The glowing lights at Tom Riden Stadium offered a partial reprieve for Buford residents. This city is football hungry— the high school team a powerhouse — and Friday’s highly-anticipated home opener was expected to be the start of another winning season for the Wolves.
But following a week of brutal disclosures, a sense of unbalance and angst wafted through the not-full-house stands. Fans used words like “shocking” and “disgusting.” A small knot of protesters had gathered outside the stadium.
Hours before Buford High School’s home game opener, city school superintendent Geye Hamby resigned and system administrative offices were put on a lock down because of a threat against him. That followed reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about two audio recordings of someone, purportedly Hamby, repeatedly using racial slurs while ranting about black construction workers.
The recordings were included in a racial discrimination suit by a former long-time paraprofessional in the Buford school system.
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An addition to the suit now alleges that the chairman of Buford’s school board and city commission appears to be the person with whom Hamby was speaking. Phillip Beard, who has been the most powerful figure in the community for decades, didn’t respond earlier to AJC queries about the contention.
“The tone of everything has been sad,” said local resident Scott Rogers. “You are heartbroken.”
‘One man doesn’t make a community’
Buford prizes its schools. And the high school football program is a crown jewel, with its stack of teenagers who have already committed to play for Division 1 colleges. Hamby was the man entrusted with a central pillar of life in the northern Gwinnett City.
Rogers, who has lived in the Buford area since 2005 after moving from Dunwoody, said the worst part wasn’t the slurs in isolation but the question of how long that thinking might have festered in someone who was supposed to have the best interests of kids at heart.
Some people talked about staying away from Friday’s game, he said, because they were concerned about the potential for trouble.
But Buford is a close-knit community, Rogers said. He recalled how his young son’s teacher and a helper spent an evening delivering Christmas gifts to every child in the class.
At high school football games, fans reconnect, often with people they have known their entire lives.
“We are all family,” said Jill Wallace, who called the home opener a typical game night. “We’re all about the kids and football.”
Fans at the game Friday say they cherish the place they call home.
“One man doesn’t make a community,” said Michelle Boyd, as she headed to Friday’s game. “I can’t say enough good things about Buford…. It’s a very open, loving community.”
What else had he said?
Some are concerned about the city’s path.
Protesters outside the stadium demanded change, starting with Hamby’s status.
“He doesn’t need to be resigned. He should be fired without pay,” Samaria Blow said.
Kim Grant, another protester, said her first reaction to the audio was “‘Wow.’ But then, it’s Buford.”
“For years they’ve swept racism under the rug,” she said later.
Others interviewed by the AJC at the game, including some minorities, said they had never witnessed racism by school officials.
“For me, everything is fine,” said a Latino man in a Buford Wolves hat and t-shirt who has lived in the city for a decade.
His kids told him they’ve heard other students in the city’s schools use racial slurs, some aimed at them, but the parent said he considered the words to be uncommon in an overwhelmingly peaceful community.
The audio recording, though, “gives us some kind of chill.” If it was Hamby’s voice, the parent said, what else had he said to teachers and others in the system in the past?
Buford has become a magnet as more people who aren’t natives send their kids into the school system.
“It use to be where coming to a game I would know everybody,” said 80-year-old Larry Puckett. “Now, I come to a game, and I know 20 or 30 people.”
Most adult fans showed up at Friday’s game wearing green and white Buford colors. But many of the school’s students went in a different direction: they dressed in red, white and blue.
‘We can’t divide on this’
On Friday night, the atmosphere in the stands was “subdued some, but it is good therapy for everyone,” said one white-haired man. “You got the whole community here. We can talk to each other. It’s been a rough week.”
A stadium scoreboard lists the football team’s state championships: 11, all but one of which occurred in the last 19 years. Last year, Buford lost in the state semifinals.
Across the field, a small crowd of fans from Jonesboro High, a school predominantly made up of African Americans, showed out for what their coach had warned was likely to be a tough night.
But on the first play of the game, Buford’s nationally ranked quarterback had a pass tipped. A Jonesboro player intercepted and ran for a touchdown.
That was Jonesboro’s only score of the game. Buford proved it could quickly find its footing, at least on the football field.
In the third and fourth quarters, Buford’s second and third stringers were in the game.
“We are a hitting dummy for them,” said Jonesboro parent William Tims.
He hadn’t heard in advance about the controversies in the community he was visiting. Had he, he said, “I wouldn’t have come.”
He said he can imagine how news of the racial slurs might affect minorities who play on Buford’s team. “You made some of your own players feel ostracized.”
Buford won 58-7.
The home team’s players took a knee near the big “B” in the middle of the field for Coach John Ford’s post-game talk.
“I love you guys,” he told them more than once.
Before workouts earlier in the week, players had talked among themselves about the audio recordings, which were “a shocking thing,” said Harry Miller, a senior offensive lineman who has committed to play at Ohio State University.
That spread into broader discussions about race relations, Miller said. The coach later told them “we can’t divide on this.”
In the mid-field gathering after Friday’s game, the coach told players, “If you keep loving each other, if you keep believing in each other” and you prepare, you can succeed.
While he spoke, many players put an arm around teammates. An African American teenager stretched an arm around the back of a white teammate.
Listen to the recording: