Never underestimate the heart of a champion.
Football is a key component of Georgia heritage, and much of that credit is due to Valdosta. In their storied history, Valdosta High School’s football program has won 41 regional, 23 state and six national championships.
Also to their credit, the Wildcats have the distinction of having the most wins of any high school in the United States. Their 876 wins (through the end of the 2012 season) easily eclipse the win totals of their nearest competition. The closest schools (Washington in Massillon, Ohio and Male in Louisville, Ky.) stand at 821 wins each. Since their inception in 1913, the Wildcats have only suffered six losing seasons.
The Wildcats’ success extends beyond high school. Only the University of Michigan (903 wins) boasts a football program with more wins than Valdosta High School, and the Wildcats sit an amazing 145 games ahead of the Chicago Bears, who have the most wins in NFL history (731).
Here in Valdosta, named “TitleTown, USA” by ESPN in 2008, many look at the history of the Wildcats and choose only to highlight their accolades.
No success, however, comes without obstacles.
From 1968-70, the Wildcats went on a streak of 36 wins, zero losses, and one tie. However, after the team lost a great deal of players to graduation, many people chose to write the team off as an early failure. They were projected to finish the 1971 season with a 5-5 record and miss the playoffs.
Calvin Lester, 59, played guard for the ’71 Cats. During his junior year he barely saw any time on the field.
“I was a ‘pine-rooter,’” says Calvin. “Kids nowadays call ’em ‘benchwarmers.’”
After the 1970 Wildcats finished their season one game short of a state title, young Calvin took it upon himself to motivate the team. He credits one particular post-game speech as a major reason behind the soon-to-be success of the 1971 team.
“There were seniors crying on the bus,” says Calvin. “That was the only game that those guys lost in their high school careers. I told the rest of the team that we had to win a state title for them.”
Frank Lester, 61, is Calvin’s older brother. He played defensive end for the Wildcats during the 1970 season.
“I never would have thought that (Calvin) had a leadership gene in him,” says Frank. “He always came across as the type that followed along. But I learned a lot about my brother that year.”
The team responded with an astounding run on the field. Coached by the legendary Wright Bazemore, the team forever etched their names into the record books with an undefeated season (13-0), capped with a 62-12 victory in the state championship game against Avondale. To add to their credit, their season total of 629 points stood as a state record for 23 years.
The team’s success, according to Calvin, came from “a perfect blend of speed, quickness and rugged muscle.”
For all the success that the team saw on the field, there was an equal, if not greater, struggle taking place within the school. Valdosta High School was fully integrated in 1969 and, as expected, not everyone welcomed the change.
Calvin recalls many painful moments from his experiences with the team.
“Bringing (black students) over from Pinevale didn’t do much for us,” he says. “We might have been playing together, but at the end of the day we still went to separate locker rooms.”
During the fall of 1969, rumors began circulating that the voting was being fixed to prevent a black student from winning Homecoming Queen.
“Soon as word spread, we fixed that,” says Calvin. “A lot of the black players walked out on the team. We knew they needed us, and they wouldn’t play without us.”
In 1971, Calvin was named a team captain. This appointment also came under controversy. After three black players were chosen as team captains, the coaches appointed three white players to balance the racial leadership.
“Coach (Bazemore) knew that the boosters wouldn’t accept three African-American captains,” says Calvin. “We had to reach a compromise, and that’s why we were the first team in Valdosta High’s history to have six captains.”
To add insult to injury, 1971 marked the first year that The Valdosta Daily Times did not feature a captains’ lineup or photo in the newspaper.
“I told everybody to be lookin’ out for that (newspaper),” says Calvin. “But when it came out, we were nowhere to be found.”
The Wildcats’ efforts resulted in their 23rd regional, 15th state, and third national titles.
Years later, a story eerily similar to their own was made into a movie. The Disney movie “Remember the Titans” tells the story of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. Much like the Wildcats, they were forced to face the harsh realities of racism when their school was integrated in 1971.
