James A. Washington
Special to the Times
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.