Mon., May 6, 2013 3:00am (EDT)

Book Explores Wildcats' Slump
By Orlando Montoya and John A. Young
Updated: 1 year ago

SAVANNAH, Ga.  —  
"Must Win" follows the Valdosta Widlcats' as they attempt to regain former glories. (Photo by Drew Jubera)
"Must Win" follows the Valdosta Widlcats' as they attempt to regain former glories. (Photo by Drew Jubera)
Training for the fall football season begins today for the Valdosta High School Wildcats.

The historically dominant team has fallen on hard times in the last decade.

It's not living up to its former glories and a book published last year provides some insight.

Author and journalist Drew Jubera says that for the town of Valdosta, football is far more than a game.

"You know they've been playing football there for a hundred years. They've been successful at it nearly all that time," says Jubera. "It's the winningest football program in the country. There are really generations built up over this. It's an institution there."

The beginning of the Wildcats' decline came at the end of storied coach Nick Hyder's life after 22 years of leadership.

Having won three national and 23 state championships, Hyder died suddenly in 1996 from a heart attack in the school's cafeteria.

Jubera says Hyder's loss was felt not only among the students and players but also across the entire community.

"His funeral was held at the football stadium. There were 8,000 people there, in 96 degree heat," says Jubera. "His open casket was placed on the 50-yard line."

Hyder was posthumously inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.

The normally resilient Wildcats were slow to recover.

And it wasn't just the coach's loss.

Demographic shifts, financial issues and personality conflicts also played a role.

Jubera says the students, players and town were not used to losing.

"They went through this period, this over decade long period of instability in a place where it had been as stable as any place in sports," says Jubera.

Despite a rocky recovery, the Wildcats are showing that football isn't just about wins and losses.

The program still unites the community and gives students discipline, drive and skills needed on and off the turf.

Jubera says formerly troubled players like Malcom Mitchell have shown just how powerful and positive the football program can be.

"He's a kid who now, at University of Georgia, has blinders on and sees the prize." says Jubera. "And he is a kid who is utterly deserving of it. And he's a kid who really football, I think, has saved."

Drew Jubera tells more about his time embedded with the formerly prolific champions in his book, Must Win: A Season of Survival for a Town and its Team published by St. Martin's Press.