have come again.


"Must Win: A Season of Survival for a Town and Its Team"

By Drew Jubera

St. Martin's Press, 304 pages, $25.99

Author appearances. Drew Jubera signs copies of "Must Win: A Season of Survival for a Town and Its Team" 12:30 p.m. Sept. 1 at the Decatur Book Festival, Decatur Library, 215 Sycamore St., Decatur. 7 p.m. Sept. 6, Barnes & Noble, Mansell Crossings Shopping Center, 7660 Northpoint Parkway, Alpharetta. 7 p.m. Sept. 18, Manuel's Tavern, 602 N. Highland Ave. NE, Atlanta.

Read an excerpt of "Must Win: A Season of Survival for a Town and Its Team" in next Sunday's Living & Arts section.

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