Must Win: A Season of Survival for a Town and its Team by Drew Jubera
Full disclosure: Drew Jubera, author of Must Win, is a friend.
Fuller disclosure: Drew Jubera has written the best nonfiction book I have read since the year 2000.
I know. Go ahead, Paste reader. Sniff. Scoff. Roll your eyes. Mumble something nasty about friends reviewing friends, the back-scratching among the boys on the book bus.
But then do this. Open Must Win and read:
The black kid with the badass tats stood smiling on the practice field sideline. Beat jail. Helmet off, earring on fire in the afternoon sun, he surprised teammates with his out-of-nowhere appearance, as if he’d spontaneously erupted from the heat and the sweat, returned now to this gnat-bitten patch of deepest South Georgia from a biblical sounding exile of forty-four days and forty-four nights – wandering the wilderness, right across town, inside the Lowndes County lockup.
Odell James took a very deep breath; the still, cooked air never tasted sweeter. Timber trucks rumbled down a nearby four-lane: music. The ink stamped up and down his dark biceps – the numerals 229 and 912, area codes for Valdosta and nearby Homerville, the two addresses the eighteen-year-old had called home – glistened beneath a relentless blue sky.
It was September, but still it was hot. Make-you-stupid hot. A halo of gnats, the state bird of South Georgia, swarmed Odell’s head like wild electrons. A handful of teammates banished to the sideline beside him – recidivist goof-offs, including some of the white boys; a few other hard cases trying to make comebacks – quickly formed a semicircle around him, angling to bask in the glow of his by-God sure-enough street cred.
They wanted stories, jailhouse stories. Stories to kill time, stories to retell later. Anything to make bearable this open-air asylum patrolled by a new coach hell-bent on making this strip back into the most fearsome green acre on any high school campus in America.
Jubera got his deft writing chops toiling for years at big-deal newspapers, lastly the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he covered the South from the national desk. He left the AJC a few years ago, and his byline began to appear more widely. The New York Times. Esquire. Places like that.
What most beguiled Jubera on his reporting trips around the football-crazy South? Well football. Most especially a gridiron saga of the legendary Valdosta High School Wildcats. the winningest high school team in America.
With 50,000 people in 2010, Valdosta always found gifted athletes in the surrounding cotton fields and piney woods and put them in pads in Death Valley, its 11,000-seat stadium. There, for 30-plus years, the Wildcats put a whuppin’ on most every other team they played. National media dubbed Valdosta “Title Town USA.” Life in Valdosta, every day of the year, meant a life among Wildcats.
Here’s how Jubera describes the community:
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 welcome visitors to town. A dozen Wildcats had gone on the play in the NFL.
Now, Paste reader, for a surprise.
Juber’s book isn’t really even about football. Not beneath the pads and eye black, anyway.
Jubera took on this book, his first, as Valdosta fought back from years of decline, after changing demographics and a sour economy vitiated the venerable program and reduced it to a shadow. A new football power, Lowndes High School, the Vikings, emerged just a 10K trot across the county. A well-funded, modern program, its campus new and gleaming, Lowndes had beaten Valdosta on the gridiron six straight years. In the aughts, men and women and families whose widow’s mite of happiness depended on the fortunes of Valdosta football went through season after miserable season.
The Wildcats made a dramatic comeback in the 2010 season as a new coach took over, a remarkable motivator named Rance Gillespie. Jubera had the good luck to embed with the team from summer training of that year to the last whistle of the season in the state playoffs. The author also hit town at the moment Valdosta faced political decisions that could potentially lead to a shut-down of the entire school. Had pride in the place dwindled much further, the high school and its legacy well who could say?
With survival at stake, the football team stood like a squad of Spartans in a mountain pass. Jubera delightfully trots out names, ranks and positions. Gillespie and his tireless assistant coaches. Townspeople like Nub, aka Mike Nelson, a one-armed booster whose steady passion fired every die-hard Valdostan. Septuagenarian David Waller showed Coach Gillespie shortly after his arrival a graveyard in Valdosta where the community buried legendary winning coaches. Two of the Wildcat gods—coaches Bazemore and Hyder—lay in that green space. Waller promised Gillespie a plot if he won 200 games with the Wildcats.
Mainly, though, Jubera writes about teenage boys—the football players. One player wants to rap. One happens to be the best athlete in the state, ceaselessly hounded by The Furies, college recruiters thick as gnats. One player is a beekeeper’s son, another the son of a pro athlete whose career ended early with a gunshot head wound in a drug deal.
Jubera superbly captures it all—the town, the characters, the motivations, the dreams, the follies. (More than once, his descriptions brought stinging tears to my eyes, especially in passages where he sketched the stories of boys hungry to believe in something, somebody. Themselves. Boys lost to the world, boys fatherless—or worse—who find, of all things on earth, a coach, a community, and a game to trust.)
Some years ago, poet Robert Bly wrote a book, Iron John, that decried the state of manhood in America. Bly took to the woods with drum circles, inviting males to join in ritual, ceremonial, celebrations of maleness, of manhood. His book lamented the loss in our kaleidoscopic culture of commemorative rituals that might initiate young men into manhood. He advocated memorable, even difficult, rites of passage, tests leading to a new life.
In Valdosta, those rituals happen on Friday nights under the lights.
The values of physical trial and endurance and perseverance and brotherhood, of common cause and oneness, infuse the young men that practiced and played for Coach Gillespie. Jubera shows in page after page of beautifully written prose—he’s a stylist on the order of Tom Wolfe—how these youngsters become bonded for life by their shared sacrifices and triumphs and fallings short.
Where else would so many kids from troubled homes and broken families and betrayed cultures ever find any footing in modern life? Football isn’t the only way out but at least it is one way.
Jubera had good luck, good timing. He came to the team in a rebound year, a time Valdosta thirstily tasted victory again and new hope filled up a community like healing balm. The football games seem nearly incidental to the great fabric of re-creation and renewed belief the Wildcats brought again to their out-of-the-way city.
Go ahead. Snigger if you will.
It’s just high school football, you’ll say. It’s what’s wrong with America, distorted values placed on athletics, bogus beliefs that shoulder aside ideas and art and Deep Thoughts. Philistinism.
Yes, snigger. But then open this book and read.
If, by page 318, you still think Must Win is only a book about football then we really should have a talk about values.
Jubera offers a book about all of us, football fan or not. It’s a book about what we try to achieve in the small town filled with big dreams inside every human heart.
Charles McNair is Books Editor of Paste and author of the novel Land O’ Goshen.