In South Georgia, where football on Friday
nights means so much, history is the currency.
And there’s quite a surplus
BY DAVID HALE
VISITORS TO VALDOSTA HIGH SCHOOL are required to check in with staff in the building’s main lobby before gaining access to hallways and
classrooms. The procedures are a necessity of
modern times, but the process also offers an
opportunity to look back.
Across from the receptionists’ desks, the
walls are lined by two expansive trophy cabinets, filled to the ceiling with gold-plated awards
and memorabilia of Valdosta’s glory years.
In one case, a stuffed wildcat curls around
metropolises that constitute city life in a sprawl-
ing rural region, Valdosta is defined by its high
school football. It’s a place where history is
marked by state championships and a football
coach’s name is better known than the mayor’s.
In South Georgia, high school football isn’t just
tradition. It’s a birthright.
Few people know the culture of football in
South Georgia as well as Chris Beckham. He
watched his first games from the end zones of
Thomasville’s fields, and he later covered those
games as a reporter. For the past 10 years, he’s
hosted a Friday night football show broadcast
on nine different networks around the region.
On a good night, more than 300 fans call in to
talk about the game they just watched or check
the score of one in another town.
There are no major media hubs here, but
there’s a cache to covering a big game in a
small town that few other places afford.
“When they have state championship games
in the Georgia Dome, the majority of people in
Atlanta don’t even know it’s going on,” Beckham
said. “But I’ve been to championship games in
Valdosta, Thomasville, Quitman and Moultrie,
and that’s the biggest thing in a decade.”
In South Georgia, tradition is big business,
and it’s instilled at an early age.
Austin Bryant is a rising junior at Thomas County Central, one of two football powerhouses that
offer a less refined alternative to Thomasville’s
quaint antique stores and boutique eateries.
When Bryant was just 5 years old, his uncle
would pick him up from his mother’s house
each Friday, carting him off to the stadium
where they’d sit in the stands and watch boys
Thomas County Central
an oversized championship trophy. In the other,
autographed footballs commemorate teams
as far back as the 1950s, and a framed photo
of Ronald Reagan comes complete with an
inscription congratulating the 1986 team on
another dominant season.
Down the hallways past the lobby, the mementos of past glory sprawl out past classrooms
and art projects and spill into a mural along
one wall that features three quotes designed to
inspire the current students. One is from Calvin
Coolidge, another from Vince Lombardi. The last
is from Valdosta’s own Nick Hyder, a man whose
words carry as much weight as any president or
Super Bowl champion around these parts.
Hyder won more than 300 games and seven
state championships as Valdosta’s coach. When
he died in 1996, his funeral was held at the
stadium that bears his name, his casket resting
at the 50-yard line. It was the only building in
Valdosta big enough to accommodate the crowd.
Like many places in South Georgia, from
the small specks on the map to the minor
The balance of power has swung in the city, with
neighboring Lowndes County now boasting near-
ly 1,000 more students and, often, a superior
record on the field. The power structure in the
state has endured a seismic shift in recent years,
too. Those traditional southern behemoths now
face a significant challenge from upstart schools
in Atlanta and its suburbs, as money pours into
the more affluent schools up north.
become legends after a long touchdown run or
a crucial late-game interception.
“Since then, I had no plans other than to
become a Yellow Jacket,” Bryant said.
That’s not uncommon in South Georgia,
where entertainment options are few, but dirt
fields and warm days are plentiful. By the time
most boys are old enough to walk, there’s a
football in their hands.
“When you get down to South Georgia, it’s
the country,” said Florida State linebacker Telvin Smith, who starred at Lowndes County. “It’s
the backwoods, it’s kids who came out of the
woods playing in their yards. It was bred into us
to play football, to love the game, to play hard.”
While backyard football in small towns is hardly
unique to rural Georgia, Smith believes there’s a
certain type of player that comes from the area.
“Those kids are tough,” Florida State coach
Jimbo Fisher said. “They come up from that red
clay, and since Pop Warner they coach ‘em tough.”
That’s a source of pride, too. As the quality of
football in the urban parts of the state steadily