A Legacy in Winnersville

In Valdosta, Ga., football is not a tradition, but a way of life.

Seated at the foot of the state, not 20 miles north of the Florida border, one might approach I-75 exits 16 to 18 without the slightest clue to the deep athletic history surrounding the steamy plains of South Georgia. After all, Valdosta summers provide arguably the prettiest atmosphere in the state, complete with cloudless blue skies, the smell of fresh-cut grass and afternoons capping 100-degrees, perfect for lying by the pool.

To the locals, summers are nice, though not a utopia. They itch and yearn for the temperatures to cool and the leaves to fall — because that means it's football season again.

Valdosta's rich tradition stems from its two powerhouse high schools, the Lowndes Vikings and Valdosta Wildcats. The pair has combined to win 26 state football championships since 1951 while churning out some of the South's top Division I talent.

Valdosta High alone has 869 victories since the football program's birth exactly 100 years ago, enough to make it the winningest program in the nation. Lowndes is catching up though, and doing so in quick fashion. The Vikings took the mantle in 1999 and have yet to give it back, winning five state titles and defeating the Wildcats ten times in that span.

"When you're a kid in South Georgia, to be a Valdosta Wildcat or Lowndes Viking, that's all you think about growing up and all you really want to be," said Georgia tight end and Valdosta grad Jay Rome. "Some kids might grow up and dream about playing for a certain NFL team, but when you grow up in Valdosta, the only thing you want to do is play high school football."

The championships speak for themselves. It's no fluke that the city with just over 50,000 in population has been called "Winnersville" for decades.

To trace the town's essence, though, one must dig deep in to the city's roots. The championships stem from passion and perseverance, but above all –– preparation.

Many who grew up in Valdosta will tell you that athletics were heavily ingrained at a young age, largely due to its nationally recognized Boys & Girls Club. Founded back in the 1940s, the Club united the athletic community and provided recreational outlets that simply weren't around at the time. Now over 700 kids participate in football alone each fall, a number that former Athletic Director Jonathan Dicky calls "staggering."

"All of these athletes know that they have the Club to thank for and they show it," he said. "They find a home there and remember that they played there. It's just something to be passionate about. It's tradition. It's a way of life."

Notable alumni of the Club include legendary Atlanta Falcon Jessie Tuggle, Georgia national champion quarterback Buck Belue and MLB All-Star J.D. Drew among others.

A newer wave of youngsters sailed through the Club just a few years ago before eventually settling in Athens. Bulldogs Rome, Josh Harvey-Clemons and Mike Gilliard all called the it "home" during their childhoods.

"It's an honor to be a part of, especially in a place like Valdosta where it's football country down there," Gilliard said, "I'm just now realizing how many great players grew up in that program. I know so many scouts from all over the country know where Valdosta is and what it's about."

Gilliard and his Georgia teammates weren't the only standouts though and their camaraderie had a plethora of talent. Those they played with include Florida State safety Tyler Hunter and linebacker Telvin Smith, Valdosta State (and former Florida State) cornerback Greg Reid, Tennessee linebacker Dontavis Sapp and Marshall linebacker Jermaine Holmes.

"There was just a whole lot of talent," Rome said. "It's amazing that I can just look back and see all the guys who were smaller back then and making plays at the Boys & Girls Club. Now I look up and see all these guys at big places. All these guys grew up in the same little area and now they're out doing great things. It's amazing that we all came from the same city and have known each other since we were so little."

In their final years at the Boys & Girls Club, Rome, Harvey-Clemons and Reid all played on a 9 and 10 year-old team ironically called the ‘Gators.' In their first season, the trio's team went undefeated and didn't give up a single touchdown. The following year, the Florida Gators emulators secured another championship and allowed only one score. But don't judge them too harshly –– it was notched by current FSU Seminole Tyler Hunter.

The Gators dominance was so prevalent during those years that the Club actually got complaints about their athletic superiority. Dicky recalls afternoons where his office flooded with phone calls from opposing parents demanding the squad be broken up or moved to a different age level because of Harvey-Clemons and Rome's physicality.

"I remember one game when Jay pulled out in front of me to block and he hit a guy so hard his helmet cracked down the middle," said Harvey-Clemons while noting he played running back and Rome, offensive lineman. "We would just dominate teams. Everybody wanted to play for the Gators growing up and if you didn't play for them, then everybody wanted to beat the Gators."

Harvey-Clemons said the experience with the Gators prepared the pair for the high school ball they would endure in the coming years. Rome went on to establish himself as a premier tight end at Valdosta High. Harvey-Clemons did the same at Lowndes but at linebacker, eventually becoming a five-start recruit.

