VALDOSTA — The NFL Network is providing an inside look at Valdosta High School’s 2015-16 season in its documentary “Football Town: Valdosta, Georgia.”
The six-part series highlights the Wildcats’ journey to winning the program’s first state championship in 18 years and adding to its storied legacy.
Brian Lockhart, NFL Network’s vice president of original content, said when the story was pitched to him by Josh Sugarman and the Tenafly Film Company for the next installment of the network’s “Football Town” series, it resonated with him having grown up in the South.
“Valdosta was a community, not only (one) I was familiar with, but one I had known from my childhood growing up,” Lockhart said. “As far as storyline and the fact that the team had gone through this drought of winning and that there was a new coach and there were some great dynamic characters, some players who were overcoming a lot of challenges and how football was going to be this overarching thread and this unifier, I think, from a network standpoint, it was a very quick sell.”
The NFL Network launched its “Football Town” series in 2015 by exploring the town of Barrow, Ala., where the Barrow High School Whalers play football on a blue turf field located on a peninsula between the Arctic Ocean and a frozen lagoon. The blue turf was provided by the efforts of Cathy Parker, a Valdosta resident, after she saw a previous program showing the Barrow team playing ball in a rocky lot.
Lockhart was interested in creating the next installment of the series, but had no desire in hopping from city to city simply to produce content.
It was important for the network to find the right story to tell, and when Sugarman pitched Valdosta’s story, it became a “marriage of convenience” in some ways, not only from a story-telling standpoint, but also from the NFL Network’s desire to highlight youth football and the positive aspects the sport can bring to a community.
The sizzle reel Sugarman put together to pitch the NFL Network was steeped in the history of the program, its storied success and how it had gone through a drought of nearly two decades without a state championship.
But capturing the Wildcats’ redemptive season wasn’t what originally brought Sugarman and the Tenafly Film Company to Valdosta. It was only after he was introduced to the Drew Jubera book, “Must Win: A Season of Survival for a Town and Its Team,” by coworkers Joe and Eric Webber that he became fascinated with both the past and present of Valdosta football.
Once Sugarman saw the school first hand, he knew he had to begin shooting.
“That’s the thing with documentaries, you just don’t always know where the story is going to go,” Sugarman said. “I think when we started filming, there was certainly no way to guarantee to see they were going to win a championship. It wasn’t necessarily the story, but (head coach Alan) Rodemaker and the Wildcats made that the story, and the NFL, they became invested in that story and loved that story, so that’s the story we told.”
Lockhart said given today’s media space, it's important to tell the story well.
With so many different platforms and ways to distribute content, he felt the NFL Network was privileged there was enough great story-telling to expand Valdosta’s story past a traditional 60- to 90-minute presentation into the six-and-a-half hours of content for the network.
Sugarman began his documentary looking into the first game of the season to see if the Wildcats could win the program’s 900th game. But the story refused to stop there.
“I think that the 2016 year was a year of so many interesting stories,” Sugarman said. “You’ve got a new coach, you’ve got a new quarterback, you’ve got the 900th win, and it just kept building. Every time we came back we said, we’re just going to tell this little piece of the season, and every time we went back for that one, to see if Rodemaker could win his first game against Lowndes, and he did, and won the 900th overall game for the Wildcats.
“In saying, we’re just going to stop the story there, that’s a great story in itself, and then you watch how the season progresses and you say you’ve got to keep coming back. Of course, Coach Rodemaker and the team took it 15 games, which how can you stop telling that story until the Wildcats decide to stop? And they didn’t decided to stop until Christmas.”
Lockhart added: “There were just a lot of themes, like overarching universal themes that played out. Valdosta is a very unique community in that Southern tradition. Having grown up in a similar place, regardless of all the things people use to divide, all the obvious things in terms of socioeconomics or race, football very much can serve as a uniter.
“I think by the time you get to the end of this series, regardless of where of people may have started this journey or may have been along different parts of this journey, they all bled black and gold by the end of it.”
With “Football Town: Valdosta, Georgia” the NFL Network is hoping to draw viewers who care about characters and care about football in a larger context than the Xs and Os and the final score.
“Despite winning a championship, we hope to create a series where you can invest in characters for over six-and-a-half hours,” Lockhart said. “That you keep coming back and you want to know, not only how the individual characters, how their stories finish out, but the community itself as a character.”
Lockhart said a device the production team created and lovingly refers to as a “Greek chorus” between Touchdown Club members Mike "Nub" Nelson and Kenny Washington is used to help provide a larger context and represent the community in a way that, not only gives the history of what Valdosta football is, but also provides an authentic take on the team they’re following.
Along with Nelson and Washington, expect to see more local faces become fan favorites throughout the series, he said.
Both Lockhart and Sugarman named Rodemaker as one of most interesting characters in the series.
“Coach Rod is straight out of central casting as far as not only as a motivator but someone who cares about these kids becoming men, and caring about football affecting them, he said in the series, affecting them for the next 60 years of their lives,” Lockhart said. “I think that’s an important aspect of football and athletics in general.”
Sugarman mentioned one of Valdosta’s star players in Jayce Rogers, as well as Justin Carter, an off-the-field spiritual leader who shows there are many ways to be a Wildcat and contribute to a championship team.
The executive producer also referred to the dynamic between the two quarterbacks who helped lead Valdosta to the promised land as one of the things to watch.
“As far as players, I think Josh Belton and Hunter Holt, the two quarterbacks working together, and that was a process as you’ll see in the show,” Sugarman said. “They’re so different as individuals, and I think it was in those differences both on the field, as far as their playing style, and off the field, as the type of young men and type of leaders they are that made it work.
“I think if you have two Josh Beltons or two Hunter Holts it wouldn’t have worked.”
Derrick Davis is the sports editor at the Valdosta Daily Times.