Valdosta was named the national champions that year. T.C. Williams tied for second in the final polls.
“Everything that they went through, we had done it two years prior,” says Calvin. “1971 was our year, because our worst year was already a memory. The only real difference that I saw between that movie and our situation is that their head coach (Herman Boone) was black.”
While the movie received critical acclaim upon release, the national response in 1971 was quite the opposite.
“We had never even heard of them,” says Calvin. “I didn’t know anything about (T.C. Williams) until I saw ‘Remember the Titans.’ I immediately thought, ‘Why not us?’”
According to the film, the Titans dealt with racial tension from society, fellow players and even coaches.
So did the Wildcats.
Through all of their adversity, the Titans banded together and put together an undefeated season.
So did the Wildcats.
But although the Titans fought their way into the record books, at the end of the day, there can only be one national champion. That team was the Valdosta Wildcats.
Calvin Lester and his teammates will forever hold a special place in Georgia history. The rest of the country has a feature film to help them remember T.C. Williams and the Titans. In South Georgia, fans, former players and loved ones use their own special memories to remember the 1971 Wildcats.
1971 Valdosta football team won state, national championships
Never underestimate the heart of a champion.
- Local Sports
Nolin settling in as new VSU soccer coach
Meet Rebecca Nolin, VSU's new soccer coach.
Induction Crowd: Honorees were genuine, down to earth
More than 48,000 people gathered under the scorching sun at The Clark Sports Center for the 75th National Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Sunday, including one woman who carpooled to the event with more than 40 other people.
Braves trio all business at inductions
The Braves seemed almost businesslike in their approach -- something you might expect from a trio that won so consistently.
Managers Joe Torre and Tony La Russa also remained calm and collected throughout their addresses.
Frank Thomas took care of the emotional side, his voice breaking and his eyes moist during a heartfelt speech Sunday at the Clark Sports Center.
Cooperstown Merchants: Weekend was a success
Cooperstown merchants are elated about the exceptionally prosperous Hall of Fame Induction Weekend, several storekeepers said Sunday.
During an afternoon lull in business, when the National Baseball Hall of Fame's induction ceremony was taking place, area shop and restaurant owners took a quick breath, reflected and expressed satisfaction with their sales for the weekend.
Hall of Famers thank fathers for stepping up to the plate
Great ballplayers thanking their dads at a Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony is about as original as oil and vinegar are to an Italian restaurant.
Hall of Braves
The weird part was that Jeff Idelson didn't take a lot of time to answer.
"Is there any word or description that unifies this class?" was the query posed to the National Baseball Hall of Fame's president.
"The common thread among the six is profound humility," Idelson said of former managers Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa, and former players Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, all of whom will be inducted into the Hall today. "I don't think I realized that fully until I spent time with them in December. It was uncanny to me, for the cumulative star power in that group, the humility among them. I think that's felt really strongly with baseball fans."
Cox’s willingness to defend players stands out to local coaches
Bobby Cox will be able to add Hall of Famer to his resume when he is inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame today in Cooperstown, N.Y.
But the former Atlanta Braves manager’s legacy will remain the same to area baseball coaches: his willingness to defend his players.
Area teams hoping to get over the hump
Past successes lead to present and future expectations.
That’s the task faced by pretty much all 12 area high school football coaches present Saturday at In The Game Magazine’s South Georgia Football media day at the Holiday Inn conference center.
It’s a task that also has the elite group searching for answers as to how to get past the state championship road block in recent years, aside from Valwood’s GISA Class AA crown in 2012.
- Valdosta hosts fundamental camp for ‘Little ’Cats’
Getting Back to Work
Friday officially began the 2014 season for the Valdosta Wildcats and both the offense and defense came out and made statements.
After holding spring and summer workouts, the Wildcats will practice four more times without pads before beginning full pad practice next week.
- More Local Sports Headlines
- Nolin settling in as new VSU soccer coach