As a visitor, what do you tell Valdosta about itself that it doesn’t already know?
When Drew Jubera discusses his Valdosta High Wildcats book, “Must Win: A Season of Survival for a Town and Its Team,” in Los Angeles or Chicago, he can present his thoughts on the Azalea City. In those places, interviewers and audiences want to know what is Valdosta? “Where is it? And how did it produce this legacy” of being the most winningest high school football team in the nation?
Elsewhere, Jubera can share how Valdosta has always had an outsized reputation for its location and size. He can share how Valdosta was once the world’s leading producer of sea island cotton. He can tell out-of-state audiences how Valdosta once had the nation’s largest per-capita population of millionaires.
Looking Tuesday afternoon at the Readers Forum audience, as members kicked off a new season to mark the Valdosta book club’s 80th year, Jubera sighed and said, “But you already know all of this. So what do I talk about?”
With the time of his Valdosta book talk nearing, he heard a line on the radio Monday afternoon: “I was just lucky.”
Hearing someone say this on the radio led Jubera to realize, “I was just lucky to find Valdosta.”
Drew Jubera has been a reporter and writer for many years. His works have appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, Esquire, Parade magazine. He worked for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A few years ago, when the AJC offered a buy-out package to employees, Jubera took the offer and left the newspaper.
He had no idea what he would do. He had been in Valdosta, perhaps, once. But South Georgia, Wildcat football, and writing a book were nowhere on his radar. Jubera had never even worked as a sports reporter.
Six months later, flipping through channels on a Friday night, he discovered a televised Valdosta High football game. He watched the game. He became involved in the on-field action. He realized his curiosity had been stoked: What is the culture behind the “most winningest football team” in America?
He then learned Valdosta had fired its football coach. Had fired a few football coaches within less than a decade. He discovered the demographics had changed, where VHS once dominated, Lowndes High School had grown and the Vikings now dominated South Georgia football. How does a community deal with such changes?
Jubera wrote a story on the Valdosta High Wildcats and these issues for The New York Times. The story was published on Thanksgiving Day 2009. Preparing for the holiday feast with family in Pittsburgh, Jubera received a call that his Wildcats story was The New York Times’ most read article that day.
The idea for a book followed.
In pursuing the book, he developed a friendship with legendary Wildcat and football hero Stan Rome. Jubera approached then-new VHS Wildcats Head Coach Rance Gillespie. Jubera had prepared several points to persuade Gillespie to let him follow the Cats for a year. To his surprise, Jubera asked and Gillespie agreed. (Both Jubera and Gillespie attended the Readers Forum meeting Tuesday.)
Jubera spent time with the Wildcats, observing their triumphs and defeats. During the Readers Forum luncheon Tuesday afternoon, Jubera read a powerful excerpt from “Must Win” regarding the moments after a Wildcats loss. Jubera captures the stoicism and the passion of defeat, the lessons to be learned, and the heartbreaking spirit of a community.
While writing “Must Win,” Jubera said he reached several moments when he didn’t think he could finish the book. On occasion, he pondered not finishing it, but he found inspiration by thinking of his experiences with Gillespie and the Wildcats.
“How could I tell Rance, I never got around to finishing it. ... Unacceptable.”
Jubera finished the book, saw it published and has seen it become a solid national seller. The paperback edition should be released soon. This past summer, the movie rights were picked up. Jubera smiled, saying that Coach Gillespie would like to see George Clooney play him.
Yet, Jubera said he also discovered a community and made new friends. Now, when it is time for family vacations, his two young children want to visit Valdosta. Jubera’s family spent a weekend in Valdosta recently, a time when he and his sons spent a Friday evening on a football field, watching the Wildcats play, in a place called TitleTown.