The rivalry –– though of course never dead –– had perhaps been renewed. There was an abundance of talent on the field from 2005 to 2011. The presence of Rome, Gilliard, Harvey-Clemons, and even Georgia receiver Malcolm Mitchell added to the magnitude of the inner-city clash.

Though he never played at the Boys & Girls Club, Mitchell was born in Valdosta and moved away before returning in 6th grade. At that point, he was too old to play at the Club and participated in middle school recreational leagues instead. He still has fond memories of his days in South Georgia and cherishes them greatly.

"Growing up [in Valdosta] molded me into the very competitive player that I am today," Mitchell said. "It's a town of football, so you strive to be the best player. To do that, you have to work hard."

Mitchell and Rome were Wildcats teammates from 2007 to 2010 and shared a Signing Day ceremony when committing to the Bulldogs in the spring of 2011. The pair's presence in Athens is quite difficult to disregard. Rome has become one of Georgia's only dual-sport athletes (basketball and football) and Mitchell has become one of the few dual-position football players (receiver and cornerback).

Harvey-Clemons is also finding his way in red and black. Next weekend against Kentucky, he will serve as a special teams captain –– a feat that hasn't been accomplished by a true freshman since Rennie Curran in 2007.

"It's just not that often that a true freshman will get that honor," said Georgia coach Mark Richt. "When we had our honor roll, I made a bigger stink of it and made the point of a true freshman winning that captain seat. It's a good thing for him and good for us too."

Harvey-Clemons recognizes that he's blessed to be in the position he's in and is quite mindful that he probably wouldn't be there if it hadn't been for the Boys & Girls Club. His father died when he was just a boy and after that he "didn't really want to do anything." But his grandfather pushed him to join the Club and doing so shaped the character he displays today.

"It really keeps positivity going; more than you'd think," Harvey-Clemons said of the Club. "I really didn't know anything about sports growing up until my dad died and my granddad got me involved to keep me busy. The Club creates a lot of big dreams. You had all those teams named after colleges, and a lot of those kids then dreamed of playing for those colleges."

The Georgia freshman recalls his first days of practice and said he was so bad they made him cover the only girl on the team. Pressing on though, Harvey-Clemons worked with Club coach Ricky Baker to mentally recover from his father's death and physically build upon his athletic game.

"Coach Baker just really pushed me. I guess he saw something in me that I didn't see in myself," Harvey-Clemons said. "I really didn't like him at first, but he really helped me in the long run. He changed my whole mentality about football."

Though Baker deserves a large portion of credit, Executive Director Robert Soper is also to thank. Now in his 35th year, Soper has always focused on athletics, but it's only a portion of his three-tier approach, falling in line with academics and character development. He says that without the latter two, the former can't succeed.

"The kids receive a good positive impact and they get positive life lessons here," Soper said. "I don't know if I'd consider myself a father figure, but I like to see them be successful."

"It gets strong support from the community. Now we've got two high schools that have been so successful as of late. The rivalry most of the time is a good, friendly rivalry. Kids may play on the same team at the Club all their childhood then play against each other in high school while maintaining that friendship."

Soper has aspirations to continue in his role, but will eventually step down in another year or so. He says that whoever replaces him "needs a passion for wanting to help kids get the recreational tools to be productive adults."

"You have to love working here," he said. "This is more than a job. It's a lifestyle."

That's good news for the Bulldogs who passed through, as they hope the Club flourishes even further than when they were there. After all, Rome's little brother Justin is en route to making a name for himself there at age 10, eerily similar to the way the Georgia tight end did so.

"Mark my words, he's going to be a better athlete than I am," Rome said. "He's already better than me at anything I was doing at 10. He amazes me every time I go home."

Justin –– or ‘Juice' as "everyone in Valdosta calls him" –– is a firm 5'3", 120 pounds and eager for competition. Every time Rome returns home, the youngster doesn't just ask to play one-on-one basketball with him. He demands it.

"He's just so confident," Rome said. "When I go home and he sees me putting on my shorts and shoes to go play basketball, he's doing the same and telling me he's coming with me. He'll run with guys that are 18 and 19 years old and play with no fear against them. He loves to play ball."

Kids like ‘Juice' show that the future of the Boys & Girls Club is secure, and if history is any indication, Valdosta will continue to churn out superior athletic talent. It may just be a small town. It may be just be a place to pass through on the way to the beach. But folks, if you ever get a chance to stop in and catch a game, do so and take part in history.